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New artworks for the Language and Genetics Department unveiled

Two specially-commissioned artworks for the new wing of the MPI for Psycholinguistics were unveiled on 9 December 2015, with introductions from the artists themselves.
New artworks for the Language and Genetics Department unveiled

The artworks by Alexandra Dima and Peter Sansom were commissioned for the new wing of the MPI building, which was officially opened by Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands in June 2015. Alexandra's piece is located in the public space on the third floor of the new wing, outside the Language and Genetics Department's state-of-the-art molecular biology laboratory. Peter's work is displayed on the second floor, which is home to the department's bioinformatics team. At the unveiling of the new works on 9 December 2015,  the artists kindly took the the time to share the inspiration behind their work with MPI researchers.

Peter's work is a set of three canvasses in which silhouettes of birds in flight dance across the brightly-coloured, textured surfaces of sweeping curved walls, as a flat, sandy landscape meets pristine blue sky at the horizon. Peter explained how he had already been producing works with this theme prior to starting work on the MPI commission, but in a much smaller format. The large white wall where the new works would be displayed demanded scaling up the compositions to 1.2 meter-wide canvasses - a formidable challenge.

Peter read out a poem to express some of the ideas he sought to capture in his paintings - from flight, escape, uncertain destinations, and the rush of wings, to the crisp, hard edges of the walls and the apertures and illusions they create. Even though he did not set out specifically to echo aspects of scientific research at the MPI, notions like embarking on a path towards an unknown destination undoubtedly resonate with researchers. Peter also recalled how, as a British native, he often listened to BBC Radio 4 while working on this ambitious project, and was intrigued one day to hear a programme about the relationship between birdsong and language as he was painting the bird silhouettes for one of the canvasses - and then even more surprised to hear the voice of Language and Genetics Department director Simon Fisher, who had commissioned the paintings! (This programme was recently awarded a AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is available to listen to here).

Alexandra's piece is a set of four images in which soft strips of delicate colour are overlaid with slender tree trunks, painted in the style of traditional Chinese brush painting. Though she insists that she is 'not a painter' (she works as a researcher in health psychology), Alexandra earned the commission for the MPI artwork on the strength of her painting for the cover of 'An Introduction to Genetics for Language Scientists', by Language and Genetics Department researcher Dan Dediu. In creating the new piece for the MPI, she drew inspiration from several sources to produce a work that beautifully reflects the multi-faceted nature of research with the Language and Genetics Department. The choice of trees as the focus of the composition reflects the architectural goal of the new wing of the MPI building, to bring a sense of continuity between the internal spaces and the woodland in which the Institute is situated. Trees are also a fitting subject for a laboratory concerned with the cellular-level workings of the brain because of the resemblance between the branches of a tree and the projections that brain cells send out in order to form crucial contacts with one another - in fact, the technical word for these projections is dendrites, from the Greek word for 'tree'. The branching structure of a tree is also a valuable way to think about, and to visualize, the evolutionary relationship between humans and other species, or the relationship between different languages of the world.

The coloured strips in Alexandra's paintings were inspired by the heat maps researchers use to visualize data concerning levels of gene activation, but also bring to mind the read-out of a traditional method of DNA sequencing. Alexandra explained that she wanted to bring the idea of data visualization into her paintings because researchers - herself included - are always seeking effective and creative ways to convey data through graphics. She exhorted the audience of scientists that for this reason 'we are all artists here'. Finally she described how historically-significant DNA sequences were concealed within the brushstrokes of the trees, translated into the writing systems of different ancient civilizations - uniting human language with the language of the genetic code. The challenge to find and decipher all of the hidden sequences is sure to be taken up by researchers during their coffee breaks!

Alexandra Dima introduces her paintings for MPI researchers

Photography by Moritz Negwer and Sarah Graham

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