No shutter stops between art and science

Ikaika M Hussey

Rujunko Pugh

A new exhibit, "Amalgam," opens tomorrow evening at Coffee Line, and reveals a linking of two worlds — art and science. Artist Rujunko Pugh, born in Japan and raised California and North Carolina, attempts to explore the unknown factors of the manipulation of genes and convey the ethics behind it through her mixed media photography. Pugh has an MS in Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Soon after coming to Hawaii in 1999, she emerged on the local art scene as a fine arts photographer; known for her black and white images of native Hawaiian plants. The Hawai'i Independent caught up with Pugh to talk about the complexities of using the biosciences in art.

Is there a particular message that you are trying to communicate through your work?

I'm still trying to develop a voice. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say, but I know I want to say something that will eventually make a positive difference in society. I'm lucky to straddle the worlds of bioscience and art and find both fascinating. I'm also really interested in politics and more specifically, the interactions that occur at the boiling point between protesters and riot police.

I don't quite know how to communicate that through my art as of yet. In the meantime, my work and aesthetic tend to be influenced by my science background. In my "Blueprint" series of cyanotype phtographs, I incorporate the plants' DNA sequences into the image. I guess the message here is that there is easy access to this DNA sequence data. The information can be very simply retrieved from a publicly available database on the internet. I think it is amazing that we can get this information for free. Also remarkable is the notion of the enormous amount of resources that scientists use to generate the sequence data that is deposited into these databases.

The general public seems to be unaware of these facts. My work does not reflect these ideas, but nonetheless, these are the things that run though my thoughts when I work with the DNA sequence databases.

Who are your influences?

Karl Blossfeldt, Imogen Cunningham, Andre Kertesz, Gustav Klimt, Loius
Bourgeouis, Brett Weston, Georgia O'Keefe just to name a few off the
top of my head.

Why Hawaiian plants?

Specifically, I started photographing plants that grow in Hawai'i. Resulting from this concept was "Botanical Hawai'i," a group of plant portraitures, and within that body of work there were of native Hawaiian plants that were photographed. I enjoyed becoming aware of the plants and learned more about the ethnobotanical aspects in the process.

What do you think is the nexus of biosciences and art?

Biosciences and art are similar in many ways, but people tend to notice the differences more so. You could say that a literal nexus is the similarity of the creativity required in both fields. In art, it is more evident, in terms of aesthetics. In science, the creativity is utilized as a tool to develop experiments.

For more of a phenomemological explanation, our sensibilities are influenced by exposure to environmental stimuli. Some artists create art as a reaction to biosciences in positive and negative ways. Some even go as far as using biosciences as a tool to create bodies of work. For instance, artist Eduardo Kac collaborated with geneticist Louis-Marie Houdbine to create the GFP Bunny, a rabbit that was genetically manipulated to express a green fluorescent protein (GFP) from a jellyfish. The result was that the rabbit glowed fluorescent green under a black light.

The biosciences are a politically-charged field. How do you hope your art will have an impact?

I guess I hope to make biosciences more approachable and palatable so that it is less intimidating. Hopefully, I can create an affable conduit between the two that may be appealing some. I think it is important if one is involved in a debate dealing with biosciences, especially if it's politically-charged, they should learn as much as they can about the topic. Trying to understand biosciences, especially on the molecular side can be quite dizzying. I'm speaking from experience.