Art after DNA

The double helix has inspired scientists and artists alike.

No sooner had James Watson and Francis Crick published their seminal paper on DNA in 1953 than artists began depicting the double helix as a cultural icon. Salvador Dalí painted swarms of spiralling DNA molecules in his paintings from the late 1950s, such as Butterfly Landscape (The Great Masturbator in a Surrealist Landscape with DNA, 1957–58), and decades later sculptor Tom Otterness forged a bronze double helix joined by tiny stick figures (DNA Chain, 1986). Some artists responded to some of the troubling issues surrounding DNA, such as cloning and stem-cell research. Alexis Rockman, for example, painted a colourful landscape populated with genetically modified plants and animals to warn viewers that the future may contain mutated monsters (The Farm, 2000).

Genetic screen: Benjamin Fry's Valence uses the BLAST algorithm to create moving patterns. Credit: B. FRY

Although art about science icons and applied science is interesting, it does not focus on the pure science of DNA. That topic is addressed by artists who express wonder at the highly complex, ever-changing organic processes that are the physical mechanism for the force of life. One example is the British painter Mark Francis, whose Source (1992) is a wall-size depiction of sperm cells presented not with clinical accuracy but out of focus, as if seen through a veil. Inspired by microscopy, Francis uses a vocabulary of curved, flat shapes that he inherited from nineteenth-century art nouveau designers — who, in turn, first copied the shapes from stained, transparent slices of tissue prepared between glass plates for viewing with a light microscope. Francis uses a modern electron microscope for his source images, but his forms retain the flat, free-form appearance associated with a century of biomorphic abstract art. In a nod to recent methods of charting complex genomic data, Francis paints the sperm cells hovering above a grid.

In the 50 years since Watson and Crick cracked the structure of DNA, biologists and bioinformaticists, have painstakingly mapped and sequenced the genomes of various species: the fruitfly, the mouse and, in 2001, the human. The computing technology developed for this effort inspired a new generation of video artists, such as Benjamin Fry, a programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory, to create visualizations of complex biological data. In Valence (2000), Fry has used the BLAST algorithm — a tool for searching through genomes — to produce ever-changing patterns that move rhythmically across a video screen.

DNA 2 by Susan Rankaitis is both a stand-alone artwork and a backdrop to the dance of life. Credit: S. MCCLAINE/ROBERT MANN GALLERY

The curved free-standing panel DNA 2, which measures over 5 metres across, is the result of a collaboration between visual artist Susan Rankaitis, molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer and choreographer John Pennington. Inspired by the Human Genome Project and tutored by Sinsheimer, Rankaitis combined pictures of DNA with text by the biologist to create her chromosome-shaped collage. It can be viewed alone or used as a backdrop for Pennington, who, attired in coils of pulsing fibre-optic cable, spins across a stage. By projecting flickering light onto her giant chromosome, Rankaitis makes her layered images and text join the dance of life.

Charles Darwin was confident that there was a physical mechanism underlying natural selection,but never found it. Today's artists understand the central role of DNA in this mechanism. It inspires them by embodying Darwin's core idea: that nature is a web of dynamic forces with no predetermined purpose or meaning. Works by artists such as Francis, Fry and Rankaitis resonate with this concept of life, and with the complex, abstract processes that go on silently, systematically and invisibly within the double helix.