New York

“The Art of Science”

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

In light of recent art-historical obsessions with technology, information theory, vision, and modes of attention—not to mention our acute cultural preoccupation with all things scientific—it is perhaps unsurprising that the ICP has devoted a number of shows to such topical themes. Eugenics, genetics, and the discovery of DNA all figured prominently in past installments of its five-show series “Imaging the Future: The Intersection of Science, Technology, and Photography,” curated by Carol Squiers. Even so, this final show managed to astonish in a way that its predecessors did not. Tucked away in the institution’s lower rear gallery, “The Art of Science” would have been better and more suitably installed in a Big Pharma lobby. To be sure, the art of science here looked a lot like propaganda.

Disavowing a Mr. Wizard’s World amateur ethos for the expert status of corporate biotech, the show’s light boxes and LCD and plasma screens, which displayed positron-emission tomography (PET) scans, functional magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI), and computer displays of mutated cells, constituted a biomedical son et lumière. As the introductory wall label trumpeted: Life, which is to say the genetic code, “can now be reduced to pixels and processed as data.” Spectacular data were thus ubiquitous, but inferences were far from transparent. As the larger interpretive frameworks from which data were extracted were not invoked in a detailed way, the often stunning images were radically decontextualized, hovering in an uncanny hyperreality of crystalline screens and flaunting a renegade pictorialism of new technology cleaved from manifest content. Science here becomes a mode not of evaluation or even of illustration—of an idea or experiment or functional network—but of paratactic representation.

If the show’s premise was to highlight the range of aestheticized image worlds that scientists construct to elucidate or communicate otherwise opaque findings, its objectives were undercut by a lack of clarity. Even in the case of the explicitly didactic works contributed by (art)n, a collaborative group of artists and scientists, lucidity became dangerously inextricable from publicity for a drug (currently in clinical trials) that explicitly prompted their participation. Inspired by a new anticancer treatment called Omnitarg, three spectral light boxes emblazoned with images of tumors superimposed on photographs (two of which were by Man Ray, one depicting Francis Picabia) seemed a particularly odd endeavor. Stranger still, in relation to another work that used dyed fluorescent antibody molecules to examine the cellular response to sudden environmental changes (in temperature, salinity, pH, and so on), the press release invoked not cellular biology but 9/11 as the determinant referent, explaining that “stress” has lately become a hot research topic, perversely reading cellular research as a cultural pathology.

This non sequitur brought us to the unwitting crux of the show: the palpable attempt to bring the art of science back to the stuff of the body while making it strange and even beautiful. Magnifications of microscopic scenes turn cells into nebulae and objects into luminous abstractions, disorienting already-unmoored imagery through transformations of scale and dissolutions of inside and out. For all the show’s lip service to this effect, positivistic science this is not. Bodies are resolutely foreign rather than knowable (a point once emphatically made in the yawning orifices surveyed in Mona Hatoum’s panoptic video-installation chamber Corps étranger, 1994), opening onto questions of literal body politics and what might prove to be more than metaphoric.

Suzanne Hudson