Viruses are Colourless – The Art of Microbiology

Vintage 2015 with Elderflower at Molton Brown

Luke Jerram has a notably wide-ranging practice which originated in sculpture and performance and ranges across science, the environment and perception, and with a particular interest in music. He often casts the public in the role of completing the work in projects which also explore the use of public space and the permissions involved. Those concerns are apparent in such projects as ‘Withdrawn’, 2014, which placed fishing boats in woods outside his home city of Bristol – as sculptural objects, sites for performances and harbingers of rising sea levels; ‘Sky Orchestra’ (from 2003 onwards), in which seven hot air balloons with speakers attached created a vast surround sound experience to test out scientific findings on the influence of music on sleep and the three-week public presence of 1,500 pianos in 50 cities for the ongoing ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’, in which the piano acts as a catalyst for people to talk to each other and exhibit public behaviours which vary considerably across the world. As that sample indicates, Jerram’s work is very much driven by ideas, the artist’s role being to organise the complicated process of making them a reality.

Against that background, Jerram’s Glass Microbiology project may seem to focus only on the scientific and sculptural strands of his practice. The production, exhibition and photographing of glass models derived from the microbiological structure of viruses, but blown up to some million times their true size, involves no music, doesn’t require public space, and has no obvious interactive viewer experience or performative aspect. Rather, the initial experience is of looking at delicately beautiful and apparently abstract sculptures. As the viewer is drawn in, these then turn out to combine – rather elegantly – three well- established art tactics: sinister beauty, scale shift, and the operation of uncontrollable processes to generate abstraction.

The sinister side of beauty, along with the deadly aspect of fragility, is the most prominent: we soon learn that the sculptures represent lethal viruses – Jerram’s first subject was HIV in 2004, and more recent ones include Malaria, Ebola and Swine Flu. This creates a tension between attraction and repulsion which is a major part of Jerram’s interest. Compare, for example, Pascale Marthine Tayou’s use of plastic bags to create scintillating colourscapes which speak of pollution, or Andy Warhol’s optically attractive abstractions made through urination.

Artists have often increased the scale of objects in order to make us look at them afresh. The Glass Microbiology sculptures apply that process somewhat differently in both the sheer degree of enlargement and in showing us something we could not normally see at all. Yet in a similar way they call attention to the overlooked, and change the perceptions we otherwise gain only from scientific diagrams.

Seung-Hwan Oh Impermanence_Untitled_Hyun, 2013

Many artists have also sought to distance their own subjective decisions from how the look of the work will be generated, once they have set in motion the underlying conditions for its production. The look of the Jerram’s work is driven by evolutionary contingencies of nature, and so – while the artist might adapt these to some extent, in consultation with the virologists from the University of Bristol, who sign off his technical drawings – he has, in essence, set the conditions of million-fold scale and the absence of colour, then ceded control of the particular aesthetic result. That is determined by the scientific structure of the chosen virus and the efforts of the expert glassblowers he recruits.

That colourlessness, incidentally, relates to both scientific and personal factors. First, though viruses have most often been represented in colour in order to make it easier to distinguish their various features, Jerram discovered that in fact they ‘have no colour as they are smaller than the wavelength of light. Viruses are so small they can only be seen under an electron microscope as quite undefined grainy images’. So Jerram is moving beyond both convention and observability to seek an underlying truth. Second, Jerram is himself colourblind: it’s as if this representation of intimate invasion is the one best suited to his own particular interior nature.

Glass Microbiology also fits smoothly into the latest fashion in art world philosophy: speculative realism aims, to boil a complex set of positions down to a simple statement, to regard a person as just one among many objects in a world of objects, rather than position the human with the perspective of privileged subject: we should think of ourselves within an extended network, rather than as observers somehow looking on from outside the world of objects. What better illustration of that than the striking presentation as objects of the viruses which bring home the vulnerable status of humanity among the ungovernable otherness of the world?

So, the Glass Microbiology project functions very effectively through an economical combination of non-interactive and non-performative art strategies. The interactive and performative aspects, though, do turn out to have a subsidiary presence. First, the works trigger our apprehension of a more dangerous interaction than any art proposes: of our bodies with the viruses. Jerram has received letters such as one from an HIV sufferer saying that his sculpture ‘has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I’ve ever seen. It’s a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful’. Jerram himself was diagnosed with swine flu: he was feverish and taking his Tamiflu tablets whilst designing its form. Second, photographs of the sculptures have found a practical use in another community: as a study aid and reference for virologists – an unexpected outcome of which Jerram is understandably proud.

Luke Jerram – SARS Coronavirus

Paul Carey-Kent

All images courtesy of Gallery Elena Schukina

Impermanence -The Art of Microbiology by Luke Jerrm and Seung Hwan Oh opens November 2nd and runss until January 8th at Gallery Elena Schukina.


Anthropologie (UK)