Friday, 14 November 2014

New Model Organisms

One of my projects at the moment is having a look at some of the wild and weedy legumes growing in my neighbourhood.  Here's some Medicago sativa, a.k.a. alfalfa or lucerne. It's a very important crop especially for fodder and makes great sprouts, not so common in the wild round these parts. I found it growing by the doorway of an industrial paintshop down by the Waters of Leith.

It's also a 'model organism' - a term that denotes a species that gets unusually prodded and pointed at and stared at by scientists.

I didn't set out to draw model organisms - scientist pals often lament that everyone studies one or two species and knows loads about them and next to nothing about all the others we live alongside. Never mind, sez I, it's not as if we'll know a right lot more about any of 'em by the time I've finished with them anyway.

Here's another one, a Nicotiana benthamiana. Unrelated project, unrelated plant, this one is a gentle tobacco relative that is always getting experimented on by virologists because it has so few defenses. 

I can't tell you what we're doing with it because it's Top Secret. 
(Ok it isn't really, just a Bit Secret.  I just said that to sound important. Look! There's going to be Red Lab Coats! Artists love lab coats because it makes us feel legitimate which we don't normally get to feel. It's one of the downsides to having an independent practice and nobody enjoys it but you just have to suck it up. Or get a job. Some artists try to compensate by making grotesquely inflated claims about their achievement and value but I don't think they should bother, do you? Anyway, a coloured lab coat scores extra points, the higher the biosecurity level, the more points you get. Perhaps we should put our Labcoat Kudos Points on our CVs instead of the grossly inflated claims. )

Anyway, this I can say: there will be viruses. Here's the babies in the nursery, 

 an infection-contraption
and an infected plant
 and a poorly one.

What will I add to these discussions about these so-much discussed plants?  Is there actually anything special about a picture that has been made by human hands, with this particular, direct, continuous bodily contact? Aside from it being easier to do certain ways of ordering ideas, prioritising types of information, ordering forms I mean.  I feel that there are special powers of storytelling but I couldn't tell you what exactly.

Romance, at any rate. Not that the work of scientists isn't work of passion, of care, of love of all kinds, it is of course, often profoundly so,  though it does sometimes lose a bit in the presentation. But I think it is actually very hard to do colouring-in without making that stuff explicit, visible, and readable.  Regardless of whether you think you're being "objective" or not.  What do you think?


  1. I was deeply engrossed in your fascinating post and then there was something that expressed a worthy concern, about artists 'making grotesquely inflated claims about their achievement and value'. Yes, it certainly is something that happens a lot in the Botanical Art field....

    I am inclined to think it is very important to describe clearly what we do and why. However, we certainly dont need to additionally force the viewer to absorb any egocentric notions that are simply a mirror of our insecurity. Making claims of being the best or part of the upper eschelons, for example, gets in the way of the beauty and intelligence of the work.

    Anyone who has made a significant contribution is more inclined to want to do service through their work. Such artists have nothing to prove to anyone, they dont bother with telling us how amazing they are because they dont need to. The quality of their work speaks for itself.

  2. Thanks you for taking the time to comment, Coral, I'm grateful for your contribution!

    I'm right with you about wanting to be frank about explaining my work - though most of my artist friends aren't, and I'm not sure they should have to be beyond being accountable in an ordinary way for what they put into the public view.

    For a large part I'd like to be explicit because I don't think the quality of work always does always speak for itself, sometimes it takes a long time for people to see stuff, understand what they've seen, work out what it means to them and so evaluate it.

    I totally agree that the endless attention to social positioning gets in the way of the beauty and intelligence of the work we do. I think that is true both for the viewer and the maker and I think it is true across all art forms and possibly most of the ways we have of doing work of any sort in our society right now.

    In fairness I think that people who make art and then talk themselves up and present themselves as amazing do so because they feel that that's what the viewer wants to hear. We are all very dependent on our communities and the people who patronise and support us, whatever sort of practice we have, and try to talk in a particular way to speak to those people particularly. My impression so far is that the Botanical Art field seems to have special cultural problems with its funny post-colonial hangovers and patronage by the super-posh. I wonder if we maybe feel that we need to be extra fancy to address that section of our audience (the bit with the big money)? (Whereas we can trust that large section of our friends who kindly support our work out of love and interest not to care so much what we burble about ourselves as they are more interested in our work...?)