February 7, 2013
Few non-scientists would be able to distinguish the E. coli
virus bacteria from the HIV virus under a microscope. Artist Luke Jerram, however, can describe in intricate detail the shapes of a slew of deadly viruses pathogens. He is intrigued by them, as a subject matter, because of their inherent irony. That is, something as virulent as SARS can actually, in its physical form, be quite delicate.
Clearly adept at scientific work—as an undergraduate, the Brit was offered a spot on a university engineering program—Jerram chose to pursue art instead. “Scientists and artists start by asking similar questions about the natural world,” he told SEED magazine in a 2009 interview. “They just end up with completely different answers.”
To create a body of work he calls “Glass Microbiology,” Jerram has enlisted the help of virologist Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol and the expertise of professional glassblowers Kim George, Brian George and Norman Veitch. Together, the cross-disciplinary team brings hazardous pathogens, such as the H1N1 virus or HIV, to light in translucent glass forms.
The artist insists that his sculptures be colorless, in contrast to the images scientists sometimes disseminate that are enhanced with bright hues. “Viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light,” says Jerram, in an email. “So the artworks are created as alternative representations of viruses to the artificially colored imagery we receive through the media.” Jerram and Davidson create sketches, which they then take to the glassblowers, to see whether the intricate structures of the diseases can be replicated in glass, at approximately one million times their original size.
These glass sculptures require extreme attention to detail. “I consult virologists at the University of Bristol about the details of each artwork,” says Jerram. “Often I’m asking a question about how a particular part of the virion looks, and they don’t know the answer. We have to piece together our understanding by comparing grainy electron microscope images with abstract chemical models and existing diagrams.”
Yet, to physically create these structures in glass, the design may have to be tweaked. Some viruses, in their true form, would simply be too delicate and wouldn’t hold up. Jerram’s representation of the H1N1 (or Swine Flu) virus, for instance, looks far spikier than it might in reality. This was done, not to add to the ferocity of the virus’ image, but to prevent the artwork from crumbling or breaking.
Jerram has to decide what to do when new research suggests different forms for the structures of viruses. “Over time, scientific understanding of the virus improves and so I have to amend my models accordingly,” explains the artist. For example, “I’m currently in dialogue with a scientist at the University of Florida about the structure of the smallpox virus. He has published papers that show a very different understanding of the internal structure. I now need to consider whether to create a new model or wait until his model has become more widely accepted by the scientific community.” Jerram’s art is often used in scientific journals as an alternative to colorful simulations, so being as up-to-date as possible is definitely in his best interest.
Jerram’s marvelous glass sculptures bring awareness to some of the worst killers of our age. “The pieces are made for people to contemplate the global impact of each disease,” he says. “I’m interested in sharing the tension that has arisen between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent.”
Jerram’s microbial sculptures are on display in “Playing with Fire: 50 Years of Contemporary Glass,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design through April 7, 2013, and “Pulse: Art and Medicine,” opening at Strathmore Fine Art in Bethesda, Maryland, on February 16. “Pulse” runs through April 13, 2013.
Editor’s Note, February 15, 2013: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly stated or implied that E. coli and malaria are viruses. They are not–E. coli is a bacteria and malaria is a malaise caused by microorganisms. Errors in the first paragraph were fixed and the title of the post was changed.
December 18, 2012
While we would all love to control the weather most days, no mere mortal has succeeded in this endeavor. Berndnaut Smilde, however, seems to have the magic touch. Hailing from Groningen, a northern city in the Netherlands (a country well acquainted with clouds and rain), Smilde uses a very precise science to create nimbus clouds indoors; he then photographs the fleeting moment that each cloud is suspended in air.
Nimbus clouds are clouds that produce precipitation, characterized as well for their low altitude and great volume. Smilde certainly manages low altitude; he conjures his faux clouds under a roof, after all. But, fortunately for his venues, no rain falls from the short-lived clouds.
Smilde’s experiments started in a small exhibition gallery called Probe in the Dutch city of Arnhem in 2010. This year, he graduated to larger spaces, including a 15th-century church and an old castle. While he has no science background, Smilde uses an artist’s fascination to create something entirely new.
“Some things you just want to question for yourself and see if they can be done,” Smilde writes in an email. “I imagined walking in a museum hall with just empty walls. There was nothing to see except for a rain cloud hanging around in the room.”
The artist, who now lives and works in Amsterdam, has always been fascinated by the impressive skies in Old Dutch seascape paintings. “My grandparents had one with really threatening-looking clouds. I remember I was intrigued by the power of it. I couldn’t really grasp what it was, but there was something big, magical and dark about to happen in that painting,” writes Smilde. “I wanted to create the idea of a typical Dutch rain cloud inside a space.”
But conceiving the idea and making it happen are two very different things. Smilde did lots of research on clouds and in doing so stumbled upon a substance called aerogel. Also known as ”frozen smoke,” aerogel is made up of 99.8 percent air, making it the lightest solid material on Earth. Intrigued by its resemblance to clouds, Smilde started experimenting with this smoke. “By trying and testing different methods with temperature controllers and moisture I got the hang of it. It’s not really a high-tech process. I make the clouds using a combination of smoke, moisture and the right backlighting,” says Smilde. “I can adapt and control the setting, but the clouds will be different every time.”
Smilde’s indoor clouds are marvelous—so much so that Time magazine declared them one of the best inventions of 2012.
Since his masterpieces only stick around for a few seconds, it is rare to be a witness. Smilde has created clouds for public audiences just three times. The artist admits that while it is nice to recreate it for a group, his main focus is on photographing the cloud. His photographs, not the clouds themselves, are what end up on exhibition. “I like the photograph better, as a document of a cloud that happened on a specific location and is now gone,” he notes.
As a result, the location of the cloud is an important aspect, as it is the setting for his creation and part of the artwork. In his favorite piece, Nimbus D’Aspremont, the architecture of the D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium, plays a significant role in the feel of the picture. “The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible,” he writes. “You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.”
Smilde has referred to his indoor clouds as a visualization of bad luck. “The ominous situation is not so much represented by the shape of the cloud, but by placing it out of its natural context,” says the artist. “In this case, it’s the unnatural situation that could be threatening.”
The artist focuses on the ephemerality of his subject. “It’s there for a brief moment and the clouds fall apart,” he says. Since clouds are something that people tend to have strong connections to, there are a lot of preconceived notions and emotions tied to them. For him though, his work presents “a transitory moment of presence in a distinct location.”
Smilde’s work will be included in “The Uncanny,” a month-long show opening January 16 at the Ronchini Gallery in London. His photographs will also be featured in an exhibition at SFAC Gallery in San Francisco, from February 15 through April 27, 2013.