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Interview: ‘Art Is Yet Another Way of Doing Science’

Interview: ‘Art Is Yet Another Way of Doing Science’

Photo: Sukant Saran

Sukant Saran is a physicist-turned-artist who has been creating sculptures since 2012, and has exhibited his work at various venues over the years. Some of these sculptures are on display in an exhibition named ‘Sculpting Science’, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. The exhibit closes on June 14.

His hand-made structures of clay are artistic expressions of fundamental concepts of science, mostly physics. Joel P. Joseph interviewed Saran for The Wire Science about his journey as an artist and into science-art. The questions are in bold and the answers are presented in full, with light edits for style.

Sukant Saran with his creations at ‘Sculpting Science’

When did you start as an artist? What are the different art forms and methods that you have worked with since? 

I grew up in an environment enriched by literature, poetry and other arts. My father was a poet, writer and journalist. My mother was a short story writer. I developed an appreciation of the arts very early.

When I was eight years old, my father took me to a museum and art gallery in Chandigarh where among other things I saw abstract art for the first time. I was very intrigued and asked many questions about it. It is rather difficult to explain abstract art to an eight-year-old and my father chose to tell me his own response and reaction to the displayed art, instead of explaining.

I was utterly fascinated by the dialogue that was taking place between the artist and the viewer, and without knowing anything about it I just started making it.

Gradually, I acquired more understanding and it became a hobby which continued till my early twenties. I was experimenting with all kinds of media; watercolor, oils, collage, etc. At the same time, I was doing a lot of doodling and as I acquired a better understanding of drawing, my doodles started becoming more expressive.

I continued to make pen drawings and by my mid-twenties I was fully committed to expressing myself through my art. This later resulted in two solo exhibitions of abstract pen art, in 1998 and 2001, at Nehru Centre Mumbai.

I also worked with digital and photographic art between 1996 and 2012.

The laws of physics attempt to describe natural phenomena in mathematical terms. For centuries these laws had concerned themselves with those phenomena that were accessible to human senses. However, atoms, molecules and subatomic particles are too small to be known by the senses. They are not only inferred through specialised instruments, their theoretical description too is unique in the history of science.

Classical physics explained the observed world in terms of particles and waves. Modern physics posits that the building blocks of matter behave both as particles and waves. These notions of classical physics were replaced by the concept of quantum; mathematically represented by a wave-function. In this artistic visualisation of the wave-function, imagine the vertical axis as time, and a bundle of concentrated energy, a packet of wavelets, travelling along the trajectory.

Tell us a bit about when and how you started using art to portray science.

I had joined TIFR in 1985 and in 1990, due to certain circumstances, I dropped out of the PhD program without submitting a thesis. My commitment to art was strengthening and I was getting more interested in the philosophical aspects of science, and also a little disenchanted with the conventional way of doing science.

In 1996, I took up an editorial job at TIFR which required me to make scientific and technical reports for the institute. Initially, I was just decorating the reports with typical photos of the buildings and gardens but then I started making digital images connected to the content of the reports. This grew into making posters, book covers, brochures etc., and, as the body of work grew, I realised that I am making art about science.

I held the first exhibition of my digital art in 2006 at IISc, Bangalore, under the aegis of the Indian Academy of Sciences. This was followed by two more in 2009 and 2012.

Around 2010, I started thinking about combining the two strands of my work, and, after some experimentation, I ended up making hand-built clay sculptures. The idea was to find a balance between the scientific and aesthetic contents.

Also read: Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s Reflections on Art and Idealism

What are your thoughts on using art to communicate science?

Historically, art has been used to communicate a variety of ideologies: religious, social, political, and others. Science has become such an integral part of our society, even a way of life, that artistic exploration of its aesthetic aspect is a natural development.

Of course, this can be done for educational purposes. But more importantly this can be seen as a new path taken – yet another way of doing science.

Dualities, such as good-bad, male-female, true-false, mind-body are ubiquitous and defining aspects of our lives. There are dualities in science as well, and apart from being useful mathematically, they provide an intriguing glimpse into the metaphysical dimensions of science.

Science is fundamentally a quest for order in a complex and disordered world. In nature we find order and disorder merging into each other seamlessly. Here, a solid, whose molecules are arranged regularly, is melting into a liquid, made up of randomly moving molecules.

How does it feel to don the hats of a scientist and an artist? Has this exercise or journey contributed to your growth as a person?

I would say that it is intellectually exciting and emotionally satisfying. However, one has to deal with certain conflicts because of the nature of the two disciplines. Trying to resolve those conflicts affects me deeply as an individual. Finding a balance always teaches you something about yourself. It can be tiring at times, but never dull.

Could you shed some light on the process and method you use to create art? How do you go about explaining a concept in science using art?

The creative process is rather mysterious, most of all to the creative person. We do not really understand where or how an idea occurs to us. Of course, I take the credit for my original ideas but I am always a little uncomfortable with that. I do not know and cannot explain the emergence and subsequent execution of an idea.

A variety of influences, some conscious but mostly unconscious, play a part in the creation. The explanation comes later, after some conscious thinking. It never fails to amaze me when a viewer comes up with a totally new interpretation, that I would not have envisaged. It is very humbling.

The story of an apple falling on Newton’s head and his subsequent realisation of the law of gravitation is certainly apocryphal. Nevertheless, his great achievement was to create a law that explained both, the falling apple and the orbit of the moon. The apple and the moon have the same status in Newton’s theory of gravitation. In this sculpture the cratered surface of the moon and the apple’s shape have been juxtaposed to make Newton’s Apple.

How did the ‘Sculpting Science’ event come about? And how has the response been so far?

I had written some articles and also given talks at various places about my work. Many people appreciated that. Jaikumar Radhakrishnan, a computer scientist at TIFR and a connoisseur of arts, not only encouraged me to hold this exhibition but also paved the way for it. The funds and the logistic support were provided by TIFR Alumni Association.

I am grateful to all these people. The response has been very positive. The viewers have recognised and appreciated the confluence of science and art.

Also read: A Journey Through Botanical Art in Colonial India – and Beauty

Please tell us more about the sculptures that you are exhibiting and how you have built them.

My sculptures are hand-built with clay. I begin with a scientific idea and play with the form in such a way that the aesthetic and the scientific content find a balance. I hope my sculptures would be aesthetically meaningful even to the viewer who is not aware of the underlying science.

I used clay as the preferred medium for three reasons. First, the versatility it provides allows me to take artistic liberties; second, the blend of the ancient medium of clay with modern scientific concepts has an irresistible appeal; and third, working with clay is deeply satisfying and enriching.

Although some of my earlier works have been fired in the kiln, over the years I have become convinced of the doctrine that clay sculptures should not be fired. It takes thousands of years of weathering of rocks to make clay, and to transform it back into rock in a matter of hours seems environmentally unsound.

A more compelling reason for not firing the clay artwork is philosophical. The desire to impart permanence to an artwork is somewhat misplaced in an ephemeral and transitory world. The impermanence of my art reflects the evolving nature of science itself.

Tree is a widely used symbol in various contexts. Every culture accords a special status to trees and they have been extensively used to represent life, growth, knowledge and environment, among many other things. Most of these depictions show only the portion of the tree seen above the ground. This is an incomplete representation. Scientifically, the tree, as a life-form, is spread out below the ground as much as above it. The root system of a tree is an integral part of the tree. The sculpture shows the complete structure of the tree, symbolically.

Do you think scientists and artists working together can push each other’s boundaries such that works of art help expand knowledge in science and vice versa?

There is no doubt about that. Interfaces of disciplines have always been a fertile ground for new ideas, concepts and directions.

At the very beginning of modern science, Galileo learned to draw and paint to make convincing images of the Moon’s surface as seen through the telescope. The detailed study of perspective by the German painter Albrecht Durer led to the development of projective geometry and conic sections. The pointillism of French artist Georges Seurat led to the concept of four-color offset printing.

The science of colour itself has been enriched by many artists, including da Vinci, Goethe and Munsell, just to name a few.

The great and visionary work of medical artists have been instrumental in training doctors around the world. In fact, science and art have been interacting creatively for centuries. In my own work, I had once made a digital art showing a computer mouse navigating a maze. Later on, I was told that this was very close to a concept in computer science, and I was quite pleased by my intuitive jump.

A lot of your art is focused on concepts in physics. I assume that is because of your training in science. I also see that you have worked on a few representations of biology. Are you exploring more concepts across different disciplines in science and/or working at the intersection of some of them?

In the future, I want to explore geology and other Earth sciences. They are really very fundamental in many ways. I have already made some progress in that direction and I hope I will soon be able to create art that highlights the scientific understanding of earth systems.

Everyday life is replete with objects and processes whose scientific aspects are not only fascinating but can also be interpreted artistically.

A cup of hot tea has fast moving molecules in it and some of them acquire enough speed to break the surface barrier. The emerging molecules condense into small droplets on contacting the cooler air and these droplets come together to form the wisps of steam. The dynamics of this coalescence is complicated and not very well understood. The sculpture aesthetically extends the science of evaporation and coalescence.

Could you share your thoughts on the present and future of science-art in India?

This activity is rather new in India. There are not many practitioners. Artists do get inspired by science at times, but their views are of those who are looking at science from the outside. That is not enough. It would be more effective if science-art is practiced by the people who have been properly trained in science and are also artistically inclined.

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Do you think that there are rigid walls between sciences and humanities in our current education system, holding us back from some form of learning or creative expression of things that we learn? Do you envision any training programmes that could break the walls between sciences and arts in India? 

Certainly. Many people have pointed out the harm done by the ‘two cultures’ that exist in the educational system. This is a lacuna that should be taken very seriously by the educationists and policy makers.

One way to do that will be to make the subject of art as important as science, mathematics and languages. Courses on art-appreciation at the school level, with examples from Indian as well as international art, both ancient and modern, would be a good starting point.

Joel P. Joseph is a science writer.

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