A recent gallery review in the New York Times asked the following question: are killer viruses, rendered in glass, also things of beauty? The exhibit, by Britain’s Luke Jerram, is showing in Manhattan from June 4th to July 31st, 2010. In it, Jerram has produced several infectious microbes out of glass, a step that the reviewer, the science journalist Donald G. McNeil Jr., questions and feels troubled by. As someone who reports on the global impact of infectious diseases, McNeil Jr. and his review both find troublesome depicting death as art and attempt to reconcile this bias. From the view of the artist, Jerram’s work attempts to reconcile the arts and the sciences, to illuminate cultural biases in biology and medicine’s depiction of pathogens, and to showcase his own agenda and position. I found the exhibit a success. But to get there, I need to stop, reflect, and return to the work of Ernst Haeckel and others if I wish to problematize McNeil Jr.’s critique.
Can art and science meet? Robert Hooke’s Micrographia serves as one example of this merger, and I can think of no better progression of the kind of polymath Robert Hooke embodied than in Ernst Haeckel. If Hooke had begun bridging the arts (drawings and sketches) with scientific rigor (microscopy), then it was Haeckel who took this task to another level. His Kunstformen der Natur, images of which were shown in an earlier post, not only was popular, but also embodied what Haeckel saw as scientific truths. If anything else, the prints of various organisms embody Haeckel’s scientific beliefs, his view of the world, which was often contested by the wider scientific community. In line with other mergers of art and science in 16th to 19th century Europe, Haeckel’s prints are about symmetry, about perfection, about order. Much like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, in Kunstformen der Natur, something Platonic, some higher ideal, perhaps unobtainable by humans, existed in the natural world.
Besides these prints, Haeckel was most famous for his theories of embryology and evolution. He was schooled in biology during the 1850s, a time when there was continual debate within the scientific community over the issue of recapitulation theory, the linear view of embryonic development proposed in the 1820s by Étienne Serres. Serres argued that there existed a unified pattern in animal life, a single body-type, which each organism developed from during embryonic development. From this base embryo form, Serres’s theory stated, each organism develops through the same stages, of increasingly complexity, until they reach their specific form. “Higher animals” would bypass the same developmental stages that had stopped in the adult form of “lower animals.” It was a view of life that contained elements of what Wallace and Darwin would come to find as evolution, but emphasized linearity, a single course of progression; it was, what some would call, a teleological view of life.
This was what Haeckel found himself within. He read Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1864, less than a decade after its first publication in 1859. Elements of Darwin’s hypothesis certainly appealed to Haeckel, especially the sections on embryo development, but Darwin specifically cautioned against the earlier view of Serres that some organisms were “higher” or “lower” on the taxonomic spectrum. This was a caution that Haeckel could not agree with. In 1866, he published Generelle Morphologie, and used embryo development to reconstruct this linear tree of life, using these partial bodies as replacements for fossil evidence. It was here that Haeckel coined the phrase he is most famous for, “ontology replicates phylogeny,” the theory that the progression of an organism’s development mirrors the evolutionary development of life. He would soon after publish what would become, to add to the fire, a controversial drawing of this concept, shown below.
Haeckel’s drawings show the various embryonic stages of eight distinct organisms. Teleology and order are found in the piece, a progression of several species, indicating that a linear relationship can be found among even the most diverse group of organisms. Is this art? The purpose of these illustrations was pedagogical, but if we see an artist in Haeckel, we can assume that the same thread runs through his other work. And it does. His plates from Kunstformen der Natur, later published in 1899, do much the same thing: they take a diverse group of organisms, and arrange them not by phylum, a word that Haeckel himself created, but by pattern and shape. Much like he does above with a fish, a salamander, a tortoise, a chicken, a pig, a cow, a rabbit, and a human, Haeckel’s prints collage and merge, draw something universal out of the seemingly ununified and taxonomically different. They too emphasize this evolutionary “common descent” and lineage; there is an agenda to this art, this science.
Back again to the present. On the more recent merger of science and art, what troubles McNeil Jr. the most, it would seem, is the connection between death and aesthetics. The microbes Jerram has replicated in glass form, namely HIV, H1N1, and E. coli, have each been the subject of disease outbreaks and, subsequently, human suffering, throughout the past several years. The journalist writes that, “I’ve watched people dying of these things now rendered as $10,000 paperweights. There’s something unseemly about celebrating the beauty in something that does such ugly things.” Jerram defends his position as one exploring issues of perception and representation. On Jerram’s website, his exhibit statement notes the following:
If some images are coloured for scientific purposes, and others altered simply for aesthetic reasons, how can a viewer tell the difference? How many people believe viruses are brightly coloured? Are there any colour conventions and what kind of ‘presence’ do pseudocoloured images have that ‘naturally’ coloured specimens don’t? See these examples of HIV imagery. How does the choice of different colours affect their reception?
Jerram tells McNeil Jr. in the latter’s interview that scientific journals and imagery too have their biases, that certain coloring schemes can too serve a particular agenda and viewpoint on the pathogens above. They can be made, Jerram notes, to come off as evil, menacing, and in doing so, these representations incite and exacerbate popular fear. McNeil Jr. turns this argument on its head, or at least attempts to, in questioning Jerram as to his motives regarding the protein spikes on the H1N1 virus, as shown on the cover of the May 2010 issue of Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, below.
McNeil Jr. notes, correctly, that the hemagglutinin spikes on the surface of the H1N1 virus are, in microscopic reality, not that small; under an electron microscope, the viruses would appear as nothing more than “fuzzy, irregular balls.” Jerram too notes the space between his representation and the reality of the microscope, but asserts that his decision was more one of practicality and the limits of glass sculpture, not of trying to equate a virus with medieval battle spikes of sorts.
In the end, McNeil Jr.’s critique attempts to reconcile what Jerram is trying to do, but can’t get around the issue of death. What troubles me about the journalist’s review is its refusal to see Jerram’s work as a step forward, one that is held within a tradition of border-crossing and of representing theory in a less-than-concrete fashion. Haeckel’s drawings and prints did not coincidentally contain his own ideology and argument of evolution; his science was his art, his art his science. The order he found in nature was both common to taxonomy of the day, and a challenge to it. The same could be said for Jerram’s art. In his artist’s statement, Jerram asks us to “contemplate the global impact of infectious disease while exploring the edges of scientific perception, scientific understanding.” His agenda is rethinking what an infectious disease means to us. Is it a pathogen, a terrifying organism that warrants military-like campaigns and mobilizations? Judging from my experience of the visit, I do not think that is what Jerram means to convey in his sculptures. But one of the visitors to Jerram’s gallery, who submitted a brief letter that is now posted on the wall of the exhibit and the artist’s website, can explain far better than I:
I just saw a photo of your glass sculpture of HIV.
I can’t stop looking at it. Knowing that millions of those guys are in me, and will be a part of me for the rest of my life. Your sculpture, even as a photo, has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I’ve ever seen. It’s a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful.
For one suffering with HIV/AIDS to find beauty in the pathogen, this might unravel and dispel the concerns posed by McNeil Jr. about death and the responsibility of portraying it in art. But that requires a different direction, a different train of thought, one that moves into 17th and 18th century curiosity cabinets, natural history collections, and the modern paintings of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. And that is a later entry.