Art

Art at a science museum: When worlds collide

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

The exhibition “Illuminating Landscapes: The Integration of Art and Science” is a collaboration between photographer Yoshihiko Ueda, designer Taku Satoh and the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. Images from Ueda’s extensive travels around the world doing commercial shoots and personal projects since the 1980s are displayed with comments from museum scientists from the point of view of their particular discipline. There are also samples and specimens on display, such as a vial of persimmon juice, a sliver of meteorite and a stuffed iguana.

The premise of the exhibition, as Satoh puts it in the very beautiful accompanying exhibition publication is to explore “art and science together, not separated, as is too common in today’s world.” Satoh sets this up by characterizing science as a quest for knowledge about the external world, while art is “entirely about our interior.”

It’s not clear whether Satoh himself really believes in this extreme opposition, but it’s not an uncommon view. An exhibition currently on at the Science Museum in London, “The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,” is also showing art and scientific exhibits together in an effort to explore the idea that art and science are intertwined. In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Science Museum curator Tilly Blyth says that to separate them is a “category error.” In the context that the art museum scene in Japan doesn’t have a good track record in challenging the outmoded idea that art is primarily about self-expression, “Illuminating Landscapes” is a refreshing, if sometimes interestingly awkward, departure from the usual spectacle.

The exhibition has an unevenness that is partly baked-in, but also, at some points, may have been unintentional. Ueda does not aim to have an easily identifiable style as a photographer, and the diversity of his work is amplified by the varying sizes and framing with which his photographs are displayed.

For example, a pictorial view of Scottish landscape in earthy subdued colors, a ringer for an oil painting by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73), is shown in an ornamented gilt picture frame. An image of Peruvian villawgers knitting has the slick high-key look of commercial photography, a photograph of Buddhist monks in Myanmar is more photojournalistic, while formal compositions depicting the Ouarzazate region in Morocco show total control of technique and are printed very large — the default style for photographic art work of the 1990s-2000s.

Photos of the trees of Yakushima in Kyushu are of a similar scale, but have large out-of-focus areas and blown-out highlights where the white surface of the paper is visible. What might usually be considered things to avoid in formal landscape photography, Ueda uses to make us more aware of the act of looking; his view of these forests is partial, furtive and vulnerable.

This heterogeneity of Ueda’s views is combined with captions that also vary greatly in diction. The photographs were given to museum staff in different departments to comment on and the resulting texts are sometimes fantastically dry, sometimes joyful expositions on subjects the writer obviously relishes studying. Many express concern over climate change and a decline in biodiversity.

Interestingly, none of them engage with the visual properties or discursive potential of Ueda’s work, so as an exercise in integrating art and science the show has some problems. The texts, being lengthy, involved and self-contained, tend to turn the photography into illustrations. The design of the book is better in this respect and serves the poetry of Ueda’s images more successfully. All this being said, apart from the content already being very engaging, the contrast between the different kinds of discourse in the exhibition provides an important glimpse into bigger issues of truth and perception.

“Illuminating Landscapes: The Integration of Art and Science” at the National Museum of Nature and Science runs until Dec. 1; ¥620. For more information, visit www.kahaku.go.jp.

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