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In this slideshow, C&EN displays photographs of the work of sculptor Briony Marshall and provides her perspectives on the role of science in her artistic process. The photos are of sculptures that were shown at Gallery Pangolin in London last summer in an exhibition called "Life Forming." Marshall, who trained as a biochemist, was the 2012 Sculptor in Residence at the Pangolin.
Based in London, Marshall studied biochemistry at the University of Oxford. She chose not to pursue a career in science because she thought that research could be a slow and lonely process. She is, however, still fascinated by science, and much of her art is inspired by biochemistry and the form of DNA. As an artist she enjoys spending time researching a wide variety of fields, without having to select just one specialty.
Looking ahead, Marshall has already picked out a scientific theme that she might next incorporate into her art. "I am not sure yet, and I hesitate slightly because it is such an in-fashion area, but I am fascinated by the amazing developments in neuroscience, and in particular how I might understand the neuroscience of the creative process from a very personal point of view," she says. "The reading I've done in the area has already helped me develop techniques for getting in the zone and overcoming creative blocks or just the creative inertia that happens almost every Monday morning. As usual, though, I have no idea how this might translate into sculptures."
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Photo Credits: Steven Russell/Pangolin
The sculpture "DNA Helix of Life," which was visible through the glass door of the Pangolin, is a perfect double helix cast in bronze. It's a little underwhelming from a distance, but up close, the almost 2-meter-high structure reveals its exquisite detail. It comprises tiny figures of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus, each with its own human character and each mathematically designed to fit perfectly together.
"Not many people appreciate the work that went into this," Marshall says. "I worked mainly using a program called Pymol, which is a 3-D molecular visualization tool. I loaded up the data for an idealized B-DNA helix and was able to measure all the bond lengths and angles."
"A Dream of Society as Flawless as a Diamond" highlights Marshall's interest in the elements and their form. This bronze sculpture emulates the elegance and order of diamond. "Sculpture is a very practical art, as you are often faced with structural challenges, so I find myself regularly resorting to Pythagorean and Newtonian physics," Marshall says. "It really helps to be able to understand what is going on, and this requirement for problem solving is one of the things that drew me to sculpture in the first place."
"DNA Sketch" shows just how true Marshall is to the science. For her, the disciplines of science and art are not so far apart. "I was definitely too impatient in my twenties to sign up for the slow, often lonely, process of research," Marshall says. "Ironically, I now love an almost equivalent process of developing sculpture in a studio, which is definitely slow and mostly solitary. There are lots of other parallels in the process, such as how you need to put in the hours. But the real magic happens when you suddenly make the intuitive leap and see the answer. The main difference is that those eureka moments, although perhaps less world-changing, are probably a lot more frequent in the studio."
From top, then left are "Carbon Pair," "Nitrogen," "Oxygen," and "Carbon." Marshall initially made detailed figures in wax molded over small copper wire armatures. They were then cast in metal. The process was not straightforward. "The main problem was that distances between the same pairs of atoms vary a lot depending on where they are in the DNA," Marshall says. "However, I needed to come up with a single bond length per type of bond - in other words, the length of the arms and legs of each figure, - to use in the whole sculpture. I initially started with the average bond lengths in chemistry, but this was too long, especially for the carbon. I then did some informed guesswork and trial and error to come up with my average bond lengths. And then I had to resculpt my figures with new measurements."
"DNA Detail" is another complex sculpture that also shows off Marshall's scientific side. "I faced a big challenge with phosphorus, as it forms five bonds, and humans only have four limbs," Marshall says. "I made all the double bonds separately as units, so in the end I had eight minisculptures, four individual atoms, and four sets of double-bonded pairs. I then had to create a blueprint for how they would go together, based on my averaged bond lengths and trying to keep the bond angles standard. The base pairs were hard enough, but at least they are fairly planar. Working on the sugar phosphate backbone was a real challenge."
In this photograph, Marshall is sanding "CS6," a sculpture that represents an embryo in one of its early stages, known as the Carnegie stages, of which there are 23. "CS6" represents stage six. As well as working at the elemental level and with the concept of DNA, Marshall takes up the theme of life with sculptures of embryos. Again, she approaches the subject from a scientific perspective. For Marshall, the sculpture also has personal significance because she had a child while she was the Pangolin artist in residence.
"Maquettes" represent the growth of the human fetus from Carnegie stage six to 10. The figures are 13.8 cm high. Marshall has discovered that her work draws reactions from a variety of people. "I find that scientists and often medics really respond to the work," she says of her art. "On the other hand, people from a more art-world background will understand my concerns about form and references to the art-historical canon but have varying responses to the scientific ideas, from intimidation or revulsion to wonder and real enthusiasm."
"Primitive Streak" represents an embryo between Carnegie stages five and six, which occurs 14 days after fertilization. These are the stages that define the axis of bilateral symmetry along which an embryo's organs and limbs subsequently will be arranged.
"In terms of outcomes on my work, I think that the biggest effect is probably related to the way I have observed my own creative process in what I guess is an empirical way, so that I then try to re-create the optimum environment for that intangible thing to happen," Marshall says. "I am getting better at giving myself the space to create my best work."
CS15 represents the 15th Carnegie Stage
Embryonic Growth combines the themes of DNA and the human fetus.