About the exhibition
Four Plus: Writing DNA
Writing DNA’ is an attempt to look at how the raw data
– the human aspect of discovery – becomes history.
The commissioned artists differ in their
approach and ‘take’ on their subjects. One is
a friend of James Watson. Another is the daughter of scientists
who worked alongside Francis Crick. Another is simply intrigued
by the comparable anonymity of Maurice Wilkins. The others
have either responded to the iconic status of Rosalind Franklin
(one making a Michael Moore-like journey involving coal, Chicago
and dubious diamond making), or have chosen to comment on
the social history of DNA. Such is the nature of passionate
debate that the views expressed by the artists are
their own. But all, in their own way, encourage us
to think anew about a seminal scientific discovery
and the people who made it.
Who would’ve thought science was about passion? About
polemics, precision, problems but passion? Surely not. Artists
supply passion whether through their own lives or via their
visual, literary or digital media. Scientists provide the
perfunctory – they reveal the truths inherent in nature.
Or so we thought. For sheer drama, intrigue, accusations,
conspiracy theories, not to mention a discovery that has dramatically
altered the landscape of life, we have the four principals
involved in the discovery of the structure of DNA: Francis
Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice
The discovery of the DNA double helix has
entered folklore. In Cambridge, brash American James Watson
and brilliant Englishman Francis Crick were single-minded
in their quest to understand the structure of DNA and the
clues it might provide to life’s most fundamental processes.
In London, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were carrying
out experimental studies on DNA, using X-ray diffraction techniques
to gather insight into its three-dimensional shape. In what
turned out to be the crucial episode, Wilkins showed
Franklin’s X-ray results to Watson. Immediately,
Watson realized the significance of the results, dashed back
to Cambridge and, with Crick, built the model
that revealed to human eyes the structure of the molecule
of life – the double helix.
Franklin never knew Watson had been privy to her results.
Watson and Crick were reticent, to say the least, to acknowledge
her contributions. Watson, Crick and Wilkins were
awarded the Nobel Prize; by then Franklin
was dead – ironically, of cancer probably caused by
exposure to X-rays.
Endless debate and argument about the case, ignited by Jim
Watson’s pungent and racy book ‘The Double
Helix’, continues. Should Wilkins have shared Franklin’s
results? How important were they to Watson and Crick? Did
they deliberately exclude Franklin from sharing the credit?
Science as the domain of the Einstein-haired white-coated
boffin? No, science as four driven, brilliant individuals,
three of whom won the Nobel Prize, and the fourth who died
before she could be considered for the honour, but who has
posthumously attained a Sylvia Plath-like cult status, with
a movie biopic to boot. Serendipity, creative thinking, and
the drama that’s been added by 50 years of post-discovery
mythologizing. Now that’s passion.
Curator, TwoTen Gallery and Contemporary