Science of an Artist at Work

Published on 7 November 2015

Who says scientists can’t be artists?


Talking to Singapore scientists with artistic inclinations, you often hear a standard statement, going something like this: “In Secondary 3, I was choosing between the science stream and arts stream, but my parents said arts tan bo jiak (cannot earn enough to eat),” says Xiaohan, a PhD holder in Virology and former research scientist at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star). She is also an author and multi-award winning lyricist who has penned over 150 songs for the likes of Stefanie Sun, Sandy Lam and Jacky Cheung.

Tan Ngiap Heng, a PhD holder in Nonlinear Dyamics turned trained dancer and acclaimed photographer, agrees. “I pursued engineering as the practical, mandatory option I was told to have when growing up.”

While this, perhaps, paints predictable pictures of Singaporeans sacrificing years of artistic potential for practicality, the truth is not so simple. Says Isabelle Desjeux, a Singapore-based French artist/PhD holder in Molecular Biology,

“The perception here is that only if you fail everything, you go to an arts school. But growing up in France, I chose science because I didn’t think I was good enough then to get into the fine arts schools! I ended up loving both disciplines anyway. In 2010, I got my Masters in Fine Arts from LASALLE College of the Arts here, and I realised that being an artist isn’t that different from being a scientist. You can’t just create one-off pretty pictures, you have to understand your process and what you’re doing.” Desjeux’s artworks are often set up to look like lab experiments featuring lenses and plant specimens.

Adds Xiaohan, “I miss being a scientist! I only gave it up to spend more time with my daughter. Lots of people can be both scientists and artists at the same time. Many great composers are scientists and even medical doctors like Singapore’s own Sydney Tan, who is a composer and musical director responsible for many Singapore classics.”

PHOTO FINISH Tan Ngiap Heng studied Nonlinear Dynamics for a large part of his life, but has chosen photography as his career.


DOWN TO A SCIENCE Virology PhD holder Xiaohan (above) credits her scientific background with giving her an edge in writing, whether it’s song lyrics or her recently published science fiction novel, Train of No Return.


The fact is, this scientist/artist hybrid has been around for a long time. “It is very artificial to decouple the disciplines,” says Honor Harger, executive director of the ArtScience Museum. “Earlier this year, our exhibition ‘Da Vinci — Shaping the Future’ specifically highlighted that Leonardo Da Vinci was a master in both the fields of arts and science. He was artist, musician, botanist, philosopher, inventor… His entire practice was deeply interdisciplinary. That gave him his edge and legendary mastery.”

Tan has certainly used scientific knowledge in his art. “While my work is mostly instinctive, on a very basic level, there is a rule of thirds that I consider all the time when framing my images. It’s physiology — how the body reacts to look at the image. It actually has a tendency to be more attracted to what is within the one third mark of the image rather than the middle,” he explains.

Desjeux agrees. “My husband is a neuroscientist, which delves into how the brain processes things. That knowledge informs how I set up and curate an exhibition. So we have that unfair advantage,” she says.

More than that though, processes in scientific research translate to processes of art creation, and vice versa. Says Xiaohan, “For scientific research and papers, you need to sell your methods and conclusions, communicating to the scientific world that your findings are worthy of recognition, funding, publication or development. Without which, many important discoveries would not happen. Similarly, when I write stories or lyrics, I do plenty of research to make sure my facts are right, my expressions are right, to catch the right place in people’s hearts. Science trained me well to look for the right things in the most efficient way when I’m researching and extracting data from endless articles. Actually, even while doing my presentations in A*Star, my experience in writing helped me arrange my presentation in a way that was attractive and engaging.”


In fact, her scientific past has helped Xiaohan find a distinct voice. “There are many similar works, especially in the lyrics world. To stand out, you need to present yourself in a way that is uniquely yours. For example, I wrote a song for Tanya Chua called ‘Darwin’ which used the theory of evolution to talk about love,” she says. The song won the Global Chinese Pop Charts Best Lyrics and Singapore Hit Awards Best Local Lyrics. She’s also written multi-awarded songs titled ‘Amphibian’ and ‘Parabola’, as well as songs about photosynthesis. Recently, she published a science-fiction novel, Train of No Return.

Tan’s exhibitions have also employed research methodology, with ‘Fade…’ revolving around ideas of dementia, and projects like ‘Portraits as Archaeology’ exploring the inner life of a person.

PHOTO  Tan Ngiap Heng

“People have used photography in rigorous, scientific ways to document several instances of the same subject matter to reach a conclusion. Sometimes, my work reflects similar ideas, but more. For example, in ‘Fade…’, people were encouraged to take away photographs to communicate the loss of memory in dementia. Just like how in research-based science work, you can exercise creativity and artistry in exploring and proving a point.”


A prime example of using artistry to communicate complicated ideas is with the new ArtScience Museum exhibition, ‘Collider’, which recreates the experience of being inside the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest science experiment. “This exhibition is a collaboration between particle physicists and theatre designers,” enthuses Harger. “The theatrical influence is very evident because it positions you as a scientist and engineer: you are part of the story, journeying through the Large Hadron Collider as if you are a member of the team. We’ve also included an artistic installation looking at the principles within particle physics, as well as arts and crafts, all borrowing from visual arts, theatre and game design to tell a story about particle physics.”

Of course, the mixing of disciplines sometimes invites the question: is this really art, or just a science experiment? “The answer doesn’t even matter that much,” says Desjeux. “If there is one, it changes between individuals. People can approach the same thing differently. It’s a science exhibition if you learn something formal from it. But it is art if you present something that makes people ask questions or dream. That’s my intention — to make people look at the world in a different way.”

PHOTOS  ArtScience Museum

Harger believes the meeting of arts and science will lead humanity towards a better future. “When arts and science come together, you get design, technology and other creative solutions to different real challenges. Good designs solve problems, so people say it’s a science discipline, but design is also considered an artistic discipline. Then there are the fields of architecture, anthropology, sociology … do they come out of artistic or scientific discourses? That fluidity of discourse highlights how artificial it is to decouple science and arts in real life. The places where the lines blur are where the future is made.”

Xiaohan agrees with the absence of real distinction between arts and science, though on somewhat different grounds. “In the lab one day, we were dyeing antibodies with fluorescence to help us see certain aspects more clearly. I looked at how different parts of the cell bloomed out in different colours. It was so beautiful, a fantastic, priceless piece of art. At the end of the day, I think science really shows what a great artist Mother Nature is.”

‘Collider’ opens at the ArtScience Museum on 14 November. For details, visit

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