The Wellcome Trust wants more art with its science. Is this a third way for the two cultures debate? Only if it produces masterpiecesby Emma Crichton-Miller / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
At the grim north end of London’s Gower Street rises the sleek new glass-clad headquarters of the Wellcome Trust. Britain’s largest independent research-funding charity, the Wellcome invests over £400m a year in medical research. Among other things, it enabled John Sulston, at the head of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, to make the single largest contribution to unravelling the human genome. It is a bastion of British science.
Luring you in, however, is a piece of art – an elegant, scintillating coil of glass spheres falling through a 30-metre high vertical void, and suspended on almost one million metres of fine stainless-steel wire. Visitors to the building, which opens officially in early December, usually assume it must illustrate DNA, memorialising Wellcome’s role in Crick and Watson’s discovery. In fact, Thomas Heatherwick’s astonishing sculpture does not refer to science at all. It is called Bleigiessen, the name of a new year tradition in central Europe where molten lead is poured into water, producing peculiar shapes from which you tell your fortune for the coming year. The sculpture is meant to render permanent the split second a drop of metal is let fall. The idea is all poetry, but its accomplishment was all science: the installation alone required the collaboration of architects, designers, art historians, a construction manager, a photographer and a rally driver. The finished structure is an appropriate blessing on the house of Wellcome, but it is also a potent example of the kind of cultural activity that the Wellcome Trust champions: sci-art, the marriage of science and art in the creation of pieces that owe their creation to both.
Wellcome has announced a £20m commitment to its public engagement with science, at the core of which is this crossover. But sci-art is a recent and still controversial phenomenon, seen by some as mere window dressing for an otherwise haughty and inscrutable scientific establishment, by others as a grant-grabbing exercise for artists of no distinction. The genre’s most outspoken critic is Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London, who insists that it is wrong-headed in principle to suggest any possible common purpose between professional artists and scientists.
In the last ten years, however, these acts of love-making across borders have grown in popularity. No longer displayed apologetically in a corridor of an alien institution, the art they have inspired is on show at…