Forget paint, pencils, or clay. English artist Anna Dumitriu likes to work with bacteria as a medium. Extremely deadly bacteria: her latest microorganism of choice is Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes the devastating illness that’s the second leading cause of death from infectious disease worldwide after HIV/AIDS.
For her new exhibition, The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis, Dumitriu collaborated with microbiologists–and even infused sterilized TB bacteria into her pieces–to explore the morbid fascination with an illness once thought to bestow sufferers with heightened spiritual and artistic sensitivity.
The unnerving exhibition, now on view at Watermans in London, includes a wall hung with miniature lungs woven from felt and filled with dust, which was once thought to cause the disease, and injected with sterilized TB bacteria. A vintage maternity dress is dyed with outdated tuberculosis “cures,” like safflower and madder root, and is impregnated with the extracted DNA of killed TB. Then there’s the eerie dollhouse-sized recreation of a sanatorium, the type of hospital in which patients in the pre-antibiotic age (before 1943) were quarantined. Sanatoriums were often called “waiting rooms for death.”
Why was such a vicious sickness dubbed “the Romantic Disease” in the 19th century? More than any other illness in the world, tuberculosis was often aestheticized, shrouded in a sort of spiritual mystique. At the height of Europe’s “White Plague” from 1700 to 1900, women would purposely whiten their cheeks to achieve a fashionably consumptive look. Poet Lord Byron once famously declared: “How pale I look!–I should like, I think, to die of a consumption … because then the women would all say, ‘See that poor Byron–how interesting he looks in dying!’” Byron didn’t get his wish (he died of a fever instead), but the disease claimed the lives of hundreds of famous artists, including Anton Chekhov, Frederic Chopin, Amedeo Modigliani, Igor Stravinsky, Franz Kafka, and John Keats.
The pieces in The Romantic Disease are the latest in a long line of bacteria-inspired art from Dumitriu. When she discovered chromagenic culture media made of agar jelly, which changes color in response to the introduction of different bacteria strains, she realized she could embed this substance into textiles, and then use bacteria to dye the fabric. This led to her creating quilts with pigments derived from strains of the MRSA virus and dresses stained with VRSA bacteria–and, ultimately, to her work with tuberculosis bacteria.
“They are such a rich vein of artistic inspiration,” Dumitriu says of diseases in a recent interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “Everywhere you look, there are bacteria and other microorganisms, even if you can’t see them.”
[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]