Rossana Zaera has grey hair, fair skin and deep eyes. However, her physical features are not her most characteristic trait, but the personality of her work. As a child she wanted to become a doctor, but later on she decided to study philosophy and has ended up being a visual artist. This evolution is clearly visible in her work. In fact, her latest exhibition is inspired by the central nervous system, but it is still a cry for hope. En el jardí de la neurobiologia (In the Garden of Neurobiology), which can be visited at the University of Valencia Cerveró Palace until Friday June 5, shows a treatise on anatomy full of sensitivity and accuracy. But it also shows a stay in room 450 at the Castellon General Hospital, where the artist had to spend many hours because of her son’s neurological disease. The transfer of these personal circumstances manages to create an intimate dimension and a special complicity between the author and the viewer. But above all, it manages to transmit that science and art still go hand in hand.
You dreamed of becoming a doctor, but after graduating in philosophy, you eventually opted for the visual arts. At first glance it is a big change, isn’t it?
I think it is only the road I took. There are longer roads than others. When I had to choose between science and humanities in school, I chose science because I wanted to study medicine but I was lucky that in the school curriculum of the time science students could still study philosophy. Philosophy made me live in questions. The day I went to Valencia to register in medicine, I returned home with a registration slip for philosophy. Those first years were wonderful and very intense, and I realized that my true calling was art. In my third year studying Philosophy I started Fine Arts, but did only one year. I had to leave for health reasons. Upon graduating and returning to Castellon, I enrolled in the School of Art and Design of Castellon. In 1989 I started my own studio where I have devoted myself with passion to the visual arts for years, combining them with design projects.
«Ideally, we should all be able to see the world as a whole. Life is the same as an object of study, both for the scientist and for the poet»
How do you explain the current gap between science and humanities in our education system?
Western societies still hold a mechanistic and compartmentalised conception of the world. It still wants to explain the world by analysing its parts. However, problems cannot be studied separately. A more holistic view of the world would allow us to see that everything is connected, that the part does not explain the whole but it is through their interaction that things can be explained. As an example, it is like looking through a telephoto or wide angle lens. The landscape is the same but with the telephoto we only see a small part of it while the wide angle lens takes in everything. Ideally, we should all be able to see the world as a whole. Life is the same as an object of study, both for the scientist and for the poet.
Let us talk about your work, as the exploration of the human body is a constant in it. Why is that?
I would rather say that my constant is the exploration of the shadows of the human being: suffering, illness, loneliness, death, and among them, the body as common ground, as a mirror where our marks and signs are reflected. Very seldom have I depicted the human body as such. I have always explored its inside. However, when my son was sick I felt, for the first time, the need to paint it. His sad face, his body on the bed, his feet, his legs under the covers. Quite the opposite to the rooms and the beds I have often painted: empty, anonymous and without witnesses.
You say that as a child you were scared by Leo Testut’s Traité d´anatomie humaine. However, over the years, it became crucial for your life. What explains this change? I was generally frightened by all natural science books that spoke of the human body. How it worked, how it was formed, its amazing white and red blood cells running down my body, while I was unable to do anything about it, or its heart, which was still beating while I slept. They were things I could not understand. But one day my father fell sick and I wanted to heal him. And for that you need to know more about the body, the water, vitamins and proteins it needs, and at school I designed a diet to heal him. But when I got home he was not there already. I was not able to say goodbye. I was twelve. Being a doctor felt like a must for me. Over the years I realised that even if I were, I could not have been able to bring him back to life. And there are other healing ways. Art is also therapeutic.
«My constant is the exploration of the shadows of the human being: suffering, illness, loneliness, death, and among them, the body as common ground»
«Over the years I realised that even if I were, I could not have been able to bring my father back to life. And there are other healing ways. Art is also therapeutic»
In your last exhibition En el jardín de la neurobilogía (In the Garden of Neurobiology), the nervous system is depicted. Are you aware of the great contribution to science communication you make through your work?
Well, if it does so, I am glad. For me there are no boundaries between art and science. It is important to communicate, to connect with the other so that he/she becomes interested in what he/she is seeing, reading, listening to. Art always brings a new look, and if that look brings knowledge with it, all the better, since, as Nietzsche wrote, there is nothing sweeter. What kind of audience is it addressed to?
To everyone in general. Well, perhaps, to children who, like me, were afraid of their own bodies, and also to people who did not experience this fear and still are curious about what is not so obvious. I would like to get to the heart of doctors and students, and contribute to the humanisation of medicine.
References to Leo Testut, Ramon y Cajal, and even Rachel Carson with butterflies … How was the documentation process?
Leo Testut’s Traité d´anatomie humaine has always been home, and I have spent many hours going though its pages. One day I decided to colour all those little drawings, and do my own treatise on anatomy of the central nervous system. Testut also quotes Ramon y Cajal, whom I have always admired as a scientist. I chose his writing on the garden of neurobiology because I think that puts the viewer right in the middle of the garden of this exhibition. However, I did not know Rachel Carson. It was as Àlvar Martinez, deputy director of the Lopez Piñero Institute for the History of Medicine and Science, who told me about her. I had not yet found the final title for the small lanterns made of glass, inside which, on top of roots, dragonflies made with old hypodermic needles and maple seeds stood. «Silent Spring -Àlvar said, I would name it: Silent Spring.» And that’s when he told me the story and spoke of Rachel Carson. He named this series. Silent Spring sounded beautifully.
«For me there are no boundaries between art and science. It is important to communicate, to connect with the other so that he/she becomes interested in what he/she is seeing, reading, listening to»
«The nervous system, and science in general, are still offering beautiful images that raise questions. That is beautiful and makes us progress»
«The Garden of neurobiology gives the researcher captivating performances and incomparable artistic emotions,» wrote Ramon y Cajal. Almost one hundred years later, is this statement still true?
I think so. And more so now with new technologies, with new methods of electron microscopy. The nervous system, and science in general, are still offering beautiful images that raise questions. That is beautiful and makes us progress. I cannot even imagine what Cajal would have done if I could have used one of these new electronic microscopes…
How much art is there in research and how much research is there in art?
Well, I believe that in art there is research. Research is not only confined to science. Without research there is no art, but there is no art without reflection and experimentation either. Artists and scientists share the same moments of failure and success on their way to their ultimate goal: the production of knowledge. An art studio looks very much like a laboratory. The creative process is the same. The intuition that guides the artist is the same that guides the scientist.
Emile Zola understood art as a way of expressing nature, creation. How do you understand it?
Art is my way of being in the world. Through it I understand life, my relationship with others, with nature. I cannot explain it otherwise. Perhaps with Marina Tsvetaeva’s words: «For me, life is only meaningful when it has been transformed, that is, into art».
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