Science and art museums usually work on distinct levels. With art, visitors gaze, contemplate and feel – emotional responses. Science museums, on the contrary, are places where visitors engage in hands-on discovery and learn something specific – educational responses. Parallelepipeda in Leuven’s M Museum caters to all of it, without dumbing anything down. And that is quite an achievement.
"Finding that balance was very hard," confesses Edith Doove, the exhibition's curator. "I wanted to keep both worlds separate; artists stay artists, and scientists scientists." That is one of Parallelepipeda's virtues: it gives space to overlaps and crossovers, but doesn't pretend to reinvent disciplines.
"Artists have [more] tools for expressing themselves and showing their work, and this is an art museum, anyway," Doove remarks. So the art remains to the fore; only two out of eight rooms are dedicated to science alone. Visitors of contemporary art will be in for a fulfilling experience, while those who expect a didactic science show may be puzzled at first. There are no buttons to push and hardly a panel to read, but still plenty of scientific food for thought. At least, the curator hopes so: "If [science] students who wouldn't usually go to an art exhibition find the work of these artists interesting, then my goal is reached!"
Parallelepipeda focuses strongly on our senses and perceptions, relying on a refreshing but coherent variety of media: drawing, painting, computer-based interactives, video, sound, photography, sculpture, and even a caged animal. The use of text is minimal, but leaflets are available in Dutch and English.
Both artists and scientists use languages, codes and references that can be hard to access – to each other, let alone the broader public. This is one of the reasons behind the mouthful of a title. "People try to pronounce it and are finally happy when they get it right," explains Doove. "It's funny, and it's exactly the idea I had in mind."
The title also refers to the many parallel collaborations between scientists and artists that gave birth to dynamic, three-dimensional representations. The logo itself spells out the title in an abstract font especially created for the exhibition: a new aesthetic language to decipher.
In the past decades, several so-called "sci-art" projects have attempted to bridge disciplines – with varying success. Parallelepipeda manages not to fall into two traps: the art is not merely used to illustrate, and the science is more than a loose inspiration. Most works on display stem from genuine, in-depth exchange between artists based in Flanders and scientists from the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL). How did that happen?
The process began in 2007, explains Doove, "and up to the last minute, some new ideas emerged." This luxurious three-year gestation allowed scientists and artists to get to know and understand each other. This time was also necessary to challenge the initial disbelief, usually on the scientists' side.
Importantly, the choice of scientists is centred around biomedical sciences; all the participating researchers have a strong interest in the human body and mind. "I also contacted physicists at the beginning, but they were not so interested," Doove recalls. Those who took part might have been sceptical at first, too, "but they were ready to enter the project and see what would come out of it." Now, they all seem happy to have taken on the challenge of leaving their comfort zones.
The mutual respect between the two disciplines is apparent throughout the exhibition. Results are uneven but generally always thought provoking and often moving. After rooms one and two, which stand clearly apart, rooms three to five are less cohesive, almost a bit messy. In rooms six to eight, the science content grows stronger – incidentally, so does the art. By the end what becomes clear is that in Parallelepipeda, art doesn't imitate science: it allows the science to matter on its own.
Until 25 April
Guided tours available on request
Parallelepipeda celebrates top-notch Flemish talent from both sides of the art/science border. In order to facilitate dialogue, many artists chosen are doing practice-based PhDs at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL).
Room 1 The first room is dedicated to the work of Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, the exhibition's central artist. Van Kerckhoven is most famous for her "cyberfeminist" take on gender, sex and technology. Since the 1970s, her work has been heavily inspired by science and tech, so Parallelepipeda had plenty to choose from. Kerckhoven's most striking pieces were produced especially for the show, as a result of her dialogue with specialists of experimental psychology and nuclear medicine. “Pluriform” is a computer interactive that invites the viewer to navigate the "mind map", a series of inter-connected worlds. You’ll also find the results of an eye-tracking study, comparing the gaze of the artist on her own drawings to that of an art expert or a novice. An amusing but thoughtful insight into the way we look at art.
Room 2 Computer tests and interactives about optical illusions and the inner workings of our senses, courtesy of Géry d'Ydewalle and Johan Wagemans from the Laboratory for Experimental Psychology at KUL.
Room 3 Installation artist Ruth Loos examines the book in its many guises, questioning perspective through drawings and three-dimensional compositions.
Room 4 A scientific peep into the artist's mind, thanks to brain imaging techniques, courtesy of Koen Van Laere (nuclear medicine) and Johan Wagemans (experimental psychology).
Room 5 Wendy Morris' beautiful animation film is presented with two different soundtracks, together with footnotes.
Room 6 The gracefully subdued work of prolific artist Ronny Delrue was inspired by Koen Van Laere's research on Alzheimer's and degenerative neurological diseases. A sober but powerful account of fading and forgetting, reflecting on the fragility of memory and the instability of identity.
Room 7 This room feels like a futuristic church. Nick Ervinck's monumental print-out presents a nightmarish but stunning rendering of a larynx and its blood vessels "gone wild". The work was inspired by the artist's exchanges with surgeon Pierre Delaere, who performed a science-fictionesque larynx transplant on a patient who first carried the graft in her own forearm for several months.
Room 8 Art meets science wouldn’t be complete without the infamous chicken experiments of Koen Vanmechelen. Here’s an artist who walks the science talk: In 1998, Vanmechelen began cross-breeding chickens as part of The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, a reflection on genetic manipulation, diversity and identity. Today, Vanmechelen (pictured on page 1) is still working with biologists, and Parallelepipeda includes the results of another collaborative endeavour: a live rooster in a cage. The artist worked with stomatologist Luc Vrielinck to implant a golden spur on the animal in order to give it more "dignity".
In the background, Flemish composer Carl Van Eyndhoven's soundtrack invites the visitor to contemplate the source of his music through the view from the museum’s windows: the university carillon.
25 February Presentation of the exhibition book and debate with artist Ruth Loos and KUL philosopher Volkmar Mühleis. The illustrated Parallelepipeda Boek compiles essays, mostly in Dutch, by the participating artists and scientists about the process and concepts behind their work. A limited number of copies will be available for sale
25 March Programme on neuroaesthetics with Semir Zeki, professor of neuroaesthetics at University College of London, and psychologists Johan Wagemans and Koen Van Laere
15 April Sound & Film, with experimental psychologist Géry d'Ydewalle, visual artist Wendy Morris and composer Carl Van Eyndhoven