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Imagining life through the eyes of technology

Beckman Institute people, along with their technological tools and artistic visions, give life to a current exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum that looks at nature in newfound ways.

Published on March 17, 2010

Nature is both artist and subject in an exhibition at the University of Illinois’s Krannert Art Museum that uses technology to visualize life in often profound new ways. In the exhibit, titled Imag(in)ing Life:“Nature in her genius had imitated art, nature – in forms such as a butterfly wing or a virus – is on display but so too is the artistry of the natural world, as revealed by advanced visualization tools and the scientists and artists who skillfully use them.

The exhibit, currently running until May 23, is located in the CANVAS Gallery section of the museum. The exhibit features works ranging from a reproduction of the first-ever X-ray to eye-catching 21st Century images created by scientific researchers using highly-advanced visualization technologies. The show provides visitors with a glimpse of life at its smallest scales, in ways that many people have never experienced.  

The exhibit is sponsored by Krannert Art Museum’s Intermedia gallery, in collaboration with the Beckman Institute. Guest curator is Hank Kaczmarski, Director of Beckman’s Illinois Simulator Laboratory. In addition, several Beckman researchers and staff members are contributors to the exhibit.

A piece titled Red blood cells from Institute researcher Gabriel Popescu’s Quantitative Light Imaging Laboratory was rendered by Popescu, Mustafa Mir and Samuel Copeland. An image of the polio virus was created by Beckman’s Theoretical and Computational Biophysics (TCB) group using molecular scale simulation software they developed. Darren Stevenson and Zach Johnson of Beckman’s Visualization Laboratory fashioned a piece called wing scale(s) using their imaging facilities.   

The exhibit includes a range of imaging technologies as canvases, dating back to that first X-ray (the hand of Bertha Rongten, wife of Wilhelm Rontgen, discoverer of X-rays), to three-dimensional images rendered from magnetic resonance imaging machines, to images created by researchers and graphic artists using advanced software.

The exhibit’s description says it “allows participants to view and interact with the simple beauty and unimaginable complexity of life hidden from our unaided eyes, but made visible through the eyes of scientific imaging machines.”

The title for the show comes from Roman poet Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. Kaczmarski’s statement for the show says that “While Ovid’s Metamorphoses might be the first surviving written observation that “Nature in her genius had imitated art”, the human eye, alone or with the help of scientific instruments, continues to marvel at imagery from nature. Whether at the scale of the vast expanse of galaxies or the subatomic level, nature, as artist, continues to provide us with an unending body of breathtaking imagery, a truly infinite oeuvre.”

While I could have used just electron microscope images and had more than enough, I wanted to highlight the fact that nature hides her artistry so well that all of mankind’s imaging machines just scratch the surface of exploring the beauty of nature, hence CT, MRI, microscopy, ultrasound imagery. – Hank Kaczmarski

Below, Kaczmarski talks about the show and its implications for the intersection of art and science in a question and answer session. 

What was the genesis of this exhibit?
As folks around campus were contributing image files to the first Beckman Institute Imaging Conference last year, it became obvious to me that there is immense beauty and mystery hidden in the resultant pictures. I remembered a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about Diana’s grotto being formed by nature in her genius imitating art. That was the genesis for Imagining Life.

What were the criteria for selecting these specific pieces?
I tried to select images that came from diverse modalities of imaging at the invisible scale of nature. I guess one would call that mixed media in the art world. While I could have used just electron microscope images and had more than enough, I wanted to highlight the fact that nature hides her artistry so well that all of mankind’s imaging machines just scratch the surface of exploring the beauty of nature, hence CT, MRI, microscopy, ultrasound imagery.

The pieces have different formats, come from different time periods, and use different technologies; was that on purpose to showcase the variety of different imaging and printing techniques and media over the years in which these types of images can be visualized?
There was a time not long ago where exploring nature was considered heresy, that all that we could see with our naked eyes was all that we needed to see. The first X-ray showed nature working inside a living human, a first that sets the foundation for the gallery show. What I didn’t explicitly explain in the two side-by-side images of DNA was the irony that Dr. Crick’s first sketch of DNA on scratch paper drawn with pencil by a scientist might well be considered more artistic than the fine line drawing in the 1953 issue of Nature of that same DNA done by his wife, a well-established commercial artist.

The Intermedia gallery at the Krannert Art Museum has as a primary goal the exploration of new art themes in new forms of presentation. The virtual reality image manipulation in the CANVAS of an H1N1 virus can’t happen in a traditional museum setting, Psycholograms of the human papilloma virus and breast cancer are not standard museum fare either. Imagining Life makes full use of the 2- and 3-D capabilities of the Intermedia gallery concept with a topic that challenges conventional presentation modalities.

What do you hope visitors take away from this exhibition?
That the portion of nature visible to us in our daily lives is an unimaginably small slice of what nature offers to those willing to explore. This show is about nature at the invisibly small scale. The shuttle astronauts just installed a ‘picture window’ on Tranquility, bringing tears to the eyes of the lab’s occupants at the expanded view of an earth once never viewable with human eyes and only recently seen through tiny portholes.  Maybe the next show will explore nature in the immense.

Admission to the exhibit is free. The Intermedia gallery is located in Krannert’s lower level. Krannert’s hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, click here

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