Are images of scientists important? I ask because last year the National Portrait Gallery in London, UK, did something quite radical. It unveiled its first abstract portrait. The commissioned portrait of the genetic scientist Sir John Sulston is in honor of the man and his contribution to the Human Genome Project.

The work is an image of transparent spots suspended under glass in a wide and shining stainless steel frame. Despite being an abstract work, it is also the most realistic portrait in the gallery, or so claims the artist Marc Quinn.

Looking at it, you immediately think that the artist is having a laugh at everyone’s expense. We’ve all seen the faces of people in the clouds while lying on our backs on a summer afternoon. But surely to expect a gallery visitor to conjure up the image of a famous scientist from an abstract pattern of dots is expecting too much? Especially if they have no idea what that person looks like. “What am I missing?” you think and so you interrogate the caption, which reads as follows, ‘A Genomic Portrait: Sir John Sulston, a work in which the artist has used the sitter’s own DNA to create an abstract image that is nevertheless an exact representation of the sitter’.

As you can imagine, people are not neutral about this portrait, and it has been described as everything from “brilliant” to “very, very irritating”. Everyone knows that there is much more to a human being than the instruction set used to build them. So at first glance this portrait looks trivial, a one-liner, not worth deep consideration. But like a lot of modern art, an important aspect of the work is its relationship to other art works, both present and past.

In this sense, the picture’s location in the National Portrait Gallery is an important fact. In such illustrious company, it forces you to consider the other portraits around it and why they are so much better. But before you know it, you are considering the nature of portraiture and what is captured in a great portrait.

Furthermore, bad portraits don’t make you question the nature of portraiture; Quinn’s work does. In the context of other portraits, it creates a space in which to consider what is the essence of a person and, specifically, what is the significance of knowing and showing a person’s exact genetic make-up?

The portrait is part of a genre called ‘sciart’, a cultural movement that has blossomed over the last five years and seeks to bring together science and art ( At the turn of the 20th century, art movements such as cubism and modernism were responses to the coming of the mechanical age, an age of cars, airplanes, radio, and telephones. The world changed more in the 30 years between 1880 and 1910 than it had in the previous 1000 years, and art reflected that sense of dislocation and dynamism. A similar revolution in genetics and information technology is happening now, with GM foods and cloning in the vanguard of this social transformation.

The sciart movement is a response to this change, and is unusual in its attempt to involve science and scientists directly in the production of art.

Quinn’s portrait is a particularly good example of the genre because it encapsulates much that is good and bad about the sciart movement. It is fresh, curious, and intelligent. But it is also very dull and unimaginative aesthetically. It’s the product of a genuine meeting of minds between a scientist and an artist, but is the end result the best of both worlds or the worst?

Either way, collaborations between scientists and artists are becoming more and more popular and are likely to come to a laboratory near you soon.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00214-1