Finding Left and Right Brain in Berlin

September 4, 2012—This summer, art and neurobiology major Celeste Chen (C’14) designed her own trip to explore the art and culture of Berlin.

After studying the vibrant street art of Washington, DC, Chen wanted to research urban art in a major European city. “Berlin just sounded like a really interesting city,” she said. Initially, Chen wanted to look at how the city’s social and political history affected artists. She was also aware of Berlin’s rising status as a center for contemporary art.

Chen’s travel was made possible by the Department of Art and Art History’s Misty Dailey Awards and the BMW Center for German and European Studies.

Upon arriving in Berlin, she reached out to artists, curators, and graphic designers. In the process, “The trip became about the evolution of Berlin as a city, the impact of gentrification, and how the art community is growing right now,” she explained.

Chen also visited artists’ studios where she encountered new types of art. “I had never analyzed deeply sound and light art,” she said. Through interviews with artist Robert Henke, she was able to see how he “used sound and light to form a single piece.” Intrigued by his use of intangible elements, Chen described his work as two transparencies laid together to create a greater image.

According to the artist, “The art piece is all in your head because you’re the one who’s processing the sound and the light. They each have their own independent qualities, but [the viewer is] the one making these relationships,” she explained.

“It got me thinking about what a sculpture is—in terms of its tangibility,” she continued. Through her discussions, Chen began to map out her thoughts on ephemeral media like sound and light. “I usually paint. My medium is paint, and my product is a painting. With light and sound, you’re using a cathode or [computer] code.

“The art isn’t the code; it’s your processing of it,” she said. As a neurobiology major, Chen feels that she has an innate awareness of the connection between her thoughts and hands when painting. But this was the first time she seriously considered the role of spectators and how they process her art.

In her seemingly disparate majors of neurobiology and art, Chen does find similarities. “[In science,] there’s a real elegance to how you manipulate, test, and explore. That’s how I approach art as well. I’ll choose a medium, explore it, manipulate the paint and colors. Then I create this image,” she explained.

As she continues to delve into her majors over the next two years, Chen is happy that she chose to concentrate on two distinct disciplines. “They’re both two majors that are deeply personal,” she said. “These are two things that I love, [and] I’m going to do both of them.”

This year, she hopes to create a project or installation in response to her Berlin trip. “I want to compile all of this information together regardless of if I can show it or not,” Chen said. She feels that going through the research she collected—interviews, photographs, and audio recordings—will allow her to absorb what she learned and reinvigorate her creative practice.

“I feel like I have this new perspective on art, a deeper understanding of what’s available,” she said. “Even though I may not pursue all of these avenues, they’re influencing what I’m doing.”

—Elizabeth Wilson