Monday, April 23, 2012

Frist Curator Mark Scala Responds to Country Life Post

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 2:52 PM

The Long Awaited, Patricia Piccinini
  • "The Long Awaited," Patricia Piccinini

On Friday, Perrin Ireland wrote a critique of Patricia Piccinini's work for Country Life. She'd been a longtime fan of Piccinini, one of the artist's featured in Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination, currently on view at the Frist Center. I chose Ireland to interview Piccinini because of that familiarity, but also because of her background in science — she majored in biology at Brown University. As her review explains, Ireland wound up being turned off by Piccinini's affiliation with the science world, which she says is kind of uninformed.

I sent the post along to Frist Center curator Mark Scala, hoping to start a dialogue about Piccinini's work. Scala wrote this response:

I thought Perrin’s piece effectively expresses what I have heard over the years when scientists complain of artists not really understanding the science to which they allude.

While Patricia has never claimed to be scientifically precise, she is certainly interested in the symbolic, ethical, and emotional meanings behind science. But her work also relates to such fields as literature and psychology, and ultimately I think it is most concerned with the relationship between beauty and difference, love and fear, and artifice and nature, topics that are less within the scope of science than the humanities — so any “nonscientific” points of her explanations do not, in my way of thinking, diminish the message of her work. I think that for her as for many creative people — whether Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was about hubris and lack of empathy, not science, or artists like Alexis Rockman, who visualizes the Pandora’s Box of genetic engineering, the real point is the use of a scientific framework in facilitating internalizing narratives for addressing the paradoxes and contradictions of our times. These can include the recognition that science is by its very nature opaque, and yet it has a real bearing on our lives.

What is great about Perrin’s response is that she really does encourage people to think about the relationship between these two different ways of approaching the world. For me, I embrace the advance of scientific knowledge, yet am also drawn to questions about the mantle of authority, objectivity, and the role of the emotional and the spiritual in all this. I am interested in artists who play with a scientific or quasi scientific language in their discourse as a way of exploring the boundaries of the will to transformation; this can be profoundly silhouetted against the hidden and unwilled consequences of that transformation, the idea of the deep learning required to do science serving as a specialized “wall of knowledge” that actually discourages a subjective consideration of its meaning and place within a broader philosophical /social/political spectrum, and within one’s own very personal life experiences. This is especially the case in the context of health and the body, in which the emotional truth is inseparable from the body as machine.

Scientists and science teachers will always be the best suited to simplifying their explanations of their work so the layman can understand. In my experience, artists who try to convey the knowledge level and degree of objectivity required of scientists often sacrifice the emotional punch or poetry that makes other people want to enter in; art is not about the transmission of data so much as the creation of experience.

Thanks for sharing Perrin’s beautifully written article — I do like the conversation!

Best, Mark

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