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Molecular Aesthetics

by Peter Weibel and Ljiljana Fruk, Editors
ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. London, England, 2013
400 pp., illus. 300 b&w. Trade, $55.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-01878-4.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This amazing book is very hard to pigeon hole — it is neither a coffee table book, text book, art catalogue, nor a scientific treatise but adequately fulfills aspects of each of these categories. Molecular Aesthetics is almost 500 pages, contains numerous colour and black & white images — historical photographs, artwork, diagrams/drawings and images from instruments that 'see' at nano scales. The images are supported by various scholarly essays and artists’ profiles and statements. As a bonus, the book comes with half a pair of “rose coloured glasses” — well actually one lens is rose the other blue. Amazing things happen when viewing the artwork with these spectacles.

The first section discusses and shows 23 molecules that “changed the world,” these are astonishing, to say the least, and as varied as Water, DNA, Thalidomide Caffeine, DDT and Polyethylene. The next section Molecular Aesthetics, the bulk of the book, contains the Essays and Artists. This section is divided into seven sections, followed by the Contributor's Biographies. There is no Index?

Section I and 7 — Molecular Aesthetics: An Introduction; and, Double Life of the Double Helix: Structural Beauty of the Molecule of Life are by the editors, Weibel and Fruk respectively.
Section II — Hoffmann discusses Molecular Beauty.
Section III — Kroto explores Art & Science II: Geodesy in Material Science; and Laszlo discusses, On Self-Assemblies of Nanostructures and Why They Strike Us as Beautiful.
Section IV — looks at The Aesthetics of Molecular Forms (Spector); Molecular Aesthetics: Blind Alleys & Promising Fields (Schummer); and Aesthetic Resources for Molecular Knowledge (Toumey).
Section V — the section I found most compelling, explores: Aesthetics, Media, Sciences, and Technologies: An Integral Tetrahedron (Root-Bernstein); Abstract Science (Hoffmann); and Molecular Songs (Delatour).
Section VI — investigates Virtual Structures: Episodes in the Art and Science of Protein Structure Representation (Francoeur); Aesthetics of Molecular Aesthetics (Roth); and Moleculism (Heckl).

The editors are to be congratulated on bringing to fruition this mammoth compilation of science and art. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we register that art and science work together in common problem fields, that are the invisible fields that remain concealed to the human eye” (p. 72).

The book is very much about this neo-symbiotic relationship of science and art; the discussion of this relationship is not without its problems, though. Root-Bernstein uses the wonderful term “aesthetic cognition” to describe how scientific and artistic aesthetics are, at times, similar and leads us to new levels of understanding. “An understanding of how arts influence sciences through aesthetic concerns can therefore be valuable to scientists striving for innovation” (p. 265). The Watson & Crick aesthetic evaluation and visualisation of their double helix model of DNA is a classic example of such a symbiotic relationship.

I have two problems with the whole science-art discussion (not the liaison itself), which this book in certain sections does little to improve!

Firstly, many writers focus on a perceived antagonism between contemporary art and science.  This, in my opinion, is a falsely perceived antagonism carried over from the 'dark ages' of the 1950s. “According to some scholars, the arts have no positive status at all because they produce no testable knowledge” (p. 265). This statement is so inane as to not even warrant comment. The scientists and artists that are actually doing the work (together or separately), not talking about it, could not care less about such boring, useless debates! It's time to move on, please!

Secondly, many theorists, talking and writing about new-media art, verge on the almost evangelical, trying to convince us that traditional representational art (e.g. a portrait painted in oils on canvas) is an anachronistic dinosaur, totally passé and dead. The bad news for these new-media fundamentalists is that worldwide gallery and museum attendance is on the increase for exhibitions that display contemporary portraiture, the old masters (from all periods) and so called traditional art. It is my contention that all forms of art are valid and of benefit to society. Of course, styles, subject matter, and materials go in and out of fashion, but this does not mean that the “not-the-flavour-of-the-month art” is no longer valid. Some new-media advocates are writing an apologetics for this latest fashion that is totally unnecessary.

Reading this book, bearing this criticism in mind, will be a wonderful rewarding experience and a fascinating glimpse into that which is beyond the normal reach of our senses. I was delighted to come across many of my favourite artists featured in Molecular Aesthetics, some of whom I have worked with, such as John McCormack, Julian Voss-Andreae and Blair Bradshaw, to name a few. Thierry Delatour's essay on Molecular Songs was simply brilliant, he concept opening up a completely new genre of molecular music. Totally inspiring!

Delightful Coffee Table book — Yes. Primer for students in molecular aesthetics — Yes. Core text for new-media art students — Yes. General introduction to the “cutting edge” of art and science at the nano level — Yes!

Last Updated 3 January 2014

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