Khoj: exploring spaces between art, science

Published: Thursday 15 November 2007

Khoj: exploring spaces between art, science

At Khoj, an artists' workshop in Delhi, four artists explored shared spaces between art and science, realms that are often seen as sealed to each other

Joanna Hoffman's interest lies in situating life in the workings of the universe. Life was once regarded as the defining feature of the universe. But scientists now believe that life represents a trifle aspect of. Hoffman's sound and video installation at Khoj is an artist's impression of this scientific truism.

The artist quotes Stephen Hawking: "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-size planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburbs of one among a few hundred billion galaxies."

Visually, Hoffman's installation seems a crucible with flyspecks, reflecting, perhaps, the artist's quest. "At a biological level, only the dna is alive; the rest of the organism is merely a part of genes' habita,"she says.

Hoffman was helped by scientists at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Delhi in making this installation.

Nick Turvey exhibit is a uniform grey wall. But make no mistake. The exhibit is no esoteric abstraction. A light edge meets a dark one at a narrow strip at the centre of the wall and then both edges fade away into the grey background. The result is that we perceive the whole of the side with the dark edge as darker than the other half.

"It's not an illusion that flips between two alternative ways of perceiving reality. There is no shade difference in the two halves. The tonal difference is only at the edge, but then this obscures the reality," says Turvey whose work is inspired by research on cosmic relativity at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

The Birtish artist's work also has a social resonance. Turvey says the work alludes to the underlying unity to human experience, which is now under stress. "In the context of Delhi, a city that is fractured by a million competing solipsists, "I hope the work reminds us of the importance of a shared conception of space," the artist says.

Rohini Devasher digital prints seem phantasmagoric at first look. Their making is like a fascinating biology experiment. Not without reason. Devasher worked with scientists at Delhi University's Department of Botany, comparing structural similarities of plants at micro and macro levels.

Complex images of plant surface including hair like trichomes, pollen and stomata, were then scanned under a electron microscope and restructured with photographs of parts of diverse plant species. The result: a hybrid organic on paper.

Devasher's work is also inspired by J W Goethe's search for "that which was common to all plants". The German philospher's quest led him to evolve the concept of the archetypal plant or the Urpflanze, which described one basic form that manifests itself in the multitude of plants. Within this basic form, there lies the potential for endless transformation. The German philosophers ideas were developed by British plant morphologist Agnes Arber, who argued that a classification based on similarities of form could be more instructive than one based on evolution.

But Devasher's prints are not merely inspired by past work. According to the artist, "they float in a twilight world halfway between imagined and observed reality." But these apparently strange plants are not part of a purely fantastic botanical garden. "In the scientific realm, as the rate of genetic modification accelerates, and plants are modified with plant, animal and human genes, the boundary of form and function blurs and these strange hybrid organics become more of a possibility of what could be," Devasher says.

Abhishek Hazra video installation is an artist's understanding of the strife between pure and applied science. He focuses on the early history of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Kolkata.

One of the first science esearch institutes in the country, set up in 1867 by the physician and science enthusiast Mahendra Lal Sircar, the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science attracted controversy from its inception. It became embroiled in nascent nationalist ideas of science with votaries of applied science questioning the utility of what they saw as an association devoted to pure science.

Hazra uses a speech by C V Raman as a part of his installation. Raman's research on spectroscopy under the aegis of the association led to the discovery of the "Raman Effect", for which the scientist was later awarded the Nobel Prize. According to Hazra, "Raman was no suporter of the pure and applied science dichotomy, and perhaps fittingly the procedures enunciated by the Nobel awardee have today become basic applications in applied science."

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