Art has always been one way to mediate tensions, tensions such as those between the logic-driven mind of scientific inquiry and the subjective experience of the non-human, what Jakob von Uexküll called an organism’s umwelt. Thomas Nagel famously argued that we can never know what it is like to be a bat, or any non-human organism, but whether through experimental-minded writings on what the world might be through a tortoise’s point of view or through watercolor paintings, the artistic hopes to bridge various umwelten more so than a declaration of scientific understanding—the difference lies within the distinction of this is how a starling sees the spectrum of light and thus the world (science) and this is how a starling might see the world (art). Might opens possibilities, a window into creative endeavor.
The paintings of Emilie Clark might be one answer to Nagel. Clark, a painter based on Brooklyn, NY, has worked on a series of projects involved in life on a microscopic scale. In a 2004 gallery showing, Pondering the Marvelous, Clark responds to the writings of Mary Ward, a 19th-century Irish natural historian and painter, specifically Ward’s A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope. In imagining Ward’s writings as personal letters to the artist, Clark produced two series of her own watercolors—the first based on Ward’s description of Ireland’s microscopic landscape, and the second on Clark’s own collection.
The paintings are not meant in their entirety to be illustrations of these organisms’ umwelten, and nor do they achieve this ideal. But these paintings play with the possibility of “what if?” And it is this play that creates an opening in our imagining of the umwelt of other species. Perhaps best said by the poet–immunologist Miroslav Holub, the act of play allows us, simply, to “avoid the aridities of rationalism.” Yet this is not Clark’s first foray into toying with the lifeworld of other microorganisms.
In a previous post, I briefly touched on the topic of cover art for scientific journals—in this case, a watercolor of a stag beetle by Albrecht Dürer for a 2005 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases. One of Emilie Clark’s projects, which one can find on her webpage, is likewise producing watercolor medical illustrations, many of which have found their way onto the covers of The Journal of Experimental Medicine. The JEM, since its beginnings in 1896, publishes original research on the physiological, pathological, and molecular mechanisms that are encountered by or reactions of the host in response to disease. In the case of a November 2005 issue of the journal, the target pathogenic organism of Clark’s illustration was Schistosoma mansoni, one of three causative agents of human schistosomiasis.
Schistosomes are blood flukes (trematodes) that belong to the genus Schistosoma. In addition to S. mansoni, the other two members of this genus that cause disease in humans are S. hematobium and S. japonicum. The disease itself, caused by human contact with water home to schistosome cercaria, is a definitive chronic condition whereby the mature schistosomes, after reaching the final stage of their life cycle, migrate to the mesenteric or rectal veins and begin to mate, thereby producing up to 300 eggs per day for the rest of their reproductive lives—which can be as long as 4–20 years. A proportion of these eggs will become lodged in the target veins, where they mature and secrete antigens that elicit an intense immune response in the host. It is this immunological reaction, which can continue as long as the mating worms and the eggs continue to exist in the body, that characterizes schistosomiasis. It was the point of the primary research communication by Philip Smith et al., the inspiration for the choice of Clark’s watercolor, to demonstrate one way in which S. mansoni modifies the human host to tolerate decades-long chronic infection without causing death. In particular, the researchers demonstrated that S. mansoni eggs secrete a protein into host tissues that binds certain chemokines—proteins that induce directed chemotaxis, how certain cells direct their movements according to particular chemicals in their environment, in nearby responsive cells—and inhibits their interaction with host chemokine receptors and their biological activity.
Now, compare Clark’s interpretation of the organisms and this phenomenon with a direct realistic representation through a microscope.
Is the ultimate goal realism or the open, replication or play, certain fact or creativity? One could argue the distinction between Clark’s watercolors and photographic microscopy is the classic assumed divide between, say, fiction and nonfiction. In terms of space to tweak, move, and alter, the former is said to be open, the latter closed. Here, in terms of direct representation (realism), Clark isn’t interested in capturing the organism as is—the translation isn’t a completely literal one, is not medical illustration in the typical sense. Instead, the artist is capturing the lifeworld, what in 1936—27 years after von Uexküll introduced the idea of umwelt—phenomenologist Edmund Husserl defined as
In whatever way we may be conscious of the world as universal horizon, as coherent universe of existing objects, we, each “I-the-man” and all of us together, belong to the world as living with one another in the world; and the world is our world, valid for our consciousness as existing precisely through this ‘living together.’ We, as living in wakeful world-consciousness, are constantly active on the basis of our passive having of the world… Obviously this is true not only for me, the individual ego; rather we, in living together, have the world pre-given in this together, belong, the world as world for all, pre-given with this ontic meaning… The we-subjectivity… [is] constantly functioning
To Husserl, the lifeworld was conceived as a universe of what is self-evident or given to a group of beings, was the everyday world that subjects may experience in communion. It is a state of affairs in which the world is lived or experienced, to be distinguished from the so-called objective world that is explored through positivism and the hard sciences. Phenomenologists make a clear divide between the way science sees this world—through the methods of the mathematical sciences of nature, as one knowable reality—and the study or exploration of subjective everyday life. According to one source, through this lens phenomenology “strives to discover the mundane phenomena of the life-world itself […] how the experience of the life-world is possible by analyzing time, space, body, and the very givenness or presentation of experience.” In contrast then to biological descriptions or photographs of schistosome eggs, Emilie Clark’s paintings seek a more everyday point of view, a more flexible imagining of how these organisms might experience time, space, body, the very flow of being within a host, secreting antigens, responding to the lining of our veins. Perhaps the S. mansoni eggs experience their umwelten through shades of rainbow flows, as being luminescent ghosts in rivers of plasma, erythrocytes, leukocytes, and thrombocytes.