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'Life Evolving': A roadside lesson in genetics

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Biagio Azzarelli supervises the construction of his 'Life Evolving' on March 29. - DAN GROSSMAN
  • Dan Grossman
  • Biagio Azzarelli supervises the construction of his 'Life Evolving' on March 29.

Two stainless steel beams rise like antennae from a polished bronze sphere on a cylindrical pedestal. On the tops of these steel beams are steel rings that represent the core structure of a ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule, thought to be the catalyst for the evolution of all life on Earth. Around these rings are hollow metal spheres, representing nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus and oxygen atoms.

The sculpture described, Life Evolving - designed by the Chile-born scientist and artist Biagio Azzarelli and installed last week at the I-70/Meridian Street interchange as part of Eli Lilly and Company's day of community service - is that rarest of beasts: a roadside teachable moment that isn't a historical marker; a public art project that might just offend someone, somewhere, with its acknowledgment that evolution is a thing that exists.

"The work on the sculpture started with an article I read in The New York Times about the origin of life," Azzarelli told me Thursday while on site during the final phase of sculpture assembly.

"For many reasons scientists developed the hypothesis that life on earth formed five billion years ago, starting with RNA," he continued. "At that time there was no DNA and there were no proteins. They say that life started with RNA because it had two functions. One of the functions was to act as an enzyme. The second action was to transmit genetic information."

Not that Life Evolving sets out to mimic the structure of the RNA molecule as you might see it diagrammed in a chemistry textbook.

"The molecule is a little more complex than what you see here," Azzarelli said. "Because it contains a lot of hydrogen. It would be too complex to create [as a sculpture] so I eliminated all the hydrogens...Otherwise it would be overwhelming. So I kept the phosphorus. I kept the nitrogen, the carbon, and the oxygen."
Azzarelli's goal is to demonstrate, metaphorically, the connection between RNA and life on our planet.

"The [stainless steel] beams are placed at a 23.5 degree angle which is the inclination of the Earth," said Azzarelli. "And this inclination determines the seasons of the world; spring, summer, winter and fall. If it was not because of these inclinations, life on Earth would be completely different because you would have, depending on the angles, very harsh winters and very harsh summers."

The most eye-catching feature of this sculpture may be the bronze sphere that reflects the sky and the highway as you drive past it. This sphere, from which the steel beams rise, represents a single cell. And the beams themselves are surrounded by bronze spirals that resemble industrial augers.

The 71-year-old Azzarelli was commissioned in 2009 by Eli Lilly & Co. to design the final installation in a public sculpture series entitled "A Greener Welcome" that would reflect Indiana's cutting edge contributions to the life sciences. As part of the initiative, a section of I-70 was closed for one day in 2010 so that trees, shrubs, and perennials could be safely planted along a stretch of the highway. (The eastbound I-70 entrance from southbound Meridian Street was shut down for five days last week while Life Evolving was being assembled.)



Azzarelli, who immigrated to the United States in 1971, has dreamt of being an artist since he was a child growing up in Santiago, Chile. After a successful career in medicine - he is professor emeritus at Indiana University in pathology, neuropathology, and neurosurgery - he came to a place in his life where he could truly merge his love of science with his love of sculpture.

"The one thing that really helped me is that I was a neuropathologist and I used a microscope a lot," said Azzarelli. "For more than thirty years I could see the small details of everything and that helped me a lot with art."

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