Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: I am a multimedia and multidisciplinary artist with a BSc in Physics and an MA in Psychology. I grew up in a Department of Atomic Energy township in India, which fed my aspirations to become a scientist and an artist. Though I did not become a scientist working in a lab, I experimented with mediums, ideas, and concepts in my studio as an artist.
Ever since I can remember, curiosity has been my driving force, leading me to ask questions about everything around me. This has led to my constant exploration and experimentation of ideas based on scientific and philosophical enquiry. Combining scientific facts and theories with my wild imagination has been fruitful in creating artwork that questions our known reality and seeks to learn more about the unknown.
Being the compulsive daydreamer that I am, I have always enjoyed imagining myself as light, alternating between particle and wave nature, and navigating my way through a forest of subatomic particles, interacting with some, and simply ignoring others. Sometimes I am a neutrino zooming past everything or the information flowing through the complex network of neurons. These fleeting thoughts and ideas tend to become the narrative for the work that I do. On a more serious note, I make lists of questions that crop up during these fantastical mental journeys and start researching more about them. In this search for answers, I have delved into the parameters that play an important role in the understanding of both the cosmos and neuroscience. Much of my research has focused on space, space-time, time, energy, fields, as well as neuroscience-based topics such as memories and neurons.
As I have not had formal academic education in art, I have always trialed with mediums, techniques and concepts. My family, school art teacher, and artist friends have been my support through my artistic journey.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
SC: There have been a number of people, both artists and non-artists, who have influenced my work. I grew up in India surrounded by traditional and folk-art, ranging from Kolams drawn on floors, intricate Tanjore paintings with gems and gold, to beautiful Chola bronzes. These images and styles have greatly influenced my work. Growing up in a small town, I was not exposed to Western or modern art. It was only after I graduated that I was exposed to Indian art in local galleries, and Western art through books. I was drawn to the works of artists like Paul Klee, Agnes Martin and Wassily Kandinsky, since they encouraged a sense of freedom and the unconstrained ability to explore uncharted paths, without having to follow conventions.
Scientists have also influenced my work through their descriptions of abstract concepts that helped me form a visual vocabulary to better understand such concepts. I often draw while listening to online talks and lectures by scientists like Brian Cox, Richard Feynman, Priyamvada Natarajan, Sir Roger Penrose, Lisa Randall and Leonard Susskind. Often, their descriptions or explanations would be the starting point for new drawings or paintings, sometimes even becoming the inspiration for new series.
The works of Indian philosophers like Adi Shankaracharya are filled with metaphors and analogies, influencing motifs that appear throughout my artwork. The Vedas and the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, along with various ancient texts like the Lalitha Sahasranamam, are filled with powerful descriptions and serve as a resource for my artwork. I enjoy reading the translations and focus on interpreting the multifaceted meanings they espouse to use within my work. These texts, along with the narratives, describe the ancient ideas of creation and other geological events along with detailed description on concepts like energy, space and time.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
SC: The underlying focus of my work is to understand the workings of the cosmos and life itself through art. I have an insatiable curiosity to learn about the universe at both the cosmic and the quantum levels. I have always dreamed of and imagined myself at the edge of current knowledge and pushed myself beyond that boundary. It is this search for the unknown that drives my art.
I use a very mixed vocabulary when it comes to creating my work. Sometimes the work begins with a goal-less approach involving random mark making, finding a narrative and following it. Though some of my pieces are thoroughly thought through before even beginning the piece, most of the time I have a starting point and let the piece direct me as it progresses. This helps me keep an open mind to new possibilities, and gives the opportunity to play around with the idea in my mind. As a multimedia artist, I tend to work with various media to find the one that best communicates my thoughts. I switch between pen and ink drawings, acrylic paintings, or paper sculptures to create a body of work with similar ideas. I even learn new techniques in the process if they would better describe the concept. My work is also interdisciplinary in that I connect various fields to explore a single concept, so one painting could simultaneously address scientific, philosophical, and cultural themes. Lines and shapes represent abstract concepts like energy, space, time, etc. They can also represent the transfer of pulses across networks of neurons. I incorporate geometric abstraction into both traditional and folk-art styles to create a juxtaposition of current scientific concepts with ancient ideas. Incorporating this kind of variation keeps me totally immersed in my work and challenged.
RB: You have made a number of works that draw references to Neuroscience (I’m thinking of works such as Neural Networks, Neural Pathways, Information Paradox). Can you say something about these works?
