Art by Elaine Whittaker

(in)trepid cultures

2010

by Ruth Roach Pierson

*Professor Emerita and author of "Aide-Mémoire"

*2008 Governor General finalist for poetry

That Beauty that hath terror in it.

-- William Wordsworth

In her latest mixed media art installation, (in)trepid cultures, science-savvy Elaine Whittaker redeploys key elements of her signature vocabulary – petri dishes and salt – to further explore the paradoxical beauty present in the microorganisms that live in, on, and around us, a beauty invisible to the naked eye. At the centre of her interest and her microscope's lens is the salt-loving archaebacterium, aptly named Halobacterium sp.NRC-1. Thermophilic, halophilic, and extremophilic, the halobacterium grows best in a 42 degree Celsius environment extremely high in salinity and unfriendly to most other forms of life.

We live in a panic-ridden society during an age of the fear of pandemics. Bombarded as we are with information on new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and drinking fountains flowing with bacterial germs, it is no wonder we have a notion of bacteria as something to be feared. So even though the halobacterium is itself non-pathogenic, we have difficulty separating it from infectious-disease-bearing connotations and so are astonished at its beauty when viewed through a microscope or caught on film. Again and again Whittaker's bioart captures instances of Wordsworth's "That Beauty that hath terror in it."

(in)trepid cultures comprises three major components: a large hanging triptych entitled Biotectonic, a display of petri dishes containing live microbes, and a series of wall-mounted digital image enlargements.

As viewers enter the gallery, what they first encounter is the triptych entitled Biotectonic – a waterfall-like screen consisting of 1575 petri dishes wired together into three tripartite panels. Some hold salt crystals glistening like starched lace or the sodium carbonate deposits that form on the edge of salt lakes, and the others, circular digital images of halobacteria and their nutrient base agar (seaweed). Whittaker calls these disks biotectonics – tectonics being plates that form the crust, the architecture, of the earth as these disks form the biological building blocks, the architecture, of her triptych. The coloured biotechtonics seen as we enter are in the benign bruised-apricot to mauve tones of the agar. Those on the reverse side, seen only from inside the gallery, are in the hot halobacterial tones of pink to red to purple. We see in each petri-dish digital image only a fragment of the bacterial colony contained in the original petri dish viewed and photographed through her trinocular microscope. Indeed we see only a fragment of a fragment. At the level of magnification at which Whittaker worked, she could catch only a portion of each petri dish's colony. Further fragmentation took