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An Artist Explores the Lab

A recent photography exhibit goes behind the closed doors of major laboratories to shed fascinating light on the research shaping modern life.

An awareness of the decisive influence that scientific insights and technological advances exert on our lives led San Francisco photographer Catherine Wagner to undertake an unusual project. She entered major U.S. research laboratories and photographed the world she found there, focusing on simple, auxiliary objects as well as highly sophisticated instruments. The result of these efforts is Art & Science: Investigating Matter, an exhibition that was organized by the Washington University Gallery of Art in St. Louis and will be on display at New York City’s International Center of Photography from March 28 to June 15. Wagner’s photographs offer the opportunity to encounter science in an innovative and unusual manner, as they not only cover various fields of research, such as molecular biology, physics, and earth and planetary science, but they also bridge the distance between art, science, and everyday life. While the photographs are an inquiry into the overall concept of scientific research, they live as works of art on their own, too.

Wagner’s approach to her topic becomes apparent in the choice of her subject matter, the form in which she presents her imagery, and the level of involvement she allows herself in arranging her objects. In order to avoid any interest in or identification with the individual, Wagner excludes people from her images and records only the results of human activity. Her principle of concentrating on the work of her fellow beings, as opposed to their personalities or appearances, is illustrated most forcefully in an image like Glove Box. It is clear from this photograph that someone has been doing work in the sterile interior of the box, but now the gloves thrust out at the beholder are empty. The somewhat startling frontal view of the apparatus emphasizes the absence of the person who has conducted the research.

The pristine quality and almost analytic clarity of Wagner’s photographs echo the orderliness of the lab and the precision with which data are recorded. The rows of petri dishes in Mating Reactions of Algae bring to mind the repetitiveness of investigations-the meticulously controlled trials executed over and over with ever-so-slight variations. The gleaming robot-like technology shown in Ultra High Vacuum Chamber characterizes the highly advanced equipment on which much scientific research depends. And photographs of objects that carry a scrupulous identification of their sterile or unsterilized state stress the painstakingly maintained hermeticism that is a banal but vital part of so much laboratory work.

Yet despite the artist’s clinical approach, her work also expresses a very personal viewpoint. In Sequential Molecules, for instance, the flasks have a kind of shimmering perfection that results from careful staging: the photographer uses a smooth, black backdrop and skillful lighting to present each one in its most alluring form. Some bottles are seen in profile while others are viewed head on, recalling the tradition of portraiture in which the sitter is presented in his or her most advantageous position. The actual contents of the images-the molecules fabricated by humans for use in experiments-seem to exemplify the control people have over nature, but the viewer almost overlooks them for the marvel of the flasks, whose beauty suggests the attraction that such power holds.

This combination of methodical, categorizing observation with an evocative visualization is employed to produce vastly different effects throughout the body of Wagner’s work. Two groups of photographs, -86 Degree Freezers and Fossils, exemplify that range. The grid of -86 Degree Freezers yields chilling associations, both literally and figuratively. The direct, frontal view does not allow for pleasurable contemplation, nor does the repetitiveness of the 12 white, ice-encrusted interiors combined with the precise information of what they contain-materials related to research on both the human genome and illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and AIDS. Presentation and content combine to confront us with a sense of the nature of crucial medical studies.

In direct contrast to the Freezers, the Fossils create a more mysterious atmosphere. While the freezer images are visually thrust upon the viewer, the fossils seem to float across their black background, evoking a reflective mood and putting the contemporary human endeavors depicted in other images into historical perspective. Such a black background is also used very effectively in Beating Heart-Heart Chamber, where thin tubes are coiled inside of shimmering glass bottles on the right, while an apparatus on the left keeps a small heart artificially beating in a container. The instruments stand out starkly against infinite blackness.

Wagner’s sensitivity to the forces that shape modern life has been a thread throughout much of her previous work, but it reaches a new level of intensity in this project. She allows us to contemplate the aesthetic beauty of her images and invites us at the same time to consider the enormous impact her subject matter-science-has on our lives.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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