Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawings as Metaphor

Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawings as Metaphor
Susan Merril Squier

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2017
280 pp., illus. 21 b/w. Paper, $26.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6872-4.

Reviewed by
Assimina Kaniari
August 2020

In a letter to his wife Judy written while serving in the RAF during the Second World War, the photographer Nigel Henderson recounts the experience of flying an airplane at night upside down. In reverse perspective, the landscape expands, spatially and temporally and is described by Henderson as an expansive and disorienting continuum comprising the earth, the sky and reflections of city lights. It is precisely this notion of landscape which C. H. Waddington proposed as a theoretical concept in genetics in his 1940 book Organisers & Genes, taking inspiration from a drawing of a landscape by the artist John Piper that strongly resembles air photography. Like Henderson and Piper, Waddington conceived of the drawing as an object and an instrument of vision and ascribes to it a function that extends beyond that of a mere illustration: just as the image re-directs vision, it also re-directed Waddington’s thinking about developmental phenomena in the context of biology and genetics.

As Susan Merril Squier writes in the first chapter of her book Epigenetic Landscapes. Drawing as Metaphor, Piper’s landscape drawing presents a river as “the first version of the epigenetic landscape” (p. 1). Having defined epigenetics as “the study of changes in organisms caused by modifications of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself” (p. 1), the author offers in this book a critique of “the idea that we are controlled by our DNA” (p. 1) – of the notion that a fixed genetic code forms a biological basis for a conception of ‘nature’ as a fixed identity. In doing so, she draws on feminist perspectives, including the writings of Donna Haraway, and on perspectives from Science and Technology Studies, proposing that scientific imagery is socially constructed. The author’s special attention to the drawing as an instrument for the production of knowledge is commendable, as are her efforts to connect John Piper to contemporary developments in biotechnology, as well as to artists’ critiques in the form of Bio art. She proposes that a contemporary parallel of Waddington’s/Piper’s epigenetic landscape drawing is the BioArt lab, suggesting an analogy between drawing and lab-based bio art practices). Her survey mentions, most notably, Suzanne Anker’s BioArt lab in NY at the School of Visual arts, perhaps the earliest example of a BioArt lab, SymbioticA in Perth, Australia (in effect, in Martin Kemp’s words “a science-style lab for artists”), and Marta De Menezes’s Cultivamos Cultura in Alentejo, Portugal.

The book comprises seven chapters. The first one retraces Waddington’s early writing, while the second one his well-known book Behind Appearance: A study of the relations between Painting and the Natural Sciences in this Century (1970 [1969]), a “suggestive juxtaposition with visual images in twentieth-century science,” according to Martin Kemp. Chapter 3 discusses Waddington’s second version of the epigenetic landscape as a form of mediation, the image comprising a visual technology of rendering us virtual witnesses to the development of the embryo, and as a form of animation, in the sense of “serial spatial animation.” Here the author also uses the word in a philosophical and theological sense with regard to a diverse register of concepts it activated. Chapter 4 traces the legacies of this schema in the context of graphic iconographies across a variety of mass culture contexts including illustrations from magazines and comic strips. Chapter 5 focuses on the river in the landscape, looking at the “watery image” via the idea of the “fluid” as “stable” drawn from Michel Serres which leads into a discussion of hydraulic models of the epigenetic landscape in the following chapter entitled Designing Rivers in the context of ecological perspectives. The last chapter attempts to connect the legacies of Waddington’s thought to contemporary artistic practice including examples such as NY artist’s Suzanne Anker 3D printed “micro-landscapes” in the context of an interesting and informed discussion on Bio art practices, artists and contexts tied to the idea of the lab as an art studio concluding a highly insightful and informed discussion of C. H. Waddington’s notion of the Epigenetic Landscape and its legacies in contemporary thought and art practice, as well as in theory and writing.