Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?
Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles .
Neuroscientist Leslee Lazar dabbles in collages. A visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, Leslee’s research interests lie in neuroscience of design, science communication, cultural cognition and behavioural change. He combines his training as a neuroscientist with his passion as a collage artist to create what he calls a ‘hazy amalgam’ of creation and analysis.
Collage needs just a few scraps of paper, some glue and not even a steady hand. But, this humble hobby has exalted origins, “invented” by great artists like Picasso and instrumental in the birth of modern art.
My own foray into collage was rather fortuitous – the only available slot in my high school cultural team was for the collage competition. Making the team meant skipping classes for two full days. So, I put my name in and made my first collage. To everybody’s surprise, I won a prize. I did not make more collages after that glorious start. Almost two decades later, I found myself falling back on collages to unwind from a stressful postdoc stint.
When I make or see collages, I switch to a ‘dual mode’, described beautifully by the polymath Vladimir Nabokov; “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is”. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I study how we perceive visual artwork and how it gives us that special feeling when we look at it – the aesthetic emotion. However, my process of creating collages is not driven by scientific theories, its impulsive, urgent, chaotic and a meditative process.
For my collages, I extensively use images from internet photo archives. The power of collages is that I can manipulate an element of an image, like form, colour or perspective giving new meaning to the original image. Sometimes, just a juxtaposition of images from different eras or styles can create a powerful reinterpretation. In a series called Pro:Postures, I explored how body postures reflect subtle meanings. In vintage portrait photographs, I manipulated certain features to remove skin colour, expressions, markers of ethnicity, social background etc. — the attempt was to amplify meanings embedded in the posture of the person. Postures reflect many of our emotions and realities. Using these manipulated images, I was attempting to highlight how postures convey subtle aspects of history, gender, politics and power (Fig. 1)
The technique of collage was invented by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, when they were exploring ways to create spatial illusion in their art. They wanted to represent space from different perspectives. The painting could appear deep or shallow depending on where the viewer focused attention. To do this, they pasted textured wood and fabric on to their painting canvas, giving birth to collage. Soon, collage became an established method for western artists. Of the many methods and means of collage, two kinds stand out – one that plays with our ability to group objects, detect patterns and relationships (called ‘gestalt’ perception) and the other that appeals to our inherent preference for human-like forms.
The first kind was made popular by artists like Hans Arp, who used shapes and arrangements to create forms and meanings. It exploits our visual system’s gestalt property. We give meanings to seemingly random stimuli, like the Dalmatian’s random white and dark patches in the famous collage where Arp is playing with composition. Many collages exploit this principle, much like other art, of deriving pleasure in “completing” a form.
The second kind of collages use the human form, especially the face. We can recognize faces effortlessly, read emotions, and communicate through expressions. In the brain, there is a special area to process visual information of faces. Any damage to this area and we lose the ability to recognize faces, made famous by Oliver Sack’s classic “Man who mistook his wife for a hat”. The way we process faces is different from other objects; it happens faster than objects and we read emotions before we register the identity of the face.
We also perceive faces holistically, which means we do not make mentally put the parts of the face, eyes, nose and ears together to recognise a face. Because the brain is set up to process face in such a way, it is prone to some illusions, like the Thatcher illusion, where inverted eyes and lips are perceived as normal when seen inverted. This special relationship with faces has been exploited in many artworks. In a collage I made in response to the treatment of Syrian war refugees in Europe, I used a stock image of European refugees from the past and manipulated their faces to represent the yearning for freedom and normal life (Fig. 2).
Although, art can evoke emotions purely by its visual features, there is also a strong cognitive, social and cultural element. Collage, with its borrowed imagery offers a ready-made way to contextualise art with pop and political reference. Some of the earliest collages were made in reaction to World War 1. Hannah Hoch used images of German Prime Minister and defence minister on an embroidered background as an anti-war statement.
Collage also was influential in the pop art movement, an art movement with everyday objects, made famous by Andy Warhol’s painting of soup cans. However, the first pop art was a collage made with fashion magazines and sales catalogues.
The great art historian E. H Gombrich said “There really is no such thing as art, there are only artists”. And neuroscience claims that the artist is a neuroscientist. Will my training as a neuroscientist give me added insight into the artistic process? It’s too early to say, there is only a hazy amalgam of the two ways of thinking and interacting with the world. The forces that drive to create and to analyse are not necessarily opposite. I hope they merge into something greater than the sum of individuals. Till then, my collages will try to write visual poetry with other people’s words.
(Leslee Lazar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets from @leslee_lazar.)