Neuroscience as a form of abstract expressionism
As an artist, I am interested in one of the most complex puzzles that science has examined: the brain. From intracellular structures to the mechanisms of consciousness, my work spans the levels of biology, addressing the beliefs, theories and findings of neuroscience. Beginning with biological form or data, my work (www.juliabuntaine.com) departs into the world of aesthetics as I manipulate the idea through the use of scale, metaphor, material and form. Unlike articles and raw data, scientific ideas in the form of art inherently demand subjective judgement and interpretation, and my goal is to provide my viewer an alternative way to understand the wonders of biology within ourselves.
For Pollock, my largest two-dimensional work, is a visual celebration of the form of the neuron. It combines cutting-edge imagery in neuroscience with the style of abstract expressionism. To create this work, I sourced images of 3D computer-rendered neurons from EyeWire, a brain-mapping game born from the lab of neuroscientist Sebastian Seung at Princeton University. This citizen-science game allows hundreds of thousands of users all around the globe to participate in mapping the brain, slice by slice. The neurons that are digitally reconstructed through this process are stunning in their clarity and variety. Seeing these images inspired me to create my own work with them.
One of the most beautiful things about the brain, to me, is how messy it is — a jungle more than a computer; connections, branches and information flow that is happening every which way, intertwined in a web complex beyond our comprehension. I find this notion humbling, daunting and profoundly beautiful. This image of the brain is very different from what usually appears in textbooks or newspaper articles. In many ways, the brain is a vast territory we have only begun to explore.
With the images from EyeWire, I wanted to elicit this feeling of jungle chaos. To do this, I manipulated the colour and arrangement of over 100 neurons, creating a web across the entire composition of 36 panels. I chose to make the piece into panels to play on the notion of modularity. Although the panels may appear to be interchangeable, moving one panel into the place of another would put the whole picture — the whole web of the brain — into disorder. As for the colours, I used a bright, high-contrast palette in order to excite as much of my viewers’ visual cortex as possible. As they gaze at this 6 feet by 6 feet composition, I hope to provide an aesthetic view into the brain at human scale. Transforming the micro into macro, For Pollock allows a bodily interaction with forms too small for the eye to see, and with the biology that creates and comprises our experience of reality.
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Hoel, J.B. Brain wonders. Nat. Nanotechnol. 14, 404 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-019-0447-5