Bio-artist Anna Dumitriu's Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis

By Culture24 Reporter | 09 January 2014

Can art help improve our understanding of Tuberculosis? Anna Dumitriu's new exhibition offers symbiosis

A photo of a woman in a white laboratory jacket sitting at a desk next to a microscope
© Anna Dumitriu
World Tuberculosis Day, on March 24, might seem an inconspicuous date for an artist, just as mycobacteria might seem barely worthy of note as a material for non-medical practitioners.

Textile art with and about bacteria is how Anna Dumitriu – who has arguably cornered this minimal faction of bio-art – describes her work. Her new London show, The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis, makes installations and sculptures from strains of bacteria.

“There is a huge among of scaremongering about superbugs in hospitals,” says Dumitriu, who has previously stitched an MRSA quilt, and has worked alongside Oxford University and Public Health England scientists in this exploration of TB.

“Press coverage is grossly out of proportion to the number of cases occurring. But what should we really be worrying about, and what, in terms of the relationship between humans and bacteria, is normal?

“I'm fascinated by these questions. I collaborate closely with microbiologists and other scientists to make art that helps people engage more directly with the bacteria living within, on and around them.”

In her previous solo exhibition, Normal Flora, Dumitriu pigmented the white embroidery of an antique Edwardian dress with a bacterium (the catchy Chromobacterium violaceum). The quilt designs, meanwhile, were taken from her own body’s Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, combined with the multi-resistant MRSA.

“The piece has been autoclaved, so it contains no infectious material,” she explains by way of assurance. “But each square in the quilt shows a different aspect of the fight against MRSA.”

Her aesthetic, she says, is “tactile, decorative and aesthetically pleasing”, but also has “a dark side.”

“I like the tension between the fact that bacteria are extremely beautiful, fascinating organisms and the disgust and horror they bring about in people. At college we once debated about whether all art is a political act, and, in a way, I think my work is political.

“I'm interested in conveying a bit more of the reality of the situation, helping equip the wider public with the tools needed to understand the issues.

“I try to use bugs from my own environment when I can. People think that something with bacteria on it is dirty, but the reality is that they are everywhere. Whether we need to be worried about them or not depends on the type, number and location.”

A consistent historical context underpins the show. One series of textile installations, stained with bacteria dyes derived from resistance to antibiotics, focuses on the close relationship between early treatments and chemical dyes.

Where There’s dust There’s Danger consists of tiny felt lungs, their wool and dust imbued with the DNA of killed Mycobacterium tuberculosis handled in the most high-level laboratory. It reflects the incorrect suspicion, a century ago, that household dust was a primary cause of TB, and is accompanied by a carefully carved and engraved Pneumothorax Machine, formerly used to collapse lungs of patients in order to “rest” them.

Fortunately for viewers, the strains of Mycobacterium vaccae, M bovis and M tuberculosis will all have been sterilised before their installation. Dumitriu’s idea, in any case, seems infectious.

  • The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis by Anna Dumitriu is at Watermans Art Centre, London from January 15 - March 24 2014. Read Wellcome News for more on the artist's work (opens in PDF).
  • Anna Dumitriu, Dr Simon Park and Dr Melissa Grant will hold “open lab” art and science workshops on February 15 and 22 and March 1, 15 and 22 2014, 11am-5pm. Visit openlabworkshop.eventbrite.co.uk for details.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a woman in a white laboratory coat working with materials in test tube jars
Lab work for the artist© Anna Dumitriu
A close up photo of small textile pieces made out of grey wool and bits of white string
Where There's Dust There's Danger© Anna Dumitriu
A photo of a pair of lungs made out of grey wool with white string running through it
The Pneumphorax Machine© Anna Dumitriu
A photo of a dress in the darkness of a gallery against which a biological screen plays
The Art and Science of Linen© Anna Dumitriu
A photo of a white dress in a sparse art gallery with dim lights and a wood panel floor
An installation view of Dumitriu's exhibition in New York© Anna Dumitriu
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