Vik Muniz’ Gorgeous Wallpaper Makes Flowers Out of A Smallpox Vaccine
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently sponsored the development of 38 new works of art aimed at spreading awareness about the importance of vaccines and other scientific developments in the effort to improve global health. Annie Leibovitz, Mia Farrow and Christoph Neiman were among the talent who contributed work to the series, which was aptly named “The Art of Saving A Life”— and in the case of Brazilian Artist Vik Muniz, the method of creating his artistic contribution took on literal significance: not only did Muniz contribute a print to support a foundation that educates people about vaccines, but he took the assignment a step further; he made his art out of vaccines.
The work, which is called Flowers, looks like a giant floral block print– a wallpaper of lilies, daffodils, and roses whose unique shapes come from colonized liver cells that have been treated with a smallpox vaccine. To create the piece, Muniz and synthetic biologist Tal Danino sought out MIT professor Sangeeta Bhatia to help them grow virus-treated cells to turn into beautiful, floral pictures.
Having worked together previously on a series called Colonies, the trio’s process involved controlling the shape and movement of bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells before photographing the results. First, they designed a flower pattern; then, they created a rubber stamp in the mold of that shape, which was later treated with a biological collagen substrate and transferred into a petri dish. Living cells were added to the petri dish, and after they developed and thrived they were transferred to plastic and photographed to create the images you see above. In Flowers, the smallpox-infested liver cells form a gorgeous flower pattern, which is even more detailed close-up.
“You look at something that you think you’ve seen before,” Muniz comments in a making-of video from the Gates Foundation, “and half way through the process you realize you’re looking at something completely different”. He pauses, before continuing: “Sometimes just by changing an idea or an attitude towards a behavior makes a really big difference”.
“People are quite surprised to realize that the images are made up of real cancer and liver cells and real viruses,” Danino told WIRED about Flowers, “They are not photoshopped. They are equally struck by the fact that beyond the photograph, the cells are alive, [they] move around, and fluoresce [Editor’s note: ‘fluorescing’ is a biological phenomenon in which the cells seem to ‘glow’].”
For Muniz, the artistic aesthetic of Flowers is as philosophical as it is scientific: “I find it amazing that a vaccine is made out of poison,” he says. “Its poetic: you use disease to find a cure.”
In the past, Muniz has always worked in mixed-mediums: he’s made art of garbage, spaghetti, cotton—even peanut butter and jelly. (One such objet d’art, which is currently housed at the MoMA, depicts Jackson Pollock rendered in chocolate sauce.) His use of pathogens, however, is unique because the material is also a hazard to human health. As a result, he and Danino had to adhere to industry-grade lab safety while making the art, which included the use of lab coats, gloves, and laminar flow hoods.
In additional to looking nice, Flowers could have more practical applications in science. After infection, the virus turns the cells a reddish color which allows scientists to visualize infection using a high-resolution microscope—as Danino phrases it, the flowers “flouresce” and seemingly glow with life. From the technique they learned from the approach, Danino hopes to publish a paper on findings that could be used to study the spatial and temporal behaviors of cells and bacteria (which probably makes this the most pragmatic picture of roses you’ve ever seen!). Ultimately, the idea behind the project is to use images of flowers—a familiar plant that people associate with beauty, comfort, grace, and goodness—to transform ideas about what can and cannot be considered “beautiful”. “Flowers allows the audience to draw a deeper appreciation for how the Vaccinia (smallpox) vaccine and cells interact, and brings awareness to the importance of the vaccine,” says Muniz. The results are just as inspiring close up as they are from a distance, and that’s part of the intrigue: even on a microscope level, the beauty of flowers transcends.