Art and the origins of life

Artists considering the origins of life on Earth have addressed the subject in many different ways, using visual methods to represent a variety of theories.  From representations of DNA – the blueprint for life – to oversized sculptures of microscopic organisms, here art and science work together to consider how life on earth began more than 3 billion years ago.

Below are some examples of artists exploring life’s origins.  (I have just found these notes on my computer from a while ago and thought I would share them in case they are useful to anyone.)

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Jiyong Lee’s  sculptural glass work reflects his fascination with cell biology, and how one cell can grow and divide, developing into  a functional organism. His complex and beautiful sculptures (entitled ‘Segmentation Series’) are symbols of living biological structures, of cell division, growth and embryonic development.

Green and black drosophila blastoderm
Jiyong Lee, Green and black drosophila blastoderm, 7″h x 12″w x 7″d, 2015, Credit: work created during the Visiting Artist Residency at Museum of Glass, Tacoma WA

 

Drawings by Lucy and George Orta are based upon the process of mitosis – cell division – a fundamental mechanism of human life.  see ‘MitoSys: a fascinating art-science collaboration between Lucy + Jorge Orta and Dr. Tony Hyman’

Cells by Lucy + Jorge Orta (2014) Materials: Pencil, pigment ink, watercolour on Fabriano paper
Cells by Lucy + Jorge Orta (2014) Materials: Pencil, pigment ink, watercolour on Fabriano paper

 

Adam W. Brown with collaborator Robert Root-Bernstein created the work ‘ReBioGeneSys’ which “combines sculpture, chemistry, alchemy, and conservation to evolve an extreme minimal ecosystem.”

ReBioGeneSys – Origins of Life Adam W. Brown with collaborator Robert Root-Bernstein
ReBioGeneSys – Origins of Life Adam W. Brown with collaborator Robert Root-Bernstein

The work was inspired by a 1950s experiment and became an installation at Zero1 in 2015.

“In 1950, the physicist Harold Urey proposed that it might be possible to recreate the atmosphere of the primordial Earth in a closed container and synthesize organic molecules by adding an energy source such as lightning to the mix. A graduate student by the name of Stanley Miller carried out the experiment producing, within days, several amino acids. What became know as the Miller-Urey experiment quickly became a scientific and public icon of origins of life experimentation and serves as the inspiration for this installation, which investigates permutations of the original experiment. Drawing on experimental research from scientists such as Miller, Darwin, Oparin, Haldane, Deamer and Szostak, ReBioGeneSys combines all the research on origins of life into one “mashed-up” environment that could theoretically lead to the formation of self-organizing chemistry necessary to produce semi-living molecules, protocells and perhaps even biological life itself.”  Source: Zero1.org

Other artists have been drawn to explore the blueprint of life:  DNA.

Stranger Visions is the work of American artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg. She pushes the boundaries of art and science and also raises questions about human identity and privacy as she 3D prints sculptural faces of strangers using DNA samples she has collected from public places, such as a hair.

“I hoped, by producing realistic sculptures of anonymous people using clues from their DNA, to spark a debate about the use or potential misuse of DNA profiling, privacy and genetic surveillance,” she said in an article in The Link news.

stranger vision
from Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg

 

The following works were also inspired by DNA:

dna art glas
Paul Housberg, DNA inspired art glass, 2015

 

textile art
Barbara Nepom, Markers 2, 2011

 

dna gels
Barbara Nepom, Brownian Motion, 2014

 

crick-dna-helix9-web_orig
Kindra Crick’s What Mad Pursuit sculpture was auctioned by Christie’s in 2015 for Cancer Research along with 21 double helix inspired sculptures created by world-leading artists such as Ai Weiwei and Zaha Hadid.

One company will even take your DNA and create an image of it for you.  “Your personal DNA picture print will be as unique as you are. No two prints will ever be alike.”  www.dna11.com

dna11

Others have used art to explore scientific theories about space.  Edward Belbruno turned to painting to try and help open up his thinking toward resolving a question in his research at Princeton, relating to the ‘lithopanspermia hypothesis’, looking at the routes between stars.

<i>Electric Ergodic Motions</i> by Edward Belbruno (2010, oil on canvas, 30x40 inches).
Electric Ergodic Motions by Edward Belbruno (2010, oil on canvas, 30×40 inches). Credit: Edward Belbruno

“In the lithopanspermia problem, routes are sought between stars. So in 2010, I did a series of paintings on that problem. They weren’t meant to find a particular route, but rather to help me visualize and organize my thoughts. This gave me a more intuitive feeling about the problem I could not have obtained in any other way. The paintings all showed connections between star-like objects, as ballistic capture trajectories might appear if envisioned physically in an abstract manner.”  source: www.space.com

And some artists recreate tiny organisms, such as Luke Jerram’s giant 28 metre long inflatable sculpture of an E. coli bacterium.  “Jerram’s work is designed to make the microscopic world around us visible and draw attention to the hidden workings and biological mechanisms that underpin life on earth; the importance of bacteria in our lives.”  (Sheffield.ac.uk)

 

luke jerram

In the BBC documentary (First Life: Arrival) David Attenborough presents his biological perspectives on the development of life on Earth.  In the film, Attenborough visits Ediacara Hills in South Australia where it is believed that 550 million years ago circular soft bodied creatures (Dickensonia) left imprints on the sea bed. The fossilised patterns of feint overlapping circles appear to indicate early mobility, perhaps the first movement of Earth’s living creatures.

I do not know very much about science, but this BBC film captured my imagination, and my thoughts turned to ideas around evolution; outer space; cell division; reactions of heat and light; dust; creation, development and growth. I discovered basic life forms that replicated their structure in fractal patterns, ribbons of DNA, simple organisms, fossilised circles and dots and it inspired me to create something of my own.

My experiments were varied, from a rough film exploring cell division, to line drawings, paper ribbons and thick mud-like paint.  One of the paintings I came up caused me to wonder whether overlapping circles found in a fossil bed really were from creatures crawling across the clay or whether tremors had anything to do with the patterns they left behind, as it was by shaking the canvas that this painting was made, forming ‘tracks’ in the paint.

 

Dickensonia
Movement 1, 2015