Collective Voice: Sing a Chemical Self

Detail from Dove Bradshaw's 2004 print Song of Which (Evelina kneeling, looking left).

Think of the last portrait you’ve seen—perhaps an exquisite Rembrandt or an exuberant child’s drawing of him or herself in a favorite outfit. The truth of these portraits is in the way the artist represents the exterior of a person, a gesture, a glance, the slant of a hat. Even when looking at a nude portrait, we are seeing the artist’s depiction of external flesh, the supposed truth of skin.

Those of us interested in the chemical and biological sciences might respond to other ideas of what a portrait could be. Lab tests portray me as a person with Vitamin D deficiency. A portrait of my DNA, a genetic map, would reveal my vulnerability to certain diseases. By calling these portraits, I am stretching the idea of portraiture to include scientific data and visualizations that portray the body. Artists respond to these advances in representation and create art that challenges traditional portraiture and helps us to perceive ourselves and our bodies anew.

Portraits of a self that is more than “skin-deep” can be seen in work of contemporary artists and artists from earlier eras. Consider the 19th-century appearance of atoms in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil,
this air…

These lines suggest Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is also a vision of interconnectedness at the atomic level; the oxygen in my blood and your blood is also the oxygen of the air. In addition to the social and cultural connections Whitman weaves between the many characters in this epic list poem that includes the contralto, the marksman, the butcher-boy, spotted hawk and more, these creatures are chemical beings bound within a chemical universe.

The ubiquitous elements that are both in our bodies and our environment are the focus of Dove Bradshaw’s 2004 print Song of Which (Evelina kneeling, looking left).The model holds a veil printed with a list of elements of which we are made, descending in order of their abundance in the human body. Thus, oxygen is the largest, followed by carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc. The veil conceals both conceals and reveals who the model (Evelina) is and what a body is: the specific shape of one’s height, hips, mouth, and also the universal elements that are the basis for our chemical self.

This image was featured in the recent CHF exhibit Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, which included art about the elements and the periodic table. Bradshaw, an internationally acclaimed artist based in New York, recently offered to donate this work to CHF’s collections. We are thrilled to have a work that poetically suggests that we are physical and chemical selves, made up of the same carbon and nitrogen that is in the soil and the stars. So thank you Dove Bradshaw: this work will be a valuable addition to CHF’s collection.

Christy Schneider is Coordinator of Exhibitions at CHF.

Elemental Matters: Artists Examine Chemistry [The Museum at CHF]
Episode 114: Elements of Expression [Distillations]

Posted In: Education

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