Article by Alexei Spindell
October 3, 2021
Trifecta: Art, Science, Patron opened on the stormy evening of September 25th at the La Jolla Historical Society. It is the third of curator Chi Essary’s exhibitions concerning the meeting of art and science – a collaboration between ten pairs of artists and chaired scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. As the name implies, this exhibition includes the issue of patronage – a vital issue for the artist and scientist both. In particular, this exhibition honors the philanthropy of the Jacob Chair Challenge, which has provided millions of dollars in funding for Salk and has been responsible for the endowment of 18 out of Salk’s 31 chairs. The works populating the exhibition explore some of the mysteries and exciting possibilities lying at the cutting edge of biological research at Salk, as interpreted through the artistic lens.
These include such works as Allochronic Cycles from the Lois and Cesar Collective, in which we’re presented with a series of moving, clocklike objects made to represent the different timescales of humans, plants, viruses, and the universe. All have rotating faces except for one: Its face is digital, and contains a moving image of each of the others. This represents AI and its potential to unify these timescales under one system, as inspired by Dr. Joanne Chory’s research on timescales through the Arabidopsis plant and its uniquely adaptive internal clock.
David Adey’s Fountainhead is an organic-looking representation of the living cell using cleaning products and ceramic lambs, with dangling fluorescent lights that represent “telomeres” (the caps of our chromosomes). This is inspired by Dr. Jan Karlseder’s research on the paradoxical relationship of telomeres with aging and cancer – the shortening of telomeres prevents cancer but ensures our mortality, elongated telomeres render a cell functionally immortal but are characteristic of cancer cells. Through telomeres, we may find the cure to aging in cancer.
Miss Mito, by Einar and Jamex De La Torre, is inspired by Dr. Gerald Shadel’s work on mitochondria and their role in aging. It is a lenticular print presenting a dual image of a doll-like beauty queen when viewed from one end, and a white haired man swarmed by baroque demons when viewed from the other. It represents the dual nature of mitochondria, which is a vital force of energy for us at the cellular level, but may become destructive and disease-bearing as our cells age.
Trifecta leads one to wonder if there might be nothing unusual about the union of art and science, or if it is uncommon, that it is wrongly so. The Salk Institute has a history of aiming to bring science together with art and the humanities, and the participating scientists, despite their status and the importance of their work, were greatly excited to engage with this project. Both the artists and scientists found great inspiration in the encounter. One might suspect their natures are not so different. In the words of Dr. Choy:
“We [artists and scientists] are creative yet highly disciplined and singularly focused. While we appreciate beauty (the symmetry of a flower, the unified theory of the physical universe or Monet’s haystacks painted at different times of the day or year), we also realize that some things will make us uncomfortable, that sometimes dissonance and chaos are part of the solution. We search for the truth; we rely on others to fund our search for the truth.”