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Q&A: Luke Jerram on swine flu in glass

24 Sep, 2009
Swine Flu virus Sculpture with artist Luke Jerram.

Swine Flu virus Sculpture with artist Luke Jerram.

Wellcome Collection has acquired a new glass sculpture of the H1N1 swine flu virus, which goes on display from Friday 25 September.The sculpture is the latest in a series depicting viruses and bacteria in glass. Luke Jerram, the artist behind the series, explains his inspiration and ideas.

Why glass sculptures of viruses?

The series is a reflection of my interest in how images of phenomena are represented and presented to the public. I’m colour blind and this has given me a natural interest in exploring the edges of perception.

Often images of viruses are taken in black and white on an electron microscope and then they are coloured artificially using Photoshop. Sometimes that will be for scientific purposes but other times it will be just to add emotional content or to make the image more attractive.

The problem is that you end up with the public believing that viruses are these brightly coloured objects. These are often portrayed in newspapers as having an air of scientific authenticity and objective truth, whereas actually that isn’t the case. You can end up with some images that potentially promote fear.

Originally, I made a glass sculpture of HIV [on display in the Medicine Now gallery at Wellcome Collection] that people could hold in their hand and contemplate the global issues of what that virus is doing to the world.

What’s interesting is how the imagery of a virus, say HIV, has changed and developed as scientists’ understanding of the virus has improved, along with ways of visualising/imaging a virus has improved with finer and finer detail.

Also, with viruses you can very quickly come to the edge of scientific understanding. We can photograph a virus with an electron microscope, but it’s sometimes difficult to see what’s going on inside it because the technology is at the very edge of its capability and the resolution isn’t quite good enough. So you end up having to jump from what you can see to what you can infer from chemical modelling. There’s sometimes a gap and a certain amount of guesswork, and that edginess is quite interesting for me.

With 3D sculptures, there’s also a tangibility you can’t get from flat pictures. There are diagrams of a virus and then there are photographs of a virus from electron microscopes. The purpose of a diagram is to communicate details in a very clear and concise way, whereas the scientific photos of viruses do something different. And a 3D representation makes you look at it in another, different, way.

When did you decide to add swine flu to the series?

At the beginning of the outbreak. I was actually diagnosed with swine flu at the time, though the symptoms were mild and I recovered. I remember there was a lot of confusion as to whether this was going to wipe out a third of the global population, and there were lots of different images flying around. It’s because people care about it that I made it. What I’m doing is providing an alternative representation of the virus for the public to consider.

Glass sculpture of HIV.

Glass sculpture of HIV.

How accurate is the sculpture?

Because the H1N1 virus is quite amorphous – without one fixed shape – I made a number of slightly different shapes so you can get an idea of how it exists in slightly different forms. There’s an oval one and a spherical one.

They aren’t to scale though. The original HIV sculpture was made so you could hold it in your hand and contemplate it. With a larger sculpture you can have more detail. And there’s something about scaling up a bit that allows the public to really look at the sculpture and become lost in it more.

As the sculptures get larger, the surface proteins begin to take their own shape. Each of them has been deliberately made to be different. The HIV sculpture was quite diagrammatic – it was almost a 3D representation of a diagram. I’m hoping this new one looks slightly more realistic.

How do you go about creating a sculpture like this?

The whole process can take several months. I work with a virologist, Dr Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol, and he advises me on the detail, mostly through my drawings. But scientists aren’t able to answer many of the questions I ask them, such as how the RNA is exactly fitted within the capsid. At the moment, camera technology can’t answer these questions either.

There are also the limitations of the medium to take into account. Some of my designs simply can’t be created in glass. Some are simply too fragile and gravity would cause them to collapse under their own weight.

There’s a very careful balancing act that needs to take place, between exploring current scientific knowledge and the limitations of glassblowing techniques.

What do you hope audiences will take from this?

I hope they’ll get a sense of the beauty of virology. But also there’s that fascinating tension between something that is very beautiful but which also dangerous and is having a terrible impact on humanity.

Image credits: Luke Jerram

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