When Art and Science Meet: Sarah Sze and Siddhartha Mukherjee

President’s Forum talk reveals affinities

Excerpt: Sarah Sze shares her perspective on the creative process in a conversation with her husband, writer Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai. (8 min., 7 sec.)

NEW YORK, March 14, 2012 — The interrelationship between art and science took center stage here as a husband and wife who have distinguished themselves in both fields — visual artist Sarah Sze (the subject of a concurrent one-woman exhibition at Asia Society Museum) and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee — discussed their respective working methods and philosophies with Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai. As they explained, Sze creates her art much like a scientist experimenting with various materials, whereas Mukherjee writes nonfiction as if he were writing poetry.

Sze and Mukherjee work in distinctly different fields, but their working methods certain qualities. As they explained, both work from the micro- to macro- level and vice-versa. In other words, they look at detailed ideas and create precise works, which then move on to broader and "more encompassing" scenarios. For instance, Sze creates small, intricately detailed art works that foster an intimate relationship with the viewer, yet the works are then combined to become larger spatial installations that allow the work to be seen as a whole from different perspectives. Similarly, as a scientist Mukherjee studies cancer on the microcellular level, and as a doctor he interacts with the macro- complexities of the human patient.

One relationship between art and science was evoked when Mukherjee described seeing Sze's art for the first time. He felt that her work had not only cosmic and mesmerizing qualities but also emotional depth. Especially, he sensed death and grief. From a scientific perspective, scientists always begin with "What is the question?" and "Why are you asking the question?" — which lead to another series of questions such as "What is the emotional content?" and "What does this question mean to me?" Creative work and scientific work both embody emotional content, even though this might not be obvious or even consciously intended.

According to Sze, Mukherjee is an incredibly quick editor and always willing to recreate work. Sze believes that a willingness to change, and openness to accident, are crucial for visual artists to create new work. Even unexpected and inexperienced work can lead to an important discovery — one reason why Sze uses mundane objects in her works, which then begin to acquire new values as a result of her process. Mukherjee concurred that "you have to let yourself do wrong things and then you discover something important."

Sze and Mukherjee both come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Sze is Chinese American and Mukherjee is Indian-born American. Sze explained that for her multi-nationality is a "celebration of complexity," not unlike the line between two-dimensional drawings and three-dimensional sculptures: she can be Asian and American and be simultaneously on the line between the two. Mukherjee takes a transnational view of identity: "My culture is enough inside," he elaborated, in reference to another Indian physician-writer, Abraham Verghese's My Own Country.

Reported by Eri Takane

Watch the complete program
Sarah Sze: Infinite Line exhibition website