Bacteria rather than brushes are the tools of Anna Dumitriu’s trade. The bio-artist is bringing her new show, inspired by tuberculosis and its fascinating history, to Brentford’s Watermans Art Centre.
The exhibition, which opens on Wednesday next week, uses textiles and genuine but safe strains of TB to explore our changing relationship with the potentially deadly disease.
The artist said she wanted to help visitors sort the facts from the myths about tuberculosis, while sharing the ‘sublime’ mix of beauty and terror she sees in the bacteria – which resembles a tangle of torn red ribbons under the microscope.
“I wanted to look at the history of TB, and its literary associations, as well as the cutting edge research and healthcare,” she told the Chronicle. It’s the earliest infectious micro-organism on the planet to be identified. It’s been with us since we were human, and one third of the world’s population is believed to be infected with non-active TB.”
The exhibition’s title is The Romantic Disease, a nod to TB’s connections with artistic genius in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The Romantic poet Lord Byron famously said he wished to die of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then known, and there were many at the time who believed it fostered creativity.
Even today, says Ms Dumitriu, a handful of scientists ascribe to the ‘genius germ hypothesis’ that TB can affect the brain, helping people think ‘outside the box’.
Ms Dumitriu equates the disease’s once-glamorous image with the short-lived early 1990s vogue for skeletal models, dubbed ‘heroin chic’. But its reputation has taken a knock in recent years, and it is now more commonly associated with squalid, cramped living conditions and spitting – although, once it is on the ground, it is hard for the bacteria to infect people.
Our understanding of the disease has also changed hugely, even in relatively recent history. Ms Dumitriu describes how a sanatorium in Wales in the 1920s left children outside in the middle of winter to ‘benefit’ from the fresh air. Although most people in this country have been vaccinated against tuberculosis, it is on the rise in the UK and Hounslow has one of the country’s highest rates, with an average of 190 cases a year.
Ms Dumitriu has long been fascinated by microbes, which are literally the germ of most of her works, and she enjoys blurring the boundaries between art and science.
She’s worked with experts in the field and has even been allowed to handle plague bacteria in a ‘level three’ high security laboratory.
“When I learned about the plague at school aged eight, I was fascinated and terrified by this weird world they painted,” she said. “We’ve got 10 times more bacterial cells in our bodies than human ones and, as we’ve evolved, we’ve formed a strange, symbiotic relationship with them, which I find really interesting.”
Her previous work includes creating a patchwork quilt using the MRSA and antibiotics, with one of the contributors having been infected by the bacteria. She said that, by working with everyday objects, she hoped to make science more accessible to people.
For her latest exhibition, she teamed up with Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the charity Target TB.
A symposium featuring experts on the disease takes place at the arts centre on Monday, March 24. Some of the proceeds will go to Target TB to help it fight the disease across the world.
The Romantic Disease: An Investigation of Tuberculosis by Anna Dumitriu is at the Watermans Art Centre in Brentford, from next Wednesday to March 24. From Thursday next week, it will be open daily from noon to 9pm.