Published by the National Academy of Sciences
Introduction by JD Talasek, Director of Exhibitions
and Cultural Programs, National Academy of Sciences.
Essay by Andrew Solomon, author of The Irony Tower: Soviet
Artists in a Time of Glasnost and the bestselling novel A Stone
Boat. He is a fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University and
a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities.
lapse in vivo images collected over 24 hours of a neuron in the
brain of a tadpole. Courtesy Dr. Kurt Haas and Dr. Hollis Cline
at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
a point of reference that embodies both literal and symbolic meaning,
Mike and Doug Starn utilize the theme of light as a central component
in their work. Light, an inherent element in both vision and photography,
is a simple yet powerful vector of life, knowledge and enlightenment.
The Starns’ researches have spurred interconnected bodies
of artworks that combine seemingly classical images of trees and
leaves, branch-like angiograms, and other complex patterns that
allude to the cardiovascular system and the neuronal structure of
In these interpretations of flora, treesdependent on photosynthesis
and its carbon depositsbecome the calligraphy of the sun and
are a point of entry into the body of work called Absorption
of Light, the Starns’ territory of philosophical investigations.
A photograph is vision and thought written by light in its opposite.
Paradoxically, black is not a void of light; black is filled with
light, black is a reservoir of light: in the Starns’ conception,
Through their innovative and conceptual layering of images of natural
phenomena with those made by the most advanced scientific and medical
technology, the artists establish a unique lexicon of visual metaphors.
The Starns have drawn on a variety of techniques from the history
of photography and the current digital age to create this body of
work. By mingling the antique with the contemporary, both in subject
matter and materials, the artworks are a reflection of veins flowing
between many branches of knowledge.
“We cannot understand the forces which are effective in the
visual production of today if we do not have a look at other fields
of modern life.”
This statement, made by the German art historian Alexander Dorner
in the early part of the twentieth century, resonates in the work
of Doug and Mike Starn. Perhaps, because they are identical twins,
their existence is already a coincidence of nature decodable by
science, and their art is intuitively interdisciplinary. Art and
science merge when a gnarled black branch reaches for the light
and our thoughts stretch to follow its lead, or the initial visual
impact of a leaf magnified for inspection dissolves into delicacy:
The Starns link the evident and the ephemeral. Their process is
based on the idea that visual art exists as a laboratory for knowledge,
both physical and philosophical. Their work serves as both a record
of observation and a portal for contemplation.
Imaging to Image”
For many years, advancement in biological psychiatry involved innovations
in molecular biochemistry and biophysics. We learned which substances
potentiated which cellular events, and mapped unfathomably complex
chains of reaction. We began to understand transporter theory and
to trace episodes so quick that they seemed to defy our notions
about time. We digitized consciousness into neural components, and
specified the electrical impulses and chemical interactions involved
in every process from aggression to love to the formation of memories.
On the basis of these insights, new compounds were designed to treat
a variety of previously intractable mental and neurological illnesses.
Their novel mechanisms of action were somewhat meanly represented
by formulae and theories and abbreviations and equations. What we
understood surpassed our abilities of description.
In the past decade, that has changed. Many of the most important
developments in brain science have been in imaging. With the emergence
of MRI and other advanced technologies, we have begun to chart what
is happening deep and fast, things we couldn’t see with any
previous methods, and this visual capacity is allowing us a fluid
mastery previously inconceivable. The word “imaging”
suggests photography, but in fact what an imaging mechanism provides
is a great accrual of numbers, which computers put together to make
visual symbols of neural activity. The image is the humanization
of information too vast to absorb otherwise: if a picture is worth
a thousand words, it is worth a hundred thousand numbers. With imaging,
what was abstract becomes palpable; what we comprehend visually
is more convincing to us than numeric sequences. Suddenly, we are
looking into the brain itself while it is alive and active. Jules
Verne never proposed anything more thrilling and unlikely. We can
take someone’s consciousness, previously a philosophical problem,
and describe what it looks like; we can subtype illnesses because
we can see the difference between one and the next before we even
begin noting symptoms. Our wildest explorations of outer space have
never brought us more startling, informative, weird pictures than
these graphic translations of magnetism and mathematics.
Doug and Mike Starn have always made work that looks deep inside
their subjects and addresses the status of the image both as representation
of fact and as fact itself. Their photographs are not shorthand
for numbers, but they are just as full of information as brain scans,
vivid and explicit manifestations of the intersections between reality
and ideas. Their early distressed images reflect the transience
of photographic truth, which documents a reality already long gone
when a print is made. This material contemplates the history of
the image as well as of the subject. In more recent pictures, they
have explicitly studied light, the medium and message of all photography.
In some pieces (“Attracted to Light”), they examine
the interaction between light and desire: moths flit towards a glow,
their powdery wings refracting the brightness for the sake of which
they so often give their lives.
The Starns’ newest body of work (“Structure of Thought”)
uses trees to express the relationship between the light that makes
photographic prints and the translation of that light into life
through the process of photosynthesis. In some sense, the tree is
light made flesh, much as the brain scan is math made image. The
physical resemblance between these depictions of trees and leaves
and portrayals of the seemingly infinite branching of dendrites
is striking, but the deeper parallel lies in the fact, rather than
the appearance, of a functional complexity. The tree photos are
not x-rays; what they show is out there to be seen by anyone. Yet
they take on a diagrammatic quality and seem to elucidate the structural
architecture of plants. They remind us how natural order often looks,
at first glance, like chaos.
The essence of the trees is a system of distribution, in which the
massive trunk relies on the branches, which in turn depend on leaves;
there is a symbiosis between the singular and the multiple. This
process is akin in some ways to the process of cell division on
which life is predicated, and, equally, to the relationship between
a photographic negative and the many generations of prints that
can be made from it. As we look at the Starns’ trees, we recognize
how the strength of the core relies on the constant fine division
of the component parts. The leaf series (“Black Pulse”)
is a logical extension of the tree series: the multitudinous veins
of the leaf are yet further refinements of the capillaries represented
by the Rapunzel cascade of the branches. The series limns the innumerable
divisions by which living things survive, demonstrating how the
endless branching that we can see becomes an endless branching of
what we cannot. It is as though this were a family tree, the trunk
a great patriarch, the branches sons and daughters, the leaves all
full of cousins.
Structure of Thought 16 (preparatory
21 3/4 x 133 1/2 in., 2005. This piece is derived from an image of
many cerebal neurons expressed with yellow fluorescent protein.
Courtesy Dr. Karel Svoboda, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
These images resemble,
also, the decision trees of game theory. Every possible choice has
a variety of consequences, and every one of those has a variety
of further sequellae, and so our minds from a single simple question
develop an unfathomable variety of ideas; multiplicity is the shape
of consciousness. Every thought generates myriad potentials, and
intelligence relies on the capacity to keep all these overlapping
and sometimes contradictory implications simultaneously active.
If you can see the mass of the trunk and the veins of the leaves,
you can achieve mental and psychological sophistication: you can
contemplate outcomes and make what we call informed decisions. You
can become wise. These photographs translate wisdom into a visual
What should not go unnoticed in all these profound studies is beauty.
We love both order and complexity, and the Starns are able to achieve
a high level of both. Crowded as Brueghel, strange as Bosch, symmetrical
as Leonardo, and rich as Rembrandt, these images are endlessly satisfying.
Trees are lovely anyway, but here the artists have distilled that
loveliness. These are not only splendid forests, but also magnificent
photographs of the very structures of life.