The DNA artist
It looks like a swirling mass on the canvas. Red and blue brush strokes, green and turquoise stripes. At first, every hue seems to be randomly splashed across the canvas, with not a dot of the white background in sight. It looks like an ancient forest. A thicket of colour. Is it a painting of one of his latest jungle adventures? Or perhaps of a bizarre dream?
Not quite, says Anton Henssen. His inspiration comes from his career carved out in his other life, specifically the images he regularly scrutinises on computer screens: circos plots, circular diagrams of genomic data that indicate changes in the human genome. Each vibrant curve represents a chromosome that would be found in a completely different place in healthy DNA. The cells that Anton Henssen pores over at work are tumour cells. And so his diagrams are often extremely vivid.
Anton Henssen is a cancer researcher who specialises in rare tumours in children. Since late last year, he has been Head of the ‘Genomic Instability In Paediatric Cancer’ Emmy Noether Independent Junior Research Group at the Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC), which is jointly operated by the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and the Charité Campus Berlin Buch. The 33-year-old aims to find out how genetic anomalies result in cancer presenting at such a young age. He also works as a doctor at the Charité in the Department of Paediatrics, Division of Oncology and Haematology, where he treats cases of rare cancers with the aim of deepening understanding of them through his research.
But that’s not all: Anton Henssen is also a conceptual artist and painter. Last summer he put on a solo exhibition at the Alte Münze in Berlin’s historic Mitte district. He invited some of his researcher colleagues to the opening event, and many of them were amazed. People often ask Henssen: “Is your job not enough for you?” He advises others not to look at it like that. He believes it’s not a matter of picking research over art, or vice versa. You can have both if you so wish. “They complement, enrich and inspire each other.” And not just in the form of the colourful curves that end up in his artwork.
He goes to his studio in Berlin’s Mitte district to paint. A former factory building, third floor, at the end of the corridor, on the right. A solid wood table with numerous spray cans stands in the corner of the otherwise austere space. Remnants of paint from his recent works are still splashed all across the walls of the workshop. Anton Henssen looks out of the window, down at the inner courtyard. He says working here has a meditative quality. “Paintings are usually better when you don’t ruminate over them too much.” So he would let his thoughts wander while he got to work, and he would suddenly realise ways to potentially overcome problems that had tormented him for days in the laboratory. Equally, he would stare at mutations as a researcher and think: Do you know, that looks so interesting – maybe I should try to paint these shapes at some point. He says: “I work best when I don’t have to keep track of one single thing.”
He has always appreciated the synchronicity of art and science. His sister Clara tells me he was always drawing in school, even in classes that had nothing to do with art. She says his homework books were covered in sketches of paws and duck’s bills. In hindsight, his sister wonders how he even made it through school. “At least his art teachers always stuck by him.”
Anton Henssen grew up in Düsseldorf. His school was less than 50 metres from the Kunstakademie art academy – that famous institution where Joseph Beuys – the man who came up with the motto “everyone is an artist” – left his mark in the 1960s. The doors to the academy were open to all, says Anton Henssen, so he would often pop in as a school pupil, speak to professors and show them his own works. He took Advanced Biology and Art, of course. And after his higher education entrance exams came the difficult decision: “I thought if I study art at university now, I’ll never find out what interests me the most: the composition of the human body, specifically its molecular structures.” So he applied to study medicine, but also attended lectures in art history at the same time. He also stayed in contact with the Kunstakademie, went to their parties and chatted to students and professors he subsequently befriended.
He remembers a conversation in which he told a professor at the academy he was seriously considering switching to a degree in art. “Oh good God no,” was the lecturers alleged response, “just stick to medicine. Study something reputable!” He took the professor’s advice. Without ever losing sight of his other passion.
Colours and shapes are not the only elements of Anton Henssen’s research incorporated into his art. The viewer can’t actually see the unique feature of his latest oil painting with the naked eye: He has mixed his own genes into the colours. He took his own blood sample in the laboratory, placed the small tube in the centrifuge, filtered out all the elements he didn’t need, until he was left with a clear, colourless, slightly stringy liquid: his DNA. Anton Henssen then stirred this into the oil-based paints – and brushed the paint onto the canvas in layers. The special addition makes no difference visually. “You could say I’ve concealed my chromosomes in the paintings.”
He says the use of organic substances is not uncommon in the art world: Anton Henssen talks with fascination as he tells me cavemen would paint with their own blood, Austrian avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch is known for pig’s blood orgies and Andy Warhol used urine as a medium in a series of works. “And me? I use centrifuged DNA.” Anton Henssen clearly enjoys explaining the references and interconnections of his art. You get the sense that it’s all a delightful game to him. But it’s also science.
His exhibition held at the Alte Münze in Berlin in June was entitled Circular DNA. And it fits in with the main focus of his scientific work. The cancer researcher specialises in the phenomenon of circular DNA. In the 1960s, scientists discovered DNA strands in tumour cells are not always linear – there are many tiny closed loops in amongst the linear DNA in the cells. Some researchers believe they play a key role in tumour formation – they may even be responsible for the infinite growth of the cells. But this is all still just a theory. He and his colleagues intend to use new sequencing technology to unlock the secret of circular DNA. In the best-case scenario, this will enable a more accurate diagnosis and more effective treatments.
Anton Henssen also wants to take his art to the next level: He doesn’t always have to use his own chromosomes, he says. If possible, he wants to take up landscape painting soon. And create a natural paradise on the canvas by extracting the DNA of plants and mixing it into the paint used to depict them.
He tells me there clearly are differences between his two passions: In his art, he is creating something that wasn’t there before. In his research, the object of his curiosity already exists – he’s trying to find out how it works. So he has very different expectations regarding his two interests. He builds on a specific result here, whereas he waits and sees what happens there. And in which field does he feel more at home? “Neither,” says Anton Henssen. “That would also be a very bad sign.” Uncertainty is healthy, he claims. And it fuels his curiosity.
Text: Sebastian Leber from "Helmholtz Perspektiven 04/2019"
- Helmholtz Perspektiven 04/2019 (german)
- Helmholtz Forscherportraits (german)
- MDC press release When DNA becomes part of a painting