Curiosity and Passion for Art

Scientific activities have never been my sole focus of interest. Looking back my inspiration for artistic activities started quite early in my life. At the age of 16, I started wood carving and modelling with clay. These activities were primarily focused on copying African art, particularly masks. My fascination for masks was strongly determined when I saw African, Asian, Oceanic, and Native American mask collections in the museum of ethnology in Vienna.

Masks have an enormous expressive power and have already been used as a very ancient human practice across the world for ceremonial and practical purposes as well as protective armour. This is the primary reason I use mask-like sculptures to visualize the intersection between science and art, and in particular the unpredictability and mystery of scientific visions.

Science evolves in a stringent framework of providing reproducible methods anywhere in the world. Most relevant in science, we do not unconditionally get “what we want” but rather “what we can”. And this “what we can” depends on the methods available for performing examinations and studies.

With art, such limits do not exist and with a creative mind, one can enter and experience virtually an unlimited freedom of thought and emotions, and thus arbitrarily fill the “open space” left between the networks of knowledge.

With my more recent artwork I want to address and express fundamental and unanswered scientific questions related to synthetic biology and evolution.

Introductory I would like to begin with a few basic remarks. It is now evident that achievements and predictable progress in synthetic biology including genome editing imply the potential for a most significant interference with the course of evolution. In this context it is well to remember that fossil findings and molecular biology data allow a fairly precise reconstruction of the evolution of life forms, including that of humankind in its present manifestation. Nevertheless, this accumulated data and knowledge do not allow any prediction of the future of evolutionary events. On the other hand, future methods emerging in synthetic biology might enable the engineers of biology to design new species of living organisms or even a new “creature” that could be seen as the next stage in human evolution. Thus, the result of synthetic biology might be considered as an intentional extrapolation of evolutionary events, bypassing billions of years of biological developments.

In my mask like sculptures produced of baked clay gilded with leaf gold, the multiple sense organs, such as the eyes and the noses, the components of the skeleton or changes in skull dimensions emblematise the non-predictable, self-induced (or self-enhanced) evolution of humans as consequence of the input and application of synthetic biology including genome editing.

I should add that I formed the clay exclusively with my bare hands without any modelling tool for achieving a direct transfer from part of my morphology into the ductile material, like a derivative in the course of an arbitrary evolution event. Most importantly, I did not start with any drawing but simply let the formation happen in a state of “flow”.

With sculptures composed of two or multiple parts linked together the lower part, which may resemble morphological details recognizes in the main body, symbolise the release of information as required for communication. I choose gilded surfaces for obtaining a surface image as neutral as possible thus preventing any optical distraction from the proper morphology.

To illustrate the intrinsically unpredictable evolution, even when determined by synthetic biology, the sculptures were subsequently modified in two ways. One procedure involved splashing the sculptures with coloured water which was performed and photographed under the guidance of the recognised conceptual photographer Fritz Simak (who spent some time working with the famous photographer Ernst Haas).

In a modified approach, we poured coloured water over the mask sculptures out from a watering can and by coincidence witnessed the striking phenomenon that water as thin layer can form waves in the course of a free fall. In a second approach for illustrating arbitrary evolutionary events, I generated dynamically distorted images of the sculptures in deformed mirror foils.

The intention was to symbolize with these snapshots trial and error events during a biological evolution driven by humans. Again, although being part of such a process, the results are unimaginable and incomprehensible due to human intellectual limitations My contemplations of the relevance and potential of synthetic biology on the future changes to our species, particularly self-enhancement and acceleration of evolutionary processes, led me to the production of images from different surroundings in arbitrarily distorted mirror foils without any mirrored sculptures. These images were subsequently modified in their colours by computer. I associate these pictures with the idea that developments in synthetic biology may eventually lead to beings endowed with cognitive abilities far beyond our present capability for abstract thought and intellectual efficiency.

Selected images from both the splashed sculptures and images obtained in deformed mirror foils have found a permanent place as the exclusive decoration in the recently erected building of the Vienna Institute of Biotechnology, which belongs to the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna .

A final remark: Art work should generate an emotional resonance in the observer and should not leave one in an unconcerned state. There may be a broad spectrum of reactions, reaching from rejection to admiration. 

I was also very fortunate to have found such fascination in the beauty and diversity of macromolecular structures based on S-layers, which represents a work of art created and optimized by nature in the course of billions of years of biological evolution.

To sum-up living in a world of science and art I could benefit from the mutually stimulating effect of both domains. Short videos on “Synthetic Biology and Evolution” based on the described art work produced with Camillo Meinhart and valuable input of Sonja Bäumel can be downloaded under following links: