by Kelley Aitken

is a writer and artist. Her published works include Love in a Warm Climate, The Porcupine’s Quill, ’98; co-editor of First Writes, co-editor. The Banff Press, ‘05. She teaches drawing at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She is working on a manuscript of stories set in the Canadian Shield and a collection of essays about drawing.



by Mary Spayne

is an Epidemiologist and Writer, living in Toronto.


Two Responses

What happens when we make beauty out of what we fear? Art. In this case bio-art or art that refers to the viral and microbial, the pathological advance of pathogens, a reality of our times. The central piece of Elaine Whittaker’s installation is a cylindrical accrual of petridishes vertically strung. Each petri dish contains a desiccation or distillation of evaporated brine. Some house an encrusted twist of red wool—Whittaker’s visual equivalent for mutation. Shiver. The overall structure is loosely crystalline, the long strands of petri dishes seem to have grown from the core, mutating in pleasing shapes. Under a microscope the tiny things that kill us are, nevertheless, beautiful.

Humans are 70% water and .4% salt, the equivalent of saltwater. This may explain the resonance we feel with Whittaker’s constructions, our continued appreciation for her continued fascination with this mildly alchemical and powerfully metaphorical medium. The cumulative effect of crystalline structure in Shiver is meant to echo our numerousness, our proximity to one another. Even in the West we are keenly aware of overpopulation. We’re a super-saturation on the planet, like the brine mixture Whittaker makes to grow her whorls and fans of salt petit point and salt lace. Shiver. Because we’re paving the way for the microbes and pathogens, providing easy access to more and more hosts.

Shiver shivers with light, a chandelier of smaller and smaller parts arranged in a pleasing whole, as we are, individuals as units in society, each a beautiful small containment of life, until we are hosts for disease. At which point we become a house for death, ciao bella.

Are we our diseases? Is the globe just one big petri dish incubating the source of its ultimate destruction? We can ponder this in an art gallery. The rusted grids of the Ebola Graph series are charts that show the rise of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, compared to the baseline stasis of Ebola on our continent. Rust never sleeps and neither does disease.


The sodium chloride crystals at the heart of Whittaker’s Shiver form patterns in dozens of individual petri dishes inoculated with a concentrated salt solution and left to dry. Each petri dish represents a human cell, and interwoven into random cells is a bunched red thread, or “mutation.” In the Ebola Graph series, Whittaker’s crystals cluster on thin wire threads, forming a crystalline grid on which is represented the tragic burden of cases and deaths in the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Just as Whittaker’s progress was disrupted in the making of Shiver – she lost a quarter of her petri dishes after a test installation and had to begin again – the exhibition hints at the disruption which can occur at the intersection of health and the human environment.

On the surgical masks of the Screened For series the faces of twelve separate pathogens are delicately rendered in gouache, juxtaposed over the mouths of potential human hosts. While in reality infectious agents invade the body through several channels, such as a mosquito vector or a bodily fluid, and while there often exist robust public health measures to prevent or intervene in their transmission, the perception of their threat is palpable in this work. Who is the protagonist? Has she been exposed? Is her mask protective, and what constitutes true protection?

Each work reflects the duality of everyday life. The artist’s salt “mutations” portend disease, and yet salt as a substance has many curative and life-giving properties; aren’t salt solutions used to irrigate wounds and restore fluid balance? The exhibit Shiver can be interpreted as ominous in nature, and yet, is not the act of shivering the body’s own attempt at homeostasis?