It is a sign of the times that there are more artists than scientists interested in the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Perhaps this is because scientists prefer to look forward rather than backward, as witnessed by the extraordinary fact that the history of science is not taught on most science courses. Contemporary artists are also not too keen on the past, but for them the discovery of DNA is happening now, with cloning and GM foods.

One of the best sciart exhibitions to explore the impact of genetics is Primitive Streak, an exhibition by fashion designer and artist Helen Storey and her sister Kate Storey, a developmental biologist at the University of Dundee. The work is a fashion show that elucidates the first 1000 hours of human life following fertilization of an egg ( It is not a glamorous subject, but I have never been to a sciart exhibition that more authentically evokes that feeling of discovery and amazement so characteristic of scientific knowledge. The sheer beauty and complexity of the designs take your breath away; for example, one of the garments is a shimmering sperm coat made of embroidered gossamer thread with tails hanging free. The use of garments as both the canvas and form of the work is clever because one sees the future form of the embryo, a human, as well as its mysterious halting cellular history as inseparable; the person and the biology as one.

The genetic theme is also in evidence at London’s sciart gallery TwoTen, with an exhibition called FourPlus: Writing DNA, and in New York Academy of Sciences’ Gallery of Art and Science, with an exhibition From Code to Commodity: Genetics and Visual Art. But undoubtedly the most ambitious sciart exhibition on this theme is Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds currently being exhibited in Munich, Germany and Pusan, Korea ( The physicality of the human body is explored using a process called ‘plastination’, which transforms the tissues of the body into a rigid solid, preserving form and color. This enables von Hagens to display dead bodies stripped of their skin or bones but still managing to play tennis or ride a horse. Some of the time (actually, most of the time), it feels like a macabre circus show with the dead as clowns. It’s Leonardo da Vinci meets Gary Larson, but with an honesty and unblinking frankness that is refreshing.

These exhibitions illustrate the artist’s new role as science interpreter and interrogator, turning scientific discovery into the visual language of art. But artists routinely ignore one of the most important aspects of science, the scientific culture itself. That sense of being in a community that celebrates child-like curiosity. A place that encourages study for its own sake, where the love of discovering new things takes precedence over their economic value. Sciart very rarely addresses this culture of playfulness and irresponsibility, usually typecasting scientists as responsible guardians of knowledge and artists as irreverent humanists.

Perhaps this is the fault of scientists who, ever conscious of their publicly-perceived role to improve the economic and social conditions of society, have a lot to lose if they come across as anything less than responsible. This was not always the case; the DNA story itself provides a good example of the two sides of this coin. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were methodical, orthodox, and quiet. James Watson and Francis Crick, on the other hand, were famously boisterous and irreverent, often spending more time playing tennis than working in the lab. Watson, to this day, is actively mischievous in his public statements about the role of genetics. Great science needs respect for knowledge and nonconformism in equal proportions, as acknowledged by the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins.

Up to now, art has viewed science as a source of inspiration, passive and beautiful, like a languid nude. Art hasn’t really understood science yet: who does it and why, where the power lies, and what to do with the bafflingly large mountain of research papers that are produced each year. As artists get more exposure to the weird ways of science, these are bound to become part of the alphabet of sciart as well as the C, G, T, and A of DNA.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00614-X