Starkly Ornamented

Here in Qatar, Damien Hirst’s retrospective show Relics is on at Al Riwaq, which shares a campus with the Museum of Islamic Art. Today I found myself at both museums, and between them teased out a conversation about the aesthetics of scientific practice.

A considerable body of Damien Hirst’s work is concerned with the aesthetics of modern Western science – medicine in particular, it seems, but certainly there are nods to biology more widely. In doing this, he has drawn my attention to this little paradox: As much as this tradition attempts to eschew aesthetics, it just ends up creating a different kind of aesthetic – one that is minimalistic and literal. I even want to call it hyperreal, because of what gets lost in the reductionism when you take once-living creatures and present their preserved dead bodies. The bodies may be real but they are taken out of context on so many levels. (Interesting that many critiques of how science is done hinges on this very point: that what happens in a lab is not necessarily how it happens in nature. Or that a too-reductionist practice of medicine can miss important aspects of why a patient is unwell or what they truly need to heal.) Something similar goes on with medicine packaging, with its stark whites and solid blocks of colour and no-nonsense sans-serif typography.

hirst 1_sm

But most interesting to me was how this stark aesthetic extends to scientific instruments. Clean, geometric lines; clear glass; smooth, sharply shiny metal.
shiny metal surgical instruments

Meanwhile, the Museum of Islamic Art also showcases a number of scientific instruments – which stand in contrast because they are so elaborately inscribed and ornamented.

Astrolabes on display at the Museum of Islamic Art.

In my own work on the decoration of astrolabes, it has always seemed obvious to me that there was a reason for this ornamentation where it occurs. Since one can create a perfectly functional astrolabe without ornamention, I figured that there must be reasons behind the choice to decorate. But I think that even this line of thought comes out living in a world where science is associated with this stark aesthetic. Damien Hirst’s work has now got me thinking: the choice NOT to ornament may not be as neutral as it seems. It makes me wonder if, among the non-decorated astrolabes from the medieval Islamic period, at least some of them are thus because the astrolabist had chosen minimalism as a conscious aesthetic choice.