Pablo Garcia Lopez

Silk Explosion Series, Pablo Garcia Lopez, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Pablo Garcia was born in Madrid. He has a PhD in Neuroscience from Complutense University and an MFA in sculpture from MICA University. Pablo has participated in group and solo exhibitions in United States (Washington, Baltimore, New York, Minnesota), England (London), Australia (Sidney), Spain (Madrid) and Germany (Dresden), Czech Republic (Brno). Along his career he has obtained different awards, grants, and fellowships like the Jerome Foundation Fellowship (Franconia Sculpture Park), Artist in the Market Place (Bronx Museum) and Sculpture space residency. Pablo teaches at the School of Visual Arts (SVA).

You have a Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry and a PhD in Neuroscience. What was the turning point, if there was any, that made you decide to switch gears to sculpture?

It was a gradual process. It took me years, because I love science too. Art was always there but it is something you can make on your own while science nowadays requires more structure and logistics.

I spent a year studying abroad in Florence with an Erasmus grant. The city preserving the spirit of the Renaissance had a deep impact on me. So I decided to combine both disciplines. However, it was difficult.

An important turning point was during my PhD thesis, when I encountered the work of Ramon y Cajal. I spent five years with my boss and my spouse Virginia, updating Cajal’s discoveries in the context of modern neuroscience. He made a lot of discoveries that remain influential in research today: neuronal theory, dendritic spines [the branches of neurons], growth cones [the “noses” of developing brain cells]; description of many neuronal circuits, studies about the degeneration and regeneration of the nervous system, neuroplasticity and so on.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s scientific drawing

What aspect of Cajal’s theories inspired you in particular?

He was a wonderful drawer. We spent years studying his drawings and histological slides (you can still see them under the microscope). This was a very exciting experience. So, after my thesis I decided to continue in this art-science interaction. As an artist, I got a grant to come to the United States to make project about Cajal, blending art and science. I work under the supervision of Suzanne Anker, a very well known artist and theoretician about this interaction.

Cajal was also an excellent scientific writer. At the beginning, I found it difficult, because it’s an old Spanish writing style. Yet I found it very romantic, and started to admire his works. His writing was so different from today’s scientific papers. It’s interesting because you get access to his process of thinking, his emotions, his life. What touched me was his use of numerous metaphors when he explained his discoveries or even as a premise for his research. What impressed me more was that they were so much more naturalistic than the mechanical metaphors we have inherited from mechanistic biology, cybernetics and artificial intelligence.

“The cerebral cortex is similar to a garden filled with innumerable trees, the pyramidal cells, that can multiply their branches thanks to an intelligent cultivation, sending their roots deeper and producing more exquisite flowers and fruits every day.” (Cajal, 1894)

This style of scientific writing is something unimaginable today. Neuroscience as a field is infatuated with mechanical metaphors and terms I think are not valuable. We can and should think about our mind and ourselves in a more organic way.

Pablo’s works displayed at Deutsches Hygiene-Museum. Image: Art The Science

Your work used a lot of symbolic sources of Catholicism. What’s the role of religion in your life in general? Did you choose such forms for metaphysical purposes, or are they traces of your personal history?

I started working with the metaphor of Science as a religion. I think that there are many theories in science that are more like dogmas. They might be well accepted by the majority of scientists, and in pop culture, but those theories are not well demonstrated, while other complementary theories don’t receive much attention. It is not because those more popular paradigms explain the real world better, but because they benefit the status quo. Bertrand Russell wrote these prophetic words in 1924: “‘I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy.”

There are some theories that I don’t share with the mainstream scientific community. Perhaps that’s what makes me an artist. Many times theories were considered as metaphorical models, but they affect the language that we use today to refer to biological processes. Scientific mechanisms that consider living beings as machines, for example, were very important for the industrial revolution and the technological revolution.

Think about the metaphor of the brain as a computer. Even Modern ecology was fundamental in this metaphor (see Peder Anker’s work or “All watched over by machines of loving grace” by Ian Curtis). Or Darwin’s natural selection. I am not invalidating evolution; both Darwinism and Neo Darwinism are simply incomplete, and have become ideological.

Other theories or discoveries like the endo-symbiotic theories of epigenetics, hot spots, and retroviruses, are usually less discussed in evolution, and they are super important. Furthermore, although I admire Darwin’s work, it is evident to see its connection with Colonialism, Neoliberalism, Social Darwinism and Eugenics.

Pablo at his studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Going back to the artwork: I first made many sculptures that were like Victorian machines, but operated through angelic mechanisms. Step by step I also included the Virgin Mary and Christ and Madonna… and the work started to mutate into something more spiritual. At that same time I was doing some meditation. I was reading Saint Teresa and San Juan de la Cruz, wonderful mystical Spanish poets, and I had a very great time while I was working. I was not thinking of anything. I was working in silence or listening to some spiritual music (Gregorian chants, Arvo Part, Coil…). Some moments I also felt pain , anger and rage, that I think are also present in the sculptures.

