Photo 51 - from DNA to the Brain combines science and art at Somerset House

By Sharon Mangion | 12 July 2013

Exhibition review: Photo 51 - from DNA to the Brain, Somerset House, London, until July 27 2013

A photo of a multicoloured circle
Marcus Lyon, Optogenome IV © Marcus Lyon
Today, DNA is such common currency in biomedical research that it is difficult to imagine how a two-dimensional image can have precipitated such a profound understanding of our biology.

Photo 51, the iconic image that led Crick and Watson to discover the structure of DNA, has had an enormous impact on the development of science, and the 60th anniversary of this momentous achievement is being remembered quietly, in four rooms tucked away in the basement of Somerset House’s East Wing.

A photo of a silvery dna strand against a black background
Shelley James, Histone Bobbin© Shelley James. Photo: Ester Segarra
Here, the lab environment where Raymond Gosling, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin famously worked during the post-war years of the 1950s has been reimagined by three artists, collaborating with scientists and crystallographers at Kings College, London and the Medical Research Centre.

Christine Donnier-Valentin has an interest in architectural spaces. She has caught the claustrophobic quiet of the windowless rooms they worked in, photographing everything from the chemical stains on the floor and the test tubes and original DNA samples to the Victorian water pipes in the corners of the research labs.

Documenting their tools and working environment, her photographs will be the last record of the labs before they disappear forever and are redeveloped.

Shelly James has focused on the double helix symmetry of DNA and the X-ray crystallography processes used to tease out its molecular structure, producing beautiful glass sculptures of moiré patterns and the diffraction pattern in Photo 51.

Marcus Lyon’s photographs explore new ways to communicate contemporary ideas about migration, health, urbanisation and poverty – areas in which biogenetics research plays a hugely important role today.

Philosophers like to debate whether our perceptions of nature are defined by preconceived structures and languages. Scientists appear to take this for granted: expanding scientific categories is the name of the game and our knowledge is limited only by what we can see.

Lyon explores this idea by playing with colour, symbol and form so that we become aware of how we quantify and qualify information according to visual comparisons and often very slight variances.

His 50 Benches (2013), for example, is a reminder of Warhol’s tendency to tease out the minute changes or errors in the reproduction process of iconic images.

Concentrating on what DNA can tell us about the brain, the show looks at how genetic codes are mapped to various neurobiological diseases and pathologies.

The key here is code, which is essentially a marker of a relationship between what is recorded in the DNA and what is expressed physiologically and behaviourally, as with depression and alcoholism, for example.

This code is then annotated and put into a database and becomes a piece of bioinformatics data that can be read and analysed in all sorts of clever statistical ways.

It seems appropriate to celebrate the fact that a single image has propagated so much science. Andy Warhol would be proud.

  • Open 11am-6pm. Admission free. Follow King's Cultural Institute on Twitter @KingsCulture.
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