Dangerous Viruses As Objects Of Fear And Beauty

Laurie says:

Luke Jerram has created exquisite glass sculptures of dangerous viruses.

HIV virus


Designed in consultation with virologist Dr. Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol in England, using a combination of different scientific photographs and models, the sculptures were made in collaboration with a team of specialized scientific glassblowers.

They are not literal reproductions. Aesthetic and structural modifications were made in creating the pieces.

Jerram said: “It’s great to be exploring the edges of scientific understanding and visualisation of a virus. Scientists aren’t able to answer many of the questions I ask them, such as how the RNA is exactly fitted within the Capsid? At the moment, camera technology can’t answer these questions either. I’m also pushing the boundaries of glassblowing. Some of my designs simply can’t be created in glass. Some are simply too fragile and gravity would cause them to collapse under their own weight. So there’s a very careful balancing act that needs to take place, between exploring current scientific knowledge and the limitations of glassblowing techniques.”

New York Times columnist Donald G. McNeil Jr.recently wrote a column about them, Are Killer Viruses, Rendered in Glass, Also Things of Beauty? (His article is more nuanced than these quotes.)

They are all beautifully rendered in blown glass, their shining, spiky capsids (you have to wonder how they get the Windex into those delicate crevices) encasing their destructive RNA or DNA cores, which are rendered as spiraling dots of milky glass. They are beautiful hand grenades, the illusion heightened by their precarious perches over a hard floor. Mr. Jerram defends his work by arguing that it is in the tradition of today’s young British artists contemplating death aesthetically.

But Mr. Jerram is also on an educational mission. Science journals, he complained in an interview, always color their pictures of viruses — sometimes for clarity, but sometimes just to make them look scarier. As a partly colorblind person, he feels that inserts bias.

Swine Flu virus

In the discussion of his work that I’ve seen, there is an assumption that there is a direct perception of danger when contemplating the sculptures. It’s beautiful work, but without the knowledge that they are HIV, small pox and SARS, they are simply beautiful. The fearful reaction resides in our knowledge of their danger. The power is in the information. None of it is in the art. If these were beautiful abstracts, or for that matter cold viruses, the reactions would be very different.

People do tend to be strongly reactive to color. The color does makes the images more emotional and so more potentially powerful. But again, only more powerfully frightening with knowledge. The bias he discusses is in intensity, not in specific emotion.

There are images like snakes and spiders that evoke a direct visceral reaction from many people. As would British artist Damien Hirst’s shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, from his series The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

But this art is dependent on our reactions to the viruses rather then direct apprehension of the work. The beauty and the fear are on two different axes.

SARS Corona virus
SARS Corona virus