My father went to a seminar and was educated as a priest. This was quite common during Franquism because the main ideology during Franquism was National Catholicism. In fact, for some moments I really thought I was creating National Catholicism art to satirize the conservative party of Spain. Art that could be admired by them but in fact a parody their beliefs.

After a first period, I realize that is not my own narrative. We also inherit historical narratives from the past that are linked to artistic images, to religion, spirituality, death, faith, love, fanaticism, sacrifice, violence, morality, hate, etc. I am an atheist, personally, although that may change if I am in a plane that is falling into the Atlantic Ocean. But yes, that is my position. I have never had faith and also I have a general negative view of religions, especially when they are involved in education.

I think this new religious piece is also a statement against excessive rationalism, in which I use the Catholic fantasy, imagination and intuition as a balance against reason, science, progress and the Enlightenment mentality that scientific progress equals moral progress. My work in this context functions as an anachronism, making baroque art in the XXI century, because I do not believe too much in “progress”, the advances of the humanity and what the future is going to bring.

This work has also helped me reconnect with my Spanish past. I grew up feeling tired of religion and rejecting all its symbology, even the art. Now I think that religious art is my favorite kind made in Spain, ever. When I come back to my country I enjoy visiting churches and cathedrals, all this amazing legacy. I really recommend visiting Spain during the Holy Week. During the Holy Week it’s like an amazing horror movie with a religious atmosphere, like The Devils or The Exorcist. It presents a wonderful atmosphere and theatrical ambience: flesh, blood, hysterical people, gorgeous music; wonderful marches played live.

39 Brains Forming a Flower, Paper (silkscreened), Pablo Garcia Lopez, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist.

You’ve chosen a special kind of material: silk, and you often keep its natural color. What triggers your enthusiasm for silk?

I think the materials and techniques are the most original part of my work. I started working with silk because of a Cajal metaphor: “The neurons are the butterflies of the soul,” he wrote. But then I just liked the material and thought it was unique and beautiful. Step by step I discovered the potential in silk. It is very interesting in digital work. I also developed methods to cast the silk so I can create small figures out of it like in The Dark White series. My experiments with silk and light are also very interesting.

At that time I was still interested in light microscopy, in which the light comes from the back of the slide. So I tried this with silk, and now I create explosions, clouds, etc.– beautiful effects. Silk dying is also useful in my “painting sculptures”: The Silk Explosions series and The Marble Vein series. If you dye the silk lightly, you get varied colors. The dyes in a cluster of fibers gradually extend to the whole. It’s very similar to what happens when you dye neurons using the Golgi staining method. I found this technique very helpful in those series.

The use of spray foam over silk in your sculptures doesn’t just change the material’s state, but also creates a touch of decay and a sense of stagnation over time. Your works have a Baroque appearance. Is there a time period in history/in the future/in hypothesis that you’re referring to, for any social political or aesthetic reasons?

Yes. I love decadent aesthetics. A viewer commented that it was like Versailles melting down. I love spray foam and find it a very fun material. I’m making a comment on luxury, ornamentation, etc. Plus, I realized I could pay homage to my country and my homesickness.

I play with spray foam in a freehanded way, to create the overabundance of details that you find in the Baroque. However when you look closely, you see only a few real ornaments while the rest is nothing more than random spray foam bubbles. It’s ironic and interesting to use a cheap material on something seemingly sacred. Spray foam is also very light, a feature of the material that makes it great for hanging. I tried to combine it with silk, as in The Dark White series, in which I think I made a great transition between both materials.

Golden PET, Silkscreen and bowties on plexiglass, Pablo Garcia Lopez, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.

What about the repeating theme of cakes. What interested you about this particular form? I wonder if it’s ritualistic. You built cakes with the sublime aura of cathedrals. And such contrast between the edible and the rotten could be traced back to symbolism paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.

This comes from various feelings and thoughts. I was trying to work with my gut and not to think about anything while I was working. Partly because of that, and partly because of the spray foam’s appearance, I got a synesthetic feeling that the sculpture was good if I wanted to eat it. I started to look at royal wedding cakes and they were awesome: the degree of detail and effort. They are also a demonstration of luxury. This also let me make a critical comment on the Spanish royal family, people for whom I have special contempt.

Was it in The Coming Age of Industrial Neuroscience, showed at the Bronx Museum Biennial, that you first used active machinery? You call it a fucking machine: where did you get that? The object and the idea, both of them.

I had used machines before, sprinklers, fountain pumps, motors. For this work I used a real fucking machine that I hacked, to make a lobotomy industrial machine. I also used a lot of steel to create a metallic industrial structure with IV medical drip and milking shells hanging from the structure. It is a piece that is part of my Dark Brain Project. I am recovering some of my science obsessions.

In the last few years I became concerned with two huge projects that are changing neuroscience research: “The Brain Initiative” in the U.S. and the “Blue Brain Project” in Europe. They are highly funded and get mostly positive press. There are also scientists very critical of some aspects of the project, but they never appear on the news. So I decided to focus on some of the dark aspects of this project.

Pablo Garcia Lopez’s work created during Sculpture Space residency. Image: Sculpture Space, courtesy of the artist.

