Visiting Impermanence: The art of microbiology at Gallery Elena Shchukina for New Scientist, 5 November 2015.
HALFWAY along a pleasant foot passage in London’s exclusive Mayfair district, death is waiting, clad in motley both rich and strange.
On the ground floor of Gallery Elena Shchukina, it’s gone gigantically viral. All around are deadly viruses blown into million-times-magnified life by a host of glassblowers under the close direction of UK artist Luke Jerram.
The academic and scientific community have been commissioning Jerram’s flus and fevers for nearly a decade, but it’s good to see them out of their scientific setting. Free from the sneaking suspicion that they illustrate some important medical point, these head-size viruses grow even more magnificently strange.
Jerram is the gallery’s entry drug: downstairs there’s something altogether darker – something that has festered for anywhere between a day and a year under the watchful eye of South Korean artist Seung-Hwan Oh.
Oh, who studied film and photography in New York before returning to his native Seoul, has found a way to corrupt photographic portraits by soaking them in baths infested with microbes of one sort or another. Penicillin is his favourite. Each species of bacteria metabolises the chemicals of a photograph in a different way: the men and women in Oh’s solo portraits are variously cracked, bled, stained and ravaged – sometimes in beautiful ways.
More often they are ruined, their proportions and perspectives monstrously skewed. Beyond setting the initial conditions, Oh has no control over how his images will distort. Here, a man grows horns. There, some inner demon breaks through the tatters of a human face.
Quite what Oh means by all this isn’t made clear. One senses he is still enraptured by the experiment for its own sake, and looked at this way, as a very advanced work-in-progress, the show – his first in London – does very nicely.