Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

I Am Breathing, directed by Emma Davie and Morag Mckinnon, cinemas nationwide, Friday 21st June

This documentary charts the final days of Scottish architect Neil Platt, who was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in 2008. In a caption at the beginning of the film, Platt promises ‘a tale of fun and laughs with a smattering of upset and devastation’ and he isn’t lying; as well as deeply poignant moments, there is also a fair amount of dark humour. Recently, there have been several films of a similar theme, but critics have called I am Breathing “by far the most honest and poignant”.

Exhibition

Dieter Roth: Diaries, Camden Arts Centre, 22nd June-14th July

In the year leading up to his death, artist Dieter Roth went through the meticulous and gargantuan process of recording his entire existence, using a vast range of media. One of the more dominant pieces in the exhibition is the ‘solo scenes’ - 128 video tapes replaying the everyday actions which constitute our lives. Installations, books, sculpture, drawing and assemblages are also used to create “a record of his relentless and impassioned engagement with life”.

Concert

Die Antwoord, O2 Academy Brixton, Saturday 22nd June

The talented, albeit controversial South-African hip-hop trio are bringing their electro beats and intelligent lyrics to the O2 Academy Brixton this weekend. Described by some as “futuristic rap-rave”, Die Antwoord’s music breaks the mould of generic, popular electronic music, associated with such music artists as David Guetta, and introduces the genre to a level of talent with which it is seldom associated.

TV

Andy Murray: The Man Behind the Racquet, BBC 1, 22:25, Sunday 23rd June

With Wimbledon kicking off on Monday 24th June, this documentary will provide a glimpse into the life of one of Britain’s most prominent sporting figures, promising to reveal “just what it takes to be a global sports star”. Murray suggested recently that he intentionally comes across as dull in press conferences to avoid the brutal scrutiny of media attention. Can it be then that, behind the expressionless face and monotonous voice, Andy Murray lives a wild celebrity lifestyle? Probably not, but this documentary may prove to be an interesting appetizer in the lead up to Wimbledon.

Festival

Night + Day, Hatfield House, Saturday 22nd June

The “enigmatic and artfully moody” electro-pop stars, The XX, have put together this festival on the outskirts of London. From early afternoon, their own favourite artists (Solange, Polica, Kindness, Mount Kimbie and many more) will perform across two stages, culminating in a performance from the organizers themselves. The show debuted at a 16th century defence tower in Lisbon before stopping off at an abandoned amusement park in Berlin on its way to London, leaving very impressed critics in its wake.

Die Antwoord's lead vocalist, Ninja, performs at Outside Lands music festival in 2012.
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.