When science is art and art is science

When I rocked up to a school chemistry class my teacher would sigh. I was good at English and history, art and music. But I was terrible at science. Physics was within touching distance if I really stretched. But chemistry? However hard I tried, I couldn’t work it out. Physics interacted with the world I knew, but chemistry, that was pure abstraction to me. Wrapping my brain cells around atoms and molecules gave me a headache. And learning the periodic table? Really?

On the topic of tables, I came across an intriguing video called Science is Awesome. I wish I’d seen this when I was at school. Apparently, science is mind-blowing and if you watch this video, you’ll see it’s true. It shows physics making the invisible visible with a table and a spoon of flour. What beautiful patterns soundwaves create – an art installation of metal and wheat. Science and art in one. 

It reminds me of a trip my husband and I made to Lebanon in March 2020, just before Covid-19 shut everything down. We met wonderful people, ate amazing food, discovered fantastic architecture and learned about a tragic history reaching back thousands of years. 

As we strolled along Beirut’s seafront, we couldn’t know five months later another catastrophe would strike. We visited all the bars, restaurants and bookshops that would later be blown to smithereens. At 6pm on the 4th of August 2020, 2,750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port. It caused 204 deaths, 6,500 injuries, $15 billion damage, and left 300,000 people without a home. 

Lebanon is a narrow strip of a country that has endured centuries of invasions, fractious neighbours, heartache and civil wars. It’s at the crossroads of continents, religion, food and language. But despite being at the centre of things, the world forgets Lebanon. When we’re able to travel again please do visit. They need our help and our tourist dollar. 

But I digress. We were on science and art and holidays. The weather in Lebanon was mostly wonderful – warm and sunny with bright blue skies, except one afternoon when it poured with rain for hours. We got increasingly soaked until we ducked into a museum called MIM. We didn’t know what it was – it was just an excuse to get out of the rain.  

And that’s the way with life. The less we expect, the more we are delighted. Inadvertently we discovered a jewel of a museum. Tucked underground below the streets of Beirut, MIM houses one of the most exciting private collections of crystals and minerals in the world. 

Knowing my challenges with chemistry, the afternoon could have been a washout. But I was surprised. Instead, we found something that was part science museum, part art gallery and part exquisite jewellery collection. Inky black rooms punctuated by brightly lit glass boxes – incredible sculptures that no human imagination could conjure up. We wandered alone, surrounded by golds and greens and blues and metallics, all hidden below the rain drenched streets. Art and science wrapped up in one place. 

All images from Lebanon Untravelled and MIM Museum

Normally we humans like things to be clear. We separate, categorise and box things off. Scientists are boffins with glasses and artists have wild hair and live in attics. We are uncomfortable with artists who explore science, or scientists who experiment with art. Yet, I happened on this Korean exhibition called Illuminating the Crossroads

Below is an image from the collection called Flow. It seems familiar, like a cousin of MIM’s crystals, yet it’s a video of LED lights displayed in a monitor framed by Korean lacquer. The piece is described as “long ribbon-like sleeves” of lights like “traditional Korean dancing.” 

Flow, Jin, Siyon, 2011, from the collection of Korean Art Museum Association

Here are some interesting thoughts from the exhibition: “Science and art come together to speak a common language. Science is the quest to understand the physical world around us. Art is the desire to express the mental world within us.” Perhaps science and art are yin and yang, light and dark. Two sides of the same coin?

This collection says it brings together “two spheres between which dialogue is rarely exchanged, and little collaboration takes place.” Yet they both represent what make us human – our curiosity about nature and the way we understand ideas and emotions. This is an “interchange of ideas at the crossroads of the two [which] will not only bring us new discoveries and progress, but also bring us closer in touch with the essence of humanity.”

I like to think of it as Marmite and peanut butter. If you’re unfamiliar with Marmite, it’s a very British thing. A black spread that we Brits layer thinly onto our toast. The Guardian says “the taste is so unique as to defy description, but think of a yeasty, salty, soy sauce-esque flavour with the consistency of old engine oil.” 

Many years ago, a friend shared an idea with me – try Marmite and peanut butter together. “But they are clearly opposites” I thought, annoyed at the anarchy she was injecting into my life. Salty and sweet, oily and creamy, black and beige – it seemed like a terrible idea. I took my first bite and it opened my eyes to a brave new world. I have never looked back. 

Don’t get me wrong, Marmite and peanut butter are good on their own. But united they lift toast to another dimension. It also solves a problem. Don’t like Marmite? Add peanut butter. Don’t like peanut butter? Add Marmite. If only my teachers had understood this when I was at school. 

Art is science and science is art. Ideas at the same crossroads. With fussy children we hide vegetables in favourite dishes. We blend them to create sauces for pizza, hiding them under the cheese. My teachers could have done this with chemistry. Hidden it in art. Let’s avoid the periodic table completely and focus on the beauty of crystals instead.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.  

First photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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