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Parallel Paths: Design and Science

Photo credit Jaime Alvarez

Design and Science – curated by Leslie Atzmon

A comprehensive exhibition that explores the connection between the titular constructs, underscoring creative and conceptual overlap.

Although the premise that design and science are connected is not a revelation at Esther Klein Gallery, much of the work included in this diverse, visual survey is. The exhibition includes contemporary works in two and three dimensions alongside reproductions of historic examples: drawings by Charles Darwin, x-ray imaging by Rosalind Franklin, photographs of the helical model constructed by Watson and Crick. If – at times – the packed exhibition reads like a textbook, that’s because it is. The work is currently being compiled for publication, its subdivided thematic structure mirroring future chapters designed to illuminate the speculative, iterative, and reflective practices in the parallel processes of design and science.

Despite the scale of the undertaking, there are many small moments of reflection to be found in Design and Science. Miriam Simun’s poetic project Agalinis Dreams introduces a minuscule pink flower that blooms for only a short time each year. This tiny, transitive bloom –of the endemic plant, Agalinis Acuta– was thought to have no scent, but working with chemists and perfumers, the artist was able to extract its delicate fragrance. Its olfactory presence in the exhibition –emanating from a discrete white diffuser– is paired with an equally delicate artist’s book and a sculptural nosepiece, sleek wearable art designed for a ritualized witnessing of this extremely rare phenomenon. The floral subject, Agalinis Acuta, is known to exist in only fifteen populations in the Northeast and has been on the Federally Endangered list since 1988. The plant is predicted –by some– to be extinct by 2050.

Unsurprisingly, the tenuous relationship to a changing environment is a topic for many of the artists in Design and Science. This reflects the urgency of our collective moment but also the distinct environmental implications to both designers and scientists. What we make –and how we make it– is at the forefront of discussions in both fields. Many of the projects on view offer creative solutions – Megan Valanidas’s biodegradable plastic packaging alternatives, Mitchell Joachim’s speculative bio-urban landscapes, Audrey Speyer’s ‘Purifungi,’ a mushroom-based remediation for polluted sites.

D.S. Nicholas & Shavnati Ananoan’s ‘Garden Fresh Home Bio-design Substrates’ is displayed as a tabletop vitrine of living algal substrates, alongside architectural renderings of an in-home unit for growing sustainable food. The artist/biologist pair both teach at nearby Drexel University; their design process highlights the need for green within the urban confines of a typical Philly row-house.

Ori Elisar’s The Living Language Project also uses the petri dish as a means for experimental synthesis. Manipulating Paenibacillus vortex bacteria, the artist ‘writes’ the characters of the Hebrew alphabet. The P vortex bacteria are relatively recent discoveries –first isolated by Eshel Ben-Jacob’s group at Tel Aviv University in the 1990s– and they are adept at making patterns, albeit imperfectly. Elisar’s striking visual cultivation of the material (blue bacteria in circular tableaus) blends linguistic and scientific histories – speaking to evolving meaning and relevance in both language and biocomplexity. The technically impressive project invites mutability and adaptation, in an Talmudic approach that values questions more than answers.

In The Nature of Being, Jason J Ferguson turns scientific inquiry inward– recreating his skeleton from data extrapolated from a series of MRI, CT, CBCT and EOS scans. Reconstructed and disassembled digitally, the artist’s bones are printed in bioplastic, a material that –like this own body– will naturally decompose in time. The process of learning the exact weight or shape of the various components of his physical body has not brought the artist any closer to an understanding of his inner-workings. Applying advanced imaging for an existential enquiry, Ferguson’s to-scale memento mori highlights the innate absurdity of his search for knowledge. Darkly humorous, his work –and others in this extensive exhibition– remind the viewer that Design and Science are ultimately human endeavors– equally reflective of our brilliance and fallibility as we attempt to understand to the world we inhabit.