SC: My fascination for the workings of the brain started when I was studying Psychology in college. I wanted to learn more about how behavior is determined at a microscopic level, but wasn’t aware at the time that neuroscience was a field of study. When my son and daughter took up neuroscience courses in college, their studies introduced me to neuroscience. I would go through their textbooks wanting to learn more about the subject. I thought working on artwork inspired by neuroscience would help me learn more on the subject.
In the drawing, Information Paradox, I have borrowed concepts from neuroscience and cosmology to create a black hole that draws in information that is received and transmitted by neurons, thus leading to voids in processing and distortions of reality. I began this drawing with a series of neurons lined up along the edge of a circle with the dendrites facing outwards and the axon terminals towards the center. As I was working on the neurons, the idea of drawing a black hole in the center struck me. I was joking about how forgetful I was getting and that it felt like my memories were all falling into a black hole and I wasn’t able to retrieve them. The central dark circle can also represent the pupil with the neurons looking like the iris, which is an example of the multiple levels of interpretation I try to incorporate into my work.
Neural Pathways is a network of neurons with dendrites transferring information from one neuron to the other. In this drawing, I focused on the vastness of the network that is part of the nervous system. Neurons serve as the carriers of information and it is estimated that there are about a 100 billion synapses in the human brain. I wanted to visually approach this mind-boggling web that can create, store and retrieve memories.
In the Neural Networks drawing I have used geometric abstraction to represent cognitive processes. I was focusing on the process of information filtration in the brain from the stimuli that is received from the external world. The outermost layer is similar to the sensory neurons that absorb information from the outside world. Each layer of circle narrows down that data until it is filtered to the most essential information in the brain, leading to a response. This drawing started out as a play of lines and shapes with no particular goal in mind, but rather a response to each shape I was drawing. A new pattern emerged, along with a narrative, and gave it a new focus. The shapes reminded me of the Large Hadron Collider and a film I had watched about information overload during the particle collisions. They had described a number of filters that were needed to downsize the data in order to identify unique events. In the drawing, the number of circles in each layer reduces towards the center, narrowing it down to a single circle. After further research, I found that Artificial Intelligence used the term neural networks for pattern recognition, which matched the narrative for the drawing.
I am continuing to work on neuroscience-inspired artwork, and am continuing to learn more about the subject concurrently.
RB: Our human brains interpret information through pattern recognition and rearranging pattern, which is an evolving dynamic process. What importance does pattern play in your artwork?
SC: Patterns play an important role in my artwork. I always enjoyed finding patterns from a young age, and have continued to do so. I would find similarities in seemingly unrelated fields, whether it was noticing that the shape of the continents fit into each other almost perfectly, or the subtle likeness in shapes of letters of various Indian languages. I also grew up drawing Kolams, which are traditional patterns drawn on the ground by women in front of their houses every day at sunrise and sunset. These dot and line designs are drawn using rice or rock powder, and are temporal in nature. Kolams are very mathematical and follow certain rules that include closed loops, which don’t overlap more than once and should have at least one form of symmetry. There are also Kolams that are drawn by connecting dots. With this background, I began creating my own patterns and trying to come up with new complex combinations. I learned about fractal systems and tessellations through this art form. In recent paintings, I have extrapolated smaller Kolams and repeated them over and over, until I was able to understand the underlying patterns.
I also worked on patterns that seemed to exist in the letters of various Indian languages. I created a series of paintings based on these observations and was able to find a common underlying similarity, leading to further research about the origins of these letters. This research was more artistic rather than scholarly, and was incorporated into my work.
Since I’ve had a fascination for science, I started finding symmetries in nature that appear at various scales of space and time, from the smallest atoms to the largest galaxies. I also found overlapping patterns between modern science and ancient Indian literature, and decided to explore these commonalities. I explored the concepts of energy, fields, information, space, space-time and time, through both scientific theories and intuitive insights of ancient Indian philosophy. Scientific enquiry requires math as a tool to explain theories, while ancient wisdom is passed on through stories and narratives. Though different languages are used, there is an underlying similarity in the concepts. Being an artist gives me the freedom to explore these exciting possibilities.
I have found drawing repetitive patterns like spirals, circles or triangles to be very meditative. Having grown up in a quiet place, I have since found it difficult to live in crowded places – when I have had to live in such places, I was able to find the quiet in filling a whole sheet of paper with closely drawn freehand lines. It was a liberating experience and led to a new body of work with large shapes filled with fine lines. I would set myself a few rules for how to fill the area and keep repeating it to fill the entire space. A number of people have asked how these tedious line drawing don’t me drive me crazy, and my reply has always been that repetition is what keeps me sane. So, patterns are an integral part of my artistic practice.