The Dark Brain Project is a dystopian science fiction project on how science can get off the rails. I use lobotomy as a symbol to talk about Walter Freeman, an American doctor who, in his battle against madness, transformed lobotomy from a niche procedure into industrial surgery. We know the results of this race: 20,000 lobotomized people, including a sister of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who became a bit like “vegetables”. The most amazing thing about Freeman is that he kept up his crusade. He didn’t stop to see the results of his surgeries or to study his patients over the long term. He was in the sort of megalomaniacal fever that I think is very common in scientists and artists who want to become heroes. They have to continue with their research or work without stepping back to see how it is going. I think this is one of the dangers with giant projects like the Blue Brain, the Brain Initiative and the industrialization of things. The system becomes more productive and also very rigid.

The way Neuroscience has evolved from Cajal to today is normal. It happens in every science. A scientist discovers something great and other scientists and engineers try to mechanize and industrialize the research to make it more profitable. This is why I think today Neuroscience is going through an industrial and technological period. Although the Blue Brain and Brain Initiatives include responsible scientists who say that their goal is to cure neurological and mental diseases, I think it is more like a business to profit of the neuroscientific research.

Pablo Garcia Lopez’s work created during Sculpture Space residency. Image: Sculpture Space, courtesy of the artist.

The scientists have been a little opaque with the public about this, in my opinion. This is more an engineering project that will transform industry. New jobs will be created, others will be destroyed. Of course neuroscience projects like these will bring benefits to many people, but also benefits to the Health industry (Insurance, pharmaceutical companies), the tech industries and the military (DARPA funds the BRAIN initiative, too), when it has been largely funded with money coming from the citizens. Pharmaceutical companies could use virtual models created by these projects to test any molecule very quickly. Automotion and AI industries will us algorithms for research to improve robots and automotion. The Army could use this knowledge to torture the enemy or to make better drones. The “fantastic hypothesis” of the Dark Brain Project is that governments, elites, pharmaceutical companies, tech companies and the military complex have made an alliance to keep sharing power. Using the knowledge and technology from these giant projects, they keep control over the world. In the meantime they tell us that the real goal is to cure neurological and mental diseases, so we don’t suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Anxiety, Depression or premenstrual syndrome. My art imagines a future in which everything is pathological, thanks to these projects. and you have to take pills to avoid your impulses. Your data and actions are controlled through Facebook, and people keep giving money to these projects because they say they are going to end our suffering.

For this project I have also created a collection of videos that I am very excited with. I am using a stack of images from Electron microscopy (a similar technique to the one used in the Blue Brain and Connnectome projects). They are wonderful images of synapses, dendrites, axons, and mitochondria in black and white and with super details. I am making 3D videos of brain tissue and I am mixing these images with images from Goya’s black and white War Disasters. The results are very exciting. I am also working on a soundtrack, using sounds from Electrophysiology of neurons firing and a tight grinder that has such a wonderful sound (similar to an alto sax) and with some other more conventional instruments.

This project recalls some of my first art projects, called “The Molecular Music Project” that I presented in Spain with some of my friends and in which we were able to listen to the sounds of cells (the vibration of the membrane) thanks to the use of a customized atomic force microscope.

I also hope to continue with the DKB project in the future, so I am working on some prototypes of sci-fi torture machines for the next generation. I will use current neuroscientific data to create better torture machines. These have a very futuristic aesthetic. One of them applies a local laser to massively activate the mirror neurons of the tortured so he can identify himself better with the torturer, for specific cases in which there is no collaboration between both.

Pablo Garcia Lopez’s work created during Sculpture Space residency. Image: Sculpture Space, courtesy of the artist.

Does eroticism play a role in your work? There’s a strong sexual suggestion through the majority of them. It’s interesting to think that it is the same area in the human brain that responds to both sexual orgasm and religious ecstasy. I wonder what you think about that, as a scientist and as an artist.

I like your interpretation. I think they are different kinds of ecstasies but of course they share similarities, and probably similar neuronal circuits. Many historians think that Saint Teresa and San Juan were using an analogy between ecstatic divine love and the romantic love among individuals. I also find it interesting how so many people turn to spirituality when they lose their loved ones. I think it can be comparable when desire is not fulfilled, especially in cases of death and reluctant separation. Many studies as well had proved religious ecstatic experiences to be associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (in Vilayanur Ramachandran’s studies, for example). In fact, some neuroscientists believe that Saint Teresa, depicted by Bernini in his famous sculpture, suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.

Anyway I guess both religious ecstasies and orgasms are deep physical experiences of pleasure. So yes, I think that is one of the reasons you can find vaginas, penises, body parts, vaginal speculums and other surgical devices in my artwork. I can relate to ecstasies and blasphemy at the same time. I also wanted to make a comment about the flesh and the body: in a way they are forgotten by both religion and neuroscience. Both neglect the body to enhance the spirit and consider the brain and mind separately. Moreover, I use leather straps, deformed faces, morbid bodies and punk studs in contrast to eroticism, in order to create a kind of sadomasochistic experience deeply connected with religion, eroticism and life in general. I think it was George Bataille who wrote this wonderful line:

“Eroticism is the affirmation of life even in death.”

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