At the Edge of Perception

You Should Know / by Greg Boustead /

Artist Luke Jerram's work explores the limits of science and art, challenging the boundaries of both.

When Luke Jerram was growing up in the sleepy town of Stroud, England, he discovered that he suffered from dichromatic colorblindness. But instead of lamenting this fact, he construed it as a gift, his own auspicious window into the world. Jerram became obsessed with the mysteries of human perception, both its idiosyncratic nature and its innate limitations.

Later, he began investigating these mysteries. Where does the visual perception of an object end and the memory of it begin? But when it came time to choose a course of study at university, instead of tackling such questions through systematic inquiry, Jerram took a different path. He enrolled in art school. “Scientists and artists start by asking similar questions about the natural world,” Jerram says. “They just end up with completely different answers.”

Although he admits that the ratio of girls to boys in art school versus science and engineering programs influenced his decision, it was really the breadth of methodology and lack of formal structure that attracted him to the arts. “The nice thing about being an artist is that I can jump around from one area of interest to the next—microbiology one week and the gravitational pull of the Moon the next,” he says. “Scientists don’t seem to be allowed to do that anymore—they have to specialize in their own little field—which is a shame, I think.”

Jerram creates sculptures, installations, soundscapes, and live arts projects that investigate the mysterious process of how we construct inner worlds from objective reality. His work is inspired by such disparate areas of research as biology, acoustic science, sleep research, ecology, and neural pathways.

An ongoing theme of Jerram’s work is the animation of otherwise hidden phenomenon. Exploring the Moon’s invisible pull in his installation “Tide,” Jerram rigged a gravity meter to three water-filled globes, turning data from the meter into a resonating chorus based on Kepler’s theories of “music of the spheres.” In “Retinal Memory Volume,” Jerram uses light to exploit viewers’ retinal afterimages to construct ephemeral ghost-like sculptures.

On a lark, Jerram started looking at little creatures through borrowed light microscopes and via raw images from electron microscopy. He was amazed by the invisible world he witnessed, but when he compared what he saw to processed EM photographs and scientific drawings, they didn’t resemble his “beautiful translucent animals.” Microbes—such as bacteria, protists, and viruses—aren’t the brightly colorful creatures often seen in journals and newspapers. EM images and technical renderings are typically colored by scientists, either to mark processes or simply for aesthetic reasons. “Many people might think they’re actually these bright purple beasts, when in fact microbes are mostly transparent,” Jerram says.

For “Glass Microbiology,” Jerram worked with University of Bristol virologist Andrew Davidson and took inspiration from high-resolution electron microscopic images, creating large, painstakingly accurate glass sculptures of notorious viruses and bacteria such as HIV, E. coli, SARS, and recently, H1N1. Jerram’s H1N1 sculpture was just accepted permanently into the Wellcome Collection in London and loaned to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo for exhibition in January. What started as a question of science communication turned into an interplay between the beautiful and dangerous, as well as a reflection on the limits of scientific understanding.

“When I ask virologists how exactly RNA is packed into a virus, well, the answer is that they just don’t know. Most viruses are right at the edges microscopy capabilities,” Jerram says. “So scientists have take a leap—from what they can see to what they know about chemical interactions.” Renderings of these microbes, as with many constructs throughout science, are a jigsaw puzzle of direct observation and predictions. “It’s important to explore these boundaries and limitations,” he says.

With his new installation, “Plant Orchestra,” opening later this month at a botanical garden in Cambridge, Jerram shifts from the limits of vision to the thresholds of hearing. He will rig extraordinarily sensitive microphones to all sorts of flora, amplifying the otherwise imperceptible sounds of living plants—to the point that “you can hear plant cells growing and bursting.” Scientists typically use these emissions to measure cavitations and embolism; experimental botanists can even use this acoustic feedback to determine precisely optimal watering schedules. Jerram has other plans: He aims to amplify and mix these hisses, gurgles, and pops into an ad hoc botanical score played across the gardens.

But sometimes there are limits to attempting to communicate the otherwise incommunicable, to exploring what Jerram refers to as the “edges of perception.” When he was invited to the Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory, a research center located deep in Finnish Lapland above the Arctic Circle, to create artwork based on the aurora borealis, he hit a wall. “The northern lights are so overwhelming, I found it impossible to capture its beauty and make art that did it justice.”

Luke Jerram is an artist and research fellow at the University of Southampton, UK, where he also works with a team at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research. His upcoming installation, “Plant Orchestra,” opens October 21 at the University of Cambridge Botanical Gardens. His book, Art in Mind, is out now.

Originally published October 15, 2009

Tags creativity limits public perception sciart truth

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