Artistic Anatomy: The Intersection of Design and Science

Sentimental cartography – the art of mapping the complex emotions of the human psyche – has been circulating throughout cultures since its birth during the Renaissance era. (There’s a brilliantly subtle example in the children’s-book-that’s-not-quite-for-children: The Phantom Tollbooth.) Yet what happens when an artist seeks to interpret the human body – rather than the mind – by use of visual mapping? A stunning illustration of how design and science coexist – and why this relationship is shaping our future understanding of health sciences.

The human body is, indeed, a complex infrastructure – connected by veins, dictated by cells, protected by skin. It’s a system that, at first glance, appears strikingly similar to that of any bustling metropolis (even more so when juxtaposed with the human body subway map). So if we’re utilizing maps to navigate through our cities, why aren’t we expanding cartography from a geographical perspective into a scientific one? After all, Tokyo-Yokohama, the world’s largest city, has a population of 33 million, paling in comparison to the average human body’s cell count of 100 trillion. So if Tokyo boasts a map, shouldn’t the body?

It’s an idea not lost on today’s artists. Italian illustrator Caterina Gabelli has centered her thesis work around the concept. “Anatomic figures are incredible representations of the human body, since, not only they reflect the culture of the time when they were created, but also, being a tool designed for medical-scientific research, they do not need to be art pieces, just images useful to mankind,” Gabelli writes. “This peculiarity is also found in maps. The origin of maps is directly linked to man’s scientific knowledge and they reflect more explicitly the ideas and the culture of the time when they are created.”

In other words, perhaps maps share more about our culture than we realize. Between the creased folds, typographic selections and antiqued colorways, maps lead us into new territories for exploring the physical realm – but also the emotional. In one of his more famous works entitled Map of an Englishman, British artist Grayson Perry created a geographical map to describe the various emotional states of our culture, from seas of schizophrenia to mountains of dementia. (Oddly enough, the map appears to be halved vertically, as if displaying the open brain of a human). He writes, “I tended to put the darker, more subconscious things on the bottom right, because that’s where they are in the brain.”

The resulting piece reads as a modern-day “Land of Tenderness Map,” which dates back to 1654 and is cited as an inspiration of Gabelli’s work. First appearing in French writer Madleine de Scudery’s novel Cleile, this fictional cartography illustrates a landscape traced to represent the inside of the female body, noting topographic denominations of places described as emotional paths. Each spot marks a feeling – a sort of physical itinerary through the many possible emotions of mankind.

Not surprisingly, cartographers are trained to evoke emotion in their maps, whether geographical, literal or emotional. In the 5 Principles of Map Design proposed by The British Cartographer Society, designing to engage is highlighted as an essential focus: “Only by feeling what the user feels, can we see what the user sees. Good designers use . . . emotive contents. The image is the message.”

For Gabelli, the message is clear. “One day I drew a picture of an open womb, and the blood vessels resembled rivers seen from above. My teacher commented that inside the human body lies a vast geography,” she writes. “I thought it was really true and began to study visual references tied to the world of maps in order to understand if, somehow, it was possible to combine these two fields: the Macrocosm of geography and the Microcosm of the human being.”

She’s not alone. International artist Tamara Kostianovsky has been exploring the connection between geography and the human body in a more literal sense. Her 2004 piece Hair-Map features a map of the united States created from her own hair, “in an attempt to incorporate my body to a landscape that felt foreign to me,” she writes.

Gabelli also credits her work to an intense relationship with her surroundings. “The city where I was living, Venice, deeply affected my work. I became aware of how the landscape where we live affects our emotional feelings,” she writes. “The water that surrounds and passes through Venice represents our blood circulation the same way Venice’s topography belongs in a certain way to a very intimate area of the inner human body.”

A beautiful analogy, but what does it mean for today’s technological focus in the increasingly complex field of science? Perhaps a “back to the basics” resurgence is precisely what is needed to navigate – quite literally – the changing landscape of our human bodies. Just as our early explorers applied the art of cartography to discover new territories, so, too, can scientists embrace this age-old technique to connect, reveal and innovate.

Perhaps Reif Larsen explained it best in his novel of 12-year-old genius cartographer, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet: “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”

Ideas like art and science. Design and the human body. Our geographical past – and our technological future.

Image Credits: Caterina Gabelli

Just for fun: 11 volcano maps, the official stereotype map, a map-inspired dress and a website devoted to strange maps.

  • Maps and biology, two of my favourite things! Fab post full of gorgeous work and I’ve discovered loads of new things. Love the soft, ancient feeling colours in all the images :)

  • I’d never thought of the connection between emotions and maps before or how maps can connect one place to another. But now, after reading your post, my mind is making all kinds of connections. In fact a new map of synapses and neurons blinking and lighting up. I’ll be thinking about this all day. And The Selected Favorites of T.S. Spivet – love that book so much!

    • @Jackie – I feel the same way! It’s amazing how we little we think about these things until we start to connect the dots. And I can’t wait to check out that book!

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