Object of the month: ‘Swine Flu’ by Luke Jerram

13 September 2013

H1N1 (Swine Flu), by Luke Jerram

H1N1 (Swine Flu), by Luke Jerram

As part of our curious journey, Medicine Man will be shut until Spring 2014. Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual, and this month Julia Murphy looks into a piece of art that manages to combine the beautiful with the deadly. How? Read on to find out…

In Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Now Gallery, there is a quietly luminous object that, like many of the curious items collected by Henry Wellcome, poses the riddle – What is it?

The quick answer is: it’s a killer.

This intricate crystalline sculpture delicately rendered in glass is a representation of the H1N1 virus, titled Swine Flu, by artist Luke Jerram. Beautiful, transparent and ultimately fragile in form, yet fearsome and pathogenic in subject matter, Swine Flu builds a “curious tension” between what we see and what it is.

In 2009, H1N1 surprised World Health Organization scientists tasked with preparing the annual flu vaccination by emerging unexpectedly as the most common flu of the season. Its rates of infection reached pandemic proportions, sparking a global health crisis and taking the lives of approximately 17 000 people during the 2009 flu season. Compared to the previous influenza pandemic, that of the H1N1 strain known as the Spanish flu that reaped incalculable lives (between twenty and one hundred million), the death tally of swine flu appears minor. However, considering the general advancements in modern medicine since 1918 and the protection normally provided by vaccination, swine flu was alarmingly deadly.

Jerram employs sculpture, installation and live art in practical application of a research interest in exploring “the edges of perception” – the borders and boundaries of how we make sense of the world empirically, through taste, touch, smell, sound and sight. Imaginative and inspired, Jerram’s art orchestrates unusual ways for viewers to encounter objects to magnify our experience of perception. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon a piano at King’s Cross painted vibrantly with an invitation, Play Me, I’m Yours, or looked up early in the morning during the London Olympics to see a flotilla of hot air balloons broadcasting a musical score in Sky Orchestra. By casting objects and sometimes himself in unusual circumstances and contexts, Jerram explores the mechanism of his own senses and invites his audience to do the same.

Swine flu is one of a series of viruses Jerram studied with the guidance of virologists from the University of Bristol. By looking at the pathogens under an electron microscope and examining scientific diagrams, Jerram produced designs as accurate as possible for glassblowers Brian Jones and Norman Veitch to make in sculptural form. This project, called Glass Microbiology, has been ongoing since 2004. Apart from swine flu, they have rendered HIV, E. coli, malaria and smallpox in gleaming glass, enlarged to approximately one million times their actual size. Glass Microbiology challenges perceptions – these are aesthetically pleasing objects that represent global health crises. They also push the boundaries of glassblowing with their intricate elements and delicate components. Swine Flu shows a tangle of genetic material that appears suspended at the centre of a brilliant glimmering glass oval with protein projections jutting from its outer surface, no easy feat to execute.

Art has long been an indispensable aid to medicine and science: skilful illustrations of anatomy were meticulously recorded on papyrus in Hellenic Alexandria as early as the fourth century BCE. Presently, with advanced imaging technology and powerful microscopy, medical artists have had to cast aside the golden rule of drawing – draw only what you see – and bravely find ways to illustrate the theoretical, things that can’t be easily seen and studied. Although he is not a medical artist in the strictest sense, Jerram’s sculptures have even been featured in medical textbooks, in journals and in the media as useful teaching tools. In 2007, he received the Institute for Medical Imaging Award for Glass Microbiology.

Jerram’s choice to show viruses as transparent in sculpture is a departure from the typical depictions of viruses and diseases in textbooks and the media. Pathogens such as H1N1 often make use of colour to delineate the components of the microorganisms; for instance, the DNA may be green, the cell wall purple, its proteins orange. Colours are artificially applied to magnified images or artists’ graphic depictions of a virus in print. In fact, viruses are colourless; they are too miniscule to reflect a wavelength of light, necessary to give colour to a surface. In this regard, Glass Microbiology surpasses the accuracy of typical medical media depictions of viruses.

Does Jerram’s transparent glass virus in a gallery appear safer or cleaner than one rendered in artificially assigned colour? How is our understanding of phenomena like global pandemics shaped and affected by the imagery of microscopic pathogens?

Jerram himself is colour blind, a physical feature that has prompted his explorations to the edges of perception. Glass Microbiology gives the viewer an occasion to pause and contemplate, to see something in a new light by stripping the typical markers and disrupting the typical context.

Viruses are not the only subjects Jerram has rendered transparently; Henry Wellcome has had similar treatment. Wellcome’s first entrepreneurial endeavour was as a vendor of invisible ink pens at the age of 16. Each pen was loaded with lemon juice in place of ink, and as a nod to Wellcome’s own foray into playing with perception, Jerram developed a lemon juice printing ink to produce invisible portraits – a blank page that when heated under a grill for two minutes would reveal Henry Wellcome’s likeness.

Today, in Medicine Now, stories old and new collide. Jerram’s Glass Microbiology showcases a pathogen responsible for the sort of illness Bourroughs Wellcome & Co. may well have sought to remedy, portrayed in a manner that mirrors Wellcome’s own impulse to expand consideration of health, medicine and culture.

Julia Murphy is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.