Katija Bonin

The Silhouette

“Art refracts science, not reflects it,” according to McMaster Health Science professsor emeritus Patangi Ranganchari.

Ranganchari spoke at the opening of the new exhibit at the McMaster Museum of Art. The show, entitled ‘Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art’ is a collaborative artistic project exploring the complex social, legal and ethical issues associated with breakthrough developments in life sciences technology, with a particular focus on stem cell research.

Curator Lianne McTavish said that the exhibit “makes a lot of sense at Mac.” McMaster has been considered a “world leader in stem cell research,” and with last week’s generous donation of $24 million from the Boris family to go toward this budding research field, the exhibit content undoubtedly intersects with the work going on at the University.

The science-inspired art exhibit opened on Feb. 9 and will be on display until March 31.

The launch of the exhibit was accompanied by a panel discussion with professors Roger Jacobs and Rangachari, as well as artists Derek Besant and Daniela Schlüter. Sean Caufield, an artist and professor of Art at the University of Alberta, moderated the panel discussion.

Caufield started the panel discussion with an emphasis on the impact of art and social media on the illustration of scientific ideas to the general public.  He noted that the title of the show was influenced by the fact that “there is much promise in stem cell research, but also pressure from the public to complete it quickly.” Jacobs expanded on this point;“Science has gone from manipulating our environment to manipulating the temple of the body.”

Stem cell research is rapidly advancing, from just fourteen years ago when stem cell lines were first isolated, to last month where a phase one trial was constructed by growth factor. Jacobs cautioned that “some of the doors [stem cell research] opens are frightening if we go through them too quickly without thinking,” making it imperative that researchers carefully evaluate the applications and consequences of their research.

On the panel, Besant commented on the similarity between scientists and artists, saying that “the failure of scientists is comparable to the failure of artist,” and “if you don’t fail, you don’t learn anything.”

Schlüter employed a metaphorical decription of her art, explaining it as looking through a microscope. “The further away from the image, the more abstract, but the closer you go, the more clear,” she said.

She also talked about her experience with attaining an image of her chromosomes. She had asked the scientist she was collaborating with what her chromosomes looked like, and she said the action of having to draw it out helped him to more deeply understand his research. Now, her chromosomes can be spotted in her mixed-medium art on display.

Originally a pharmacologist, Rangachari argued that there is a certain permanency to a work of art, contrasting with science where, “sooner or later someone will find you wrong.” The constant progression of scientific discovery allows for, “the brilliance of science for one generation to become the lame science experiments of the next,” he said.

Art gives scientists and society alike a different viewpoint into complex issues. Caufield reaffirmed that “art is a building box of visual language that can sometimes tackle big questions.”

There is a sense of anxiety and hope among scientists, which in turn is conveyed through art and finally received by the public. Stem cells are tangible evidence of the mystery that lies within us, and no one knows where this mystery will lead us.

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