International artist Anna Dumitriu takes the latest technology in science and medicine and weaves it into curious art installations created using digital, biological and traditional media – from ceramics to textiles – to fascinate both scientists and non-scientists.
Her first solo exhibition in Malta, BioArt Alchemy at Spazju Kreattiv, showing till October 30, addresses a wide range of time and topics ranging from the origins of society to cutting-edge genetics and the possibility of bacterially enhanced super-humans.
“The exhibition looks to the future, yet the word alchemy references the past,” says Dumitriu.
“Although alchemy has magical undertones, much science and medicine stems from this ancient wisdom. Interestingly, the aims of synthetic biology – like life-extension, transmutation and transformation – match those of alchemists: there’s a strong resonance between 21st century research and the past!”
Spanning man’s earliest millennia to fresh technology, Dumitriu’s installation Fermenting Futures (in collaboration with Alex May and scientists at BOKU in Vienna) explores the significance of yeast from a cultural, scientific and aesthetic perspective.
Yeast’s ability to make bread rise and to ferment alcohol has been at the heart of the development of human society since ancient times.
“Some historians even believe that the ability of yeast to ferment alcohol led to the development of human settlements, as people needed to farm crops to make beer!” smiles Dumitriu, inviting us to consider how we can harness the power of yeast in new ways to confront today’s environmental challenges.
“Yeast is a workhorse of biotechnology nowadays, central to research in food production, vaccine manufacture and carbon capture, offering real hope for the future,” she continues.
The sculpture comprises a round-bottomed glass vessel containing bubbling yeast sustained by a mass of tubes. Exploring yeast’s potential, this intriguing installation contains a modified yeast variant that captures carbon and outputs lactic acid for the manufacture of biodegradable plastic.
On the surrounding walls The Bio-archaeology of Yeast investigates marks created on antiquities, artworks and sites of cultural heritage, habitats for extremophile fungi, or ‘black yeasts’, colonies of which Dumitriu has cast into Roman cement sculptures.
Yeast is a workhorse of biotechnology nowadays, central to research in food production, vaccine manufacture and carbon capture, offering real hope for the future
In Culture, a jumble of breadcrumb-encrusted architectural models stand on a terrace of soil, stacked, or side by side. Flat-roofed cubes with small windows and the occasional balcony, they both evoke simple Maltese farm buildings and, in towers, remind the viewer of contemporary construction.
Furnished and wired with electric lights, the glare of tiny screens is visible through the windows representing the development of culture.
Further work encourages us to look again at the clothes on our backs. Flax, a plant indigenous to Malta, has been used to make linen since prehistoric times, and a video leads viewers through its ecology and cultural importance.
Nearby, the necklace Pastorianum, created with natural flax, antique hair, linen lace, beads and bacteria, responds to the mythology around linen, while Spindle is a crocheted collar edged with small sculptural appendages. These resemble biofilm-producing bacteria, including spindle-shaped Clostridiodes difficile. Biofilms form in the human gut and confer an antibiotic resistance.
“We face a serious global problem of antibiotic resistance as disease-causing bacteria evolve mechanisms to resist them,” says Dumitriu.
Other ‘wearable’ art includes a silk Plague Dress impregnated with Yersinia pestis DNA and hand-dyed with walnut husks in reference to the 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper who recommended walnuts as a treatment.
Looking ahead, Dumitriu’s Hypersymbiont Dress is stained and video-mapped with bacteria that may have the potential to enhance us, highlighting ways human bacterial flora could turn us into super-organisms, with improved creativity, improved health and even improved personalities.
“That’s an alchemy for the future,” smiles Dumitriu.
It’s an interesting premise, an art exhibition in which the main characters are yeast, the plague and other bacteria, and yet BioArt Alchemy is both packed with surprises and remarkably engaging. Unexpected and intriguing, Dumitriu’s striking works make viewers think in new ways about Malta, mankind, the past and the future, and surely that, in both science and art, is real beauty.
BioArt Alchemy is a commission of Spazju Kreattiv and supported by Esplora Interactive Science Centre and Science in the City, Malta.