Nov 21, 2011

TREND | Biology on a Microscopic Level

Luke Jerrem, Swine Flu (spherical), glass, 2009

Swine Flu, Influenza, AIDS. How do these viruses have anything to do with art? A common misconception held by many is that art and science simply do not mix. Although science and art are rarely associated with one another, several contemporary artists are blurring the lines between these two fields in an effort to incorporate scientific concepts in their work, more specifically biology on a microscopic level.

When the swine flu made its first appearance in 2009 it was met with fear and paranoia. The virus killed many within the first months of its discovery, reaching pandemic status according to the World Health Organization. Now in 2011 the virus is being presented in completely different context by artist Luke Jerram.  Although very few would consider the structure of a virus aesthetically pleasing, Jerram has taken viruses such as the swine flu, influenza, as well the AIDS virus and turned them into intricate glass sculptures with the help of virologists and glassblowers. He calls his work Glass Microbiology, microbiology referring to the study of microscopic organisms including viruses and bacteria.  Although these sculptures represent dangerous viruses they are strangely beautiful and have been met with awe when shown in galleries around the world.

Swine Flu, a blown up glass representation of the swine flu virus, shows the structural complexity of the virus. In an interview from 2009 with Wellcome Collection in London, Jerram reveals that he too was diagnosed with swine flu during the outbreak.

 “It was strange designing the sculpture with a fever whilst swallowing my Tamiflu tablets every few hours.  I remember there was a lot of confusion as to whether the virus was going to wipe out a third of the global population.  There were lots of different scientific imagery and diagrams flying around in the media. The reason I made the Swine Flu sculpture is because people care about it. What I’m doing is providing an alternative representation of the virus for the public to consider.”

Kathryn Garner, Blue Cell Painting, ink and oil pastel on paper, 2000

This conversion of biology into art has not only been limited to sculpture. Artist Kathryn Garner has also been strongly influenced by biology when making her work. Garner a molecular cell biologist has taken her interest in science and art and created several paintings with a focus on cell biology (biology at the cellular level). Her painting Blue Cell Painting depicts an abstract representation of several cells clumped together. The cells in her painting demonstrate complexity and depth, while maintaining a sense of abstraction through the deep blue color of the cells.

MichelleBanks also began exploring several biological concepts through her experimentation with watercolors. Those who have used watercolors are probably familiar with the unique shapes the medium can produce when combined with water and left to spread and bleed throughout the paper. This method better known as wet on wet became Banks forte when it came to producing her biology inspired paintings. When Banks first began experimenting with watercolors she discovered that working wet on wet created abstract shapes similar to forms that could be found under a microscope. She began to research, teaching herself about biology and began making more complex paintings that illustrated concepts found in cell biology such as the mitosis (cell division). Banks expanded her work to include the depiction of cancerous cells, brain cells, and the circulatory system while also dabbling in microbiology, painting viruses and bacteria as well. Her work became very successful in the scientific community with several of her pieces being purchased by scientists and doctors. Her painting entitled Cell Division 16 depicts an essential function of the cell, mitosis or cell division. The painting captures the complexity of mitosis while the playful colors of the painting capture its beauty as a cellular process.

Michelle Banks, Cell Division 16, watercolor, 2011
This cellular processes simulated not by a computer program but through simple watercolors show that the complexity of science doesn’t have to be limited to the scientific community, but can be explored by artists as well.

The work of Jerram, Garner, and Banks have removed some of the stereotype that art and science do not belong in the same realm together, showing that artists who take an interest in science and furthermore incorporate it into their work are not as strange as a phenomena as you may think. 

-Andrea Kraus-Lozano


  1. I really like the fusion of art and science, especially with Luke Jerrem's glass piece. Visually entertaining under a scientific/artistic tone.

    -Joshua Miller


    See the above --this exact concept on a more commercial scale. Perhaps this art is also something of a reaction against fear of virus and sickness and the frailty of the body?

    -Brianna Cervantez

  3. I think you will like this video from TED talks, Martin Hanczyc is more of a scientist than 'artist' but the videos he creates with protocells are very entertaining and mind blowing. To me, it reminded me of the importance of science in the progression in art and how limitless the mediums of art really are.

    -Tyler Robarge

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  5. This was a very intriguing topic. Nicely put, that although these deadly and dangerous viruses are yet strangley beautiful to see in there physical form. We don't think about what any viruses or diseases look like normally. It is very clear to me that art and science do belong together because natural scientific things are the beautiful work of some type of artist that should be admired.

    -Calvin Millar