Malaria. Swine Flu. E.Coli. HIV. These are just some of the potentially fatal diseases that bedevil the human race. But in their own twisted way, they can be breathtaking.
Artist Luke Jerram’s glass microbiology sculptures—a series of diseases rendered in blown glass—look to the untrained eye like abstract balls filled with a dizzying array of spikes and tendrils. They’re actually interpretations of a number of diseases (they’re not exactly to scale), created after lengthy consultation with virologists, disease models, and images.
Jerram’s work has entranced scientists over the years. A 2009 piece from The Lancet Infectious Diseases describes the sculptures with a sense of amazement:
A palm-sized avian inﬂuenza virus is presented on a plinth with a magnifying glass for closer inspection. Like a unique paperweight, its intricate antigenic spikes extend like soft peaks. Nearby, the 10 cm HIV bubble-like structure encases a Christmas-tree-shaped capsid. Like a snow globe, you almost want to hold it in your hand and shake it.
Has anyone ever before described bird flu or HIV with such odd affection? The sculptures are more than a little unsettling to one New York Times writer, who complains: "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—in a way that I don’t feel when Steuben does it to a snail."
But the sculptures also serve an educational purpose (they are a whole lot more exciting than images in a research paper) and they’re a clever conversation starter. There is also something distinctly human about trying to see the beauty in even the ugliest things. And there’s no question about that: these sculptures are beautiful.
Jerram’s sculptures go on display February 1st at the National Centre for Craft and Design in the U.K.