Luke Jerram's 'Viral Sculptures' exhibition debuts at The Smithfield Gallery

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:40

Visitors arrived at The Smithfield Gallery last week to see some of the world’s most deadly viruses and bacteria up close. Luke Jerram's Viral Sculptures sees some of the world’s most deadly diseases intricately rendered into translucent glass works.

Members of the public and press marvelled at the deadly delicacy of Jerram’s sculptures and photographs of the viruses - including Smallpox, HIV, E-Coli, H1N1 (Swine Flu) and SARS –designed to contemplate the global impact and history of disease. The works were created by Jerram to interrogate our perceptions of how viruses are depicted by science and the media. Viral Sculptures showcases an entire body of work created by Jerram over the past five years for the first time.

In consultation with leading virologist Dr Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol, Jerram has been exploring the edges of scientific understanding and visualisation, combining different scientific photographs, diagrams and models to create sculptural representations of viruses and bacteria. Jerram has also been pushing against the boundaries of glassblowing techniques to create the artworks.

The field of microbiology and, in particular, questions surrounding pseudo-colouring in microbiology - have originated Jerram's unique designs. Our belief about what viruses and bacteria look like have undoubtedly been born out of media depictions of them. Both are naturally transparent, yet when presented to the global audience from scientists and journalists alike, are often coloured, not for scientific purposes, but to induce a heightened response in the viewer. Are manipulated coloured images created to command a greater 'presence', or fear? Do the falsified colours signify a greater or lesser level of scientific authority?

In collaboration with glassblowers Kim George, Brian Jones and Norman Veitch, the artist has realized each virus and bacteria in a 'natural', colourless state. Viral Sculptures are jewel-like glass forms, with a beauty complicated by the fact that on closer inspection each betrays their true, devastating self: complex cut curvatures in an ovoid glass reveal Small Pox, while long glass pili floating off a capsule unmask E-Coli. The sculptures reveal an emotive play between the disease itself and of our expectations of its ability to cause harm.

His first sculpture in 2003 - a dramatic rendering of the HIV virus – was acquired by the Wellcome Collection and Bristol City Museum for permanent display. Another edition was auctioned for the HIV charity AVERT. Advances in scientific imaging since this time have led Jerram to produce further and ever-detailed interpretations of this same virus. Jerram's Swine Flu sculpture has just been acquired by the renowned Wellcome Trust permanent collection and will be on loan to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo for 'Medicine and Art', an exhibition including artworks from Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Leonardo da Vinci next month.

Smallpox, has dispatched more human lives than any other disease in human history and in the last century alone was responsible for up to 500 million deaths. Jerram's contemplative study of this virus, without any falsification of colour, retains a curious potency in the run up to the 30th anniversary of the global eradication of the disease in 2010. Current and recent pandemics, such as H1N1 (Swine Flu) and SARS, have reignited the zeal with which these viruses have become culturally significant. Jerram's complex glass works expose the tensions and complexities of scientific representations and how imagery is interpreted and consumed by the public.

Viral Sculptures occupy a single space until 9th October, with limited edition photographic prints of the sculptures also exhibited. Viral Sculptures is a departure from Jerram's most recent aural venture, Play Me, I'm Yours - an open-air exhibition of uniquely designed street pianos placed nationwide for the general public to play on for free as part of a project by the artist to encourage and democratise art.

Viral Sculptures runs at The Smithfield Gallery, 16 West Smithfield, London EC1A 9HY until Saturday October 9.

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