We are strangers from ourselves, in particular the anatomical construction that literally holds the fibers of our being in place. The space within the body is as infinite and unknowable to the untrained eye as the celestial bodies that dwell above. An understanding of the viruses that thrive within the human body are known to us only by their names, their animated characterizations in media outlets and the fear that they carry.
Since 2004, UK-based artist Luke Jerram has collaborated with leading virologists and skilled glass blowers to explore the phenomena of viruses that have impacted the world including Malaria, TB, Smallpox and HIV. The glass microbiology sculptures provide an accurate representation of the viruses that have plagued human history and continue to puzzle the modern scientific community. For Jerram the scientific examination of viruses is colorblind as the works are intentionally rendered in clear glass, not only to highlight the molecular composition of each virus, but also to expose the reality that viruses are colorless. Jerram explains the contradiction that occurs between scientists and the mainstream media by pointing out that “if you look at newspaper images of viruses they’re always been colored so they’re these dangerous pink and green things. The problem is those colors trigger people’s emotions. The public believes those colors are place there for scientific reasons rather than aesthetic ones.”
The glass microbiology sculptures operate as portals into the acquisition of scientific understanding, representations of the human body and works of art. The transparent glass sculptures modeled after viruses one million times larger than their actual size and are hypnotic in their pristine construction and meditative as they presented on a tangible scale that confirms their existence beyond the fleeting spec of a microscope. The decision to use glass simultaneously emphasizes the fragility and transparency of the medium and the virus. “They’re inherently beautiful but they can be appreciated by virologists, scientists, glass blowers as well as artists,” Jerram explains. “There’s this element of repulsion and it will draw you in and say ‘That’s a really beautiful thing,’ and then when you find out what you’re looking you’re like ‘Oh, God!’ but they’re objects made to contemplate.”
Displayed under individual glass boxes, the sculptures are sources of contemplation as they can be studied for their individual characteristics and bizarre shapes. Yet they operate as part of a larger web of viruses that represent a history of the evolution of scientific breakthroughs and missteps. At one point, Smallpox killed more people than any virus in human history. But now that the virus has been eradicated, the HIV virus is currently the one being heavily considered by the public and the scientific community. Jerram has admitted to receiving emails thanking him for putting a face to the demons living inside HIV patients. With his unwavering attention to detail and research, Luke Jerram has made the contemplation of mortality, human frailty, and uncertainty feel less ominous.
All images courtesy of the artist