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BioArt and Bacteria

Encased in a vitrine, an unusual necklace sits atop black velvet; its 452 handmade beads range in hue from yellow to orange. Each bead contains a crystalized version of one of 21 amino acids that form an antibody created in the lab from the blood of an HIV positive patient. Strung together in exact sequence, the beads structurally mimic the antibody’s protein structure. The artwork – ‘Engineered Antibody’ by Anna Dumitriu –functions as a contemporary reliquary; it is a precious container of biological traces with the potential to heal and ward off disease. Although based in science rather than religion, this art object also makes abstract concepts tangible. It is one of many works in "BioArt and Bacteria” that invite viewers to visualize and contemplate socially complex work being done in laboratories today.

‘BioArt and Bacteria’ at Esther Klein Gallery is a solo exhibition featuring the work of Anna Dumitriu, an internationally recognized artist who fuses traditional craft practices with innovative biotechnology. The traveling show spans the last seven years of Dumitriu’s career. It features a wide range of objects — sculpture, wearable art, wall hangings and video — each of which asks nuanced questions about the ethics and ethos of science.

Working directly with research scientists in the US and abroad, Dumitriu often employs cutting-edge synthetic biology to re-design components of her artwork. Several pieces in this exhibition are from her series “The Romantic Disease" that explores historical connections to the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (TB.) Working with extracted DNA, the artist neutralizes the infectious agents of the bacterium while encapsulating the fears and misconceptions. Whether stained into fabric or woven into textiles, the residue of disease becomes the substance of the art.

In “Where there's dust, there's danger,” Anna Dumitriu impregnates wool and dust with the sterilized TB bacterium. From that altered material, she creates miniature, pillow-like sculptures of lungs depicting different stages of the disease. The piece references a historical misunderstanding (the belief that TB was caused by household dust has since been disproven) but also activates the fear mechanism that spreads misconceptions. Next to this un-framed, wall sculpture hangs a ‘Do Not Touch’ sign. Although undoubtedly used to protect the artwork, the sign also triggers mistrust in the viewer, calling into question our belief in science when weighed against a perceived threat of personal danger.

The combination of hand-made and genetically altered materials also engenders another reading of Anna Dumitriu’s “BioArt and Bacteria." Her textile works, beaded necklaces, and doll-house scaled furniture carry a tradition of ‘feminine arts’ where the beauty and utility coexist within the domestic sphere. In addition to spotlighting women’s ongoing cultural and scientific contributions, these items –that would be treasured keepsakes– speak to broader ideas of hereditary and genetic connection.

Anna Dumitriu’s wall-hung “MRSA Quilt” is infused with a sterilized strain of the drug-resistant bacterium. The blanket brings to mind the person-to-person spread of infection, its fabric stained in the color palette of a muted blueprint. At the same time, the quilt recalls the circles of community that help ward off misconception through knowledge sharing. This piece, among many in “BioArt and Bacteria” is a precisely crafted hybrid of science, storytelling and artistry. Synthesis and connection are at the core of Anna Dumitriu’s diverse practice; this fascinating exhibition reflects her on-going experiments in the communicability of information.

Cindy Stockton Moore is a Philadelphia-based artist. Her writing has appeared in SciArt Magazine, ArtNews, The New York Sun and NYArts Magazine in addition to university and web publications.
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