RB: Can you say something about your works Neurocosmology?
SC: The Neurocosmology piece combines concepts from both neuroscience and cosmology, representing the fractal nature of the cosmos. There seems to be an underlying symmetry in the universe, from the formation of galaxy clusters, to the branches of a tree, to the dendrites of a neuron. In this drawing I have tried to understand these examples of interconnectedness. I have always wanted to learn more about neuroscience at the quantum level, and would visualize thought experiments of myself as an electrical impulse moving through transitory particles of the brain, at the smallest scales of space and time. The drawing is an attempt to translate those ideas on paper.
This drawing began without any preconceived idea, but rather random lines and shapes that slowly evolved. There are inkblots and holes made of pins in the paper. At the time, I was working on cosmology-based artwork that required a lot of research, planning, and precise execution. In order to compensate for the highly exact work, I usually start a drawing that has no purpose, which will eventually find a narrative, or not. As the drawing progressed, I noticed shapes resembling the galaxies and the quantum world emerge. The shapes also resembled neurons with dendrites and their networks. I wanted to bring out the transitory nature of the subatomic particles, as well as those of fleeting thoughts or memories and seemingly tangible experiences. Even as we constantly perceive the world around us through our senses, we are part of the same system and I wanted to bring out that interconnectedness in this drawing.
Another aspect of the drawing is the result of my impossible fascination to be able to perceive the universe as a whole, being able to see it both at the cosmic and quantum scales at the same time. My desire to be able to see beyond the limited range of our perception and breaking down boundaries to the smallest levels was the inspiration for this drawing.
RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?
SC: Yes, I definitely agree with this statement. I believe that collaborations between the arts and sciences can benefit from each other and lead to new possibilities. Both fields involve similar approaches. Both artists and scientists seek new frontiers, exploring and experimenting in the process, with the main difference being the tools they use. The two fields involve creative thinking, processing and executing using divergent and convergent approaches. Problem solving and decision-making are part of the process. I believe that collaborations between art and science can result in innovative thinking and ventures into new directions.
Personally, as a predominantly visual learner, the diagrams in the science textbooks were very helpful in learning new concepts. If there were no images, it was harder for me to comprehend and retain them. Doodling during lectures helped me understand concepts better and this led to creating artwork using physics concepts as my muse. Some of these doodles were sketches of possible models for concepts I was listening to, and so I started creating new work with a new vocabulary.
Also, artists can approach abstract concepts with a fresh viewpoint that might benefit scientists, as new possibilities might not be always visible to someone immersed in it. Model making or simulations involve artistic knowledge and help describe a concept visually.
New technology has expanded the tools available for artists. New media and digital options have taken art to new levels. Personally, working on artwork that is based on science has kept me in touch with the latest happenings in the scientific world and to be aware of the exciting new discoveries. Interdisciplinary collaborations have opened up new artistic horizons.
Artists can help create a bridge between the scientists and the community through art. Through collaborations with scientists, the artists can translate complex concepts into interesting art projects that is more easily accessible to the community through outreach programs. As an art teacher with students ranging in age from toddlers to adults, I bring in academic subjects into art conversations during class in order to show that both art and the sciences are not mutually exclusive and that they feed on each other. I think learning should be fun, exciting and curiosity-driven, and collaboration between the arts and science would ensure that.
RB: What future projects are you currently working on?
SC: I am currently working on a series of pen and ink drawings based on the five major sense organs. Through my neuroscience research, I have been trying to understand how these organs work at the neural level. The first one in the series is that of the cochlea and the auditory system. The drawing is a mandala-like arrangement of the various parts of the system, attempting to draw them scientifically accurate. I am doing research and planning for the other organs at the same time.
I enjoy creating sculptures and installations using simple materials and techniques that involve various aspects of cosmology, including black holes, wormholes and neutrinos. Currently, I am hole-punching paper in various ways to create lace-like patterns, which represent the formation and dissolution of matter. These pieces can be hung from a wall or ceiling to create a play of light and shadow. I have been thinking of creating a site-specific installation focused on entropy with these pieces. I am also hoping to translate some of these ideas into large-scale public art pieces.
I have a solo exhibition of cosmology-based work coming up at the FermiLab Art Gallery in Batavia, Illinois in August 2019. I am looking into residency programs and collaborative projects with scientists to delve deeper into the concepts I am working on. As an explorer of ideas, I continue to follow the unpredictable paths my curiosity takes.
All images copyright and courtesy of Shanthi Chandrasekar
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