Credit: LeeAnn Gauthier
German-born artist Julian Voss-Andreae sculpts the molecules of life and the universe, rendering the invisible visible. His background in quantum physics imbues him with the necessary faculty to enlarge the machinery under the surface of organisms. His sculpture, “Unraveling Collagen” (2005), was installed on May 10th in San Francisco’s Orange Memorial Sculpture Park and will remain on view until 2008. The stainless steel structure stands 11 feet tall and examines the architecture of collagen, the human body’s most abundant protein, which gives shape to our bones, teeth, tendons and cartilage. Seed spoke with Voss-Andreae while he was still at work on the piece, which he says took an unexpected turn when he chose to veer away from collagen’s exact molecular structure and “follow his artistic intuition.”
What appeals to you about making protein sculptures?
At first, I was just fascinated by the structures themselves. As a physicist, you see only very small molecules, like H2O, and the connection between them and our big bodies isn’t that obvious. Somewhere in between the two, the whole aesthetic changes. You go from the mathematical to the organic. Proteins are right in between these two worlds: the non-living and the living.
And as a sculptor, I like to think about how three-dimensionality comes about. How is it possible that starting with one-dimensional DNA, we end up with a three-dimensional body? It was kind of a revelation to understand that proteins are the key to that. They are one-dimensional chains of amino acids that wind into space in very specific conformations.
You just completed a sculpture of collagen. Why did you choose it?
I need to like the molecule from a visual point of view. Collagen is an incredible structure—three helical strands curled into a superhelix, like a rope. And it has to have some conceptual appeal. Collagen is conceptually intriguing because it’s the most abundant protein in our bodies. It is fundamental.
What makes your sculptures more than just molecular models?
First of all, I use the technique of mitered cuts as an analogy to protein folding—an enormous abstraction from reality. Secondly, take any realist painting. Nobody would say that there isn’t a distinction between a photo and this kind of art, even though it is a very faithful mapping of reality…. I have an art feeling when I make these things, and that’s what counts the most.
“Unraveling Collagen” (2005) Credit: Julian Voss-Andreae
Your background is in quantum physics, the discipline that spawned Richard Feynman’s famous diagrams. They have an inherent beauty, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them described as art.
I don’t know whether Feynman thought they were art. I know he painted them on his van.
Yeah. He was driving through the Midwest in his van, and he had some diagrams on it. He pulled into a gas station in the middle of nowhere and the attendant said, “Those are Feynman Diagrams.”
So, do you think the creative process is similar for artists and for scientists like Feynman?
I don’t really know. I think it’s a very different type of creativity. In science, you typically develop stuff as part of a team. It is mostly about finding solutions to well-defined problems on the way to a broader understanding. As an artist, you do everything by yourself, and it’s about understanding things on a sensual level.
The physicist and historian Arthur I. Miller once said, “Artists and scientists alike seek a visual representation of worlds both visible and invisible.” Do you agree?
That sounds good, but the worlds are totally different. One world is subjective, and the other is objective. Einstein put it one way—let me just look it up—
“Where the world ceases to be the stage for personal hopes and desires, where we, as free beings, behold it in wonder, to question and to contemplate, there we enter the realm of art and science. If we trace out what we behold and experience through the language of logic, we are doing science; if we show it in forms whose interrelationships are not accessible to our conscious thought but are intuitively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art. Common to both is the devotion to something beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary.”
That’s a great quote.
I started my thesis with it.
Do you intend to do more work inspired by physics?
Definitely. I’m planning on doing some pieces inspired by how quantum physics sees matter: fundamentally, as waves. I’ve been thinking about how to use sculpture to render a probability distribution of matter.
You don’t shy away from challenging visual problems!
It’s a huge challenge to think in classical physics terms about quantum physics. I would love to develop a visual metaphor for, say, the hydrogen atom. That would be so much more real than solutions to the Schrödinger equation or those “electron cloud” drawings in textbooks.
Has anyone in the artistic community gone down this road before?
Yes. Kenneth Snelson found intriguing visual metaphors for atoms. And Antony Gormley, a sculptor in Britain, has some ideas related to this—he has a piece called “Quantum Cloud.” These two artists are exceptions, though. Many just quote science or employ metaphors for science. It’s so superficial, for the most part.
Your sculpture “Alpha Helix for Linus Pauling” was dedicated in front of Pauling’s childhood home in Portland. Why did you make the sculpture bright red?
Mostly out of instinct. I was thinking about the big tree above it and the contrast between the two. At a more psychological level, the color red reminds of a Lego block—my favorite childhood toy. Red is such an iconic color for building blocks.
The sculpture has a very public location. Do you want people to learn from it?
I do, but it’s not that I want to necessarily teach people about proteins. I want to give them a sensual approach to [science]. For me that’s important, because I learn things visually and by touching. There is something pedagogical in the approach, but it’s not like a science museum. Instead, I want to convey my awe of creation.
You really seem to have a sense of awe in nature….
All the time. Just look at a tiny piece of the machinery of life. It’s an amazing and beautiful world.
Do you think this comes across in your work?
I hope so. But I feel I’m just at the beginning.
Originally published May 10, 2006