What is the proper way to display a cross in the 90s?

Ellen Sandor and Stephan Meyers’s way is a sculpture composed of three horizontal and four vertical light boxes, from which colorful 3-D images emerge. The six images coming from this cruciform structure depict hands, a face, tumbling dice, and a scientific visualization of the AIDS virus. Each of these images has as its background a CAT scan of the brain of a person who died of AIDS.

Titled Messiah, the piece tells the story of hope, chance, and death. This work and others like it are a blend of sculpture, computer imaging, and a special kind of 3-D photography called phscolograms (pronounced “skol-o-grams”). They make up “Science in Depth,” on exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry through January 15.

Some of the scientific images created by Sandor and Meyers and featured in “Science in Depth” include Polio II, which shows the surface of the polio virus in high resolution, like some sort of gaily colored soccer ball; Herpes Virus, in which an image of the virus floats in front of black-and-white images of a baby; Space Shuttle, a psychedelic image of the air pressure around America’s pickup truck in space; and Mars, a view of the red planet’s surface.

Sandor’s seven-year-old phscologram laboratory at the Illinois Institute of Technology is called (Art)n. Sandor, the founder and director of the lab, has an MFA in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute; associate director Meyers (who hooked up with Sandor about 1987) has a bachelor’s in mathematics and is working on his MFA in electronic visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s the combination of Sandor’s and Meyers’s disparate specialties that makes their creations, a marriage of art and scientific imaging, so unique.

“To do art today, you have to be in touch with the times,” says Sandor. “Stephan Meyers and I are using computer technology to represent photography and sculpture in the tradition of Man Ray with the invention of our own process.”

“The distinction between art and science is an artificial one,” says Meyers. “Look at Leonardo da Vinci. He did both art and science. His art stands to this day, as does his science.”

In strictly scientific terms, phscolograms are a major breakthrough, says Paul Huffer, director of exhibits for the Museum of Science and Industry. Phscolograms are made differently than holograms, the more well-known form; phscolographic images are computer generated, while holograms are made using a technique closer to photography that imitates already existing images. “The ability to see a 2-D concept in a 3-D form is new,” says Huffer. “We could never really see the AIDS virus before. To actually see that it has 3-D quality is important.”

Sandor and Meyers give the computer information–sometimes only partial but always factual, culled from science-journal reports or from the scientists themselves–about the scene they want to create. Once this is done, the computer makes several images of this scene from slightly different viewpoints. These multiple images, usually 13 of them, are combined into a single image, color separated, and printed out on what amounts to a very high quality laser printer.

The black-and-white prints are then combined to create a color image on transparency film. This film is laminated onto the back of a Plexiglas sheet, and a “barrier screen” made of lithographic film is laminated to the front. When this sandwich is displayed in front of lights, the barrier screen blocks some of the light so that each of the viewer’s eyes sees a different image, creating the perception of three dimensions.

This technology is the basis for their creations, but Sandor and Meyers make sure their artistic impulses determine what kind of technology they come up with, not the other way around. “At (Art)n, everything starts with an aesthetic decision,” says Meyers. “We never say to ourselves, “Here’s a neat technology, what can we do with it?’ The mood is always “Here’s what we want to say, what do we need to invent to say it with?”‘

Huffer thinks people will find phscolograms fascinating because they’re made by computer programs rather than hand drawings. “But I’m not sure if they’ll make the jump from the scientific form to the art form.”

“We want people to see something they’ve never seen before,” Sandor says. “If phscolograms appear to have only pure scientific value, well, it’s sexy science.”

But the critics have no doubts about the artistic merit of the images. “Their work is straightforward, chilling, and moving,” says Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Percent for Art program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

“Phscolograms have a mysterious quality about them which relies on technology for its own presence; yet they also have a spiritual, sensual quality about them,” says Kevin Maginnis, a graphic artist and art collector.

Phscolograms also have an emotional quality, says Michael Segard, a contributing editor at New Art Examiner. “They don’t just show you what a virus is–they show you what it feels like,” he says. “Phscolograms are a language that carries vital information about the culture we live in. But they don’t just give you information; they force you to ask questions about your culture. Messiah, for example, depicts the AIDS virus as the cross the late 20th century must bear.”

The most chilling thing about phscolograms is that something deadly, like the AIDS virus, looks absolutely beautiful–almost like an ornament on a Christmas tree. The exploration of paradox is one of the strengths of the images.

Sandor and Meyers consider collaboration with other artists and scientists crucial to their work. They’ve worked with video pioneer Dan Sandin and fashion photographer Gina Uhlmann, as well as scientists from the Scripps Institute, NASA, Monsanto, and IBM.

“For nearly 200 years, artists have chosen to work in isolation to preserve the purity of their creations,” says Segard. “Finally, visual artists are beginning to realize that contemporary culture is leaving them behind. Once the leaders, artists are now often the stragglers. Technological and intellectual collaboration is the main gateway into tomorrow’s cultural mainstream.”

“Science in Depth” can be seen at the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, which is open from 9:30 to 4 Monday through Friday and 9:30 to 5:30 Saturday and Sunday. General admission and parking are free; 684-1414.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.