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Art and Science: Looking Up, Forward and Out

03/02/2017
I spoke at assembly last week about President Trump’s executive order to start building a wall between Mexico and the USA, and put that construction of a wall alongside my own vivid memory of events in October 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. Having spent a bit of my childhood living on an RAF base in Germany in the 1970s, when the threat of imminent invasion by the Soviet Union (as it then was known) was very real, the great dismantling of the Berlin Wall was a time of extraordinary optimism around the world, which compares starkly with the anxiety felt now, especially by young people, about an uncertain political future.
 
James Shone’s message, delivered so movingly in one of our chapel services last year, that we must ‘look up, look forwards, and look out’, is the philosophy we need to adopt in order to counter any sense of increasing introspection, isolation or exceptionalism that seems to characterise international politics. We’ve welcomed two Round Square exchange students to Milton Abbey this term, from Peru and from Germany, and our tradition and culture of being an outward facing school busily involved in the world beyond the school gate is palpable.
 
The group I took to London yesterday on a Headmaster’s Essay Society trip engaged with the vastly unlimited worlds of art and science and exemplified the ideal that, as a country boarding school in our hundred acres of Capability Brown landscape, we need often to journey out to engage directly with new and exciting concepts.

                                                           
 
Our visit to the ICA to look firstly at Helen Johnson’s exhibition, ‘Warm Ties’, was a good place to start. Johnson is from Melbourne, and her paintings subverted the orthodox relationships that Australia has with its past and its foundation as pioneer convict settlement. One particularly telling list on the back of one of the pieces detailed all the plants and animals imported, some deliberately, some unwittingly, by the British in the C19 & C20 – rabbits, knotweed, cane toads – all now classed as pests.
 
                                                           

Sonia Boyce’s multi-media installation piece ‘We move in her way’ was probably at the extreme end of challenging for our group in terms of how to engage with and decode a piece presented on screens from fractured and disparate perspectives, with prepared and spontaneous sound offering a narrative for repetitive and mechanical dancing to punctuate. This all happened in a dark room with painted walls that felt like entry into a fetish dungeon. It was pretty difficult stuff, but our group were patient and open-minded in its viewing, and we agreed that ‘thought-provoking’ would be an accurate consensus summary.
 
Our supper of ramen in either pork or chicken bone broth was equally culturally challenging for some, but it was only the Headmaster in suit and tie who had to call for a bib. The table of Japanese tourists next to us who were using Google translate to work out what was on the menu was a particularly ironic example of postcolonial linguistic dislocation that we noted.
 
And then on to hear Dr Nick Lane deliver the annual Faraday lecture, ‘Why is life the way it is’. The genetic mutation of mitochondria two and a half billion years ago was an area, as an English graduate, that had me slightly wishing a handout of keys terms (eukaryotes, negative entropy, ATP synthase) had been provided for those who find decoding text easier than decoding genes, but the lecture was extraordinarily informative, clear and well- illustrated.
 
Well, so what to all this. What we did was look up, as an audience, to look at a picture of the earth from Voyager 1, to appreciate how much we have achieved as a species, and how insignificant we are as a planet. We looked forward to the future where science continues, as Nick Lane says, through ‘competing hypotheses and arguments’, to provide further advances in understanding the microbiological world around us.   We looked out at art that encourages us to challenge some of the assumptions we readily make about nationhood and belonging.
 
The train journey back allowed the myriad impressions of the day to settle and coalesce, and planning for the next trip has already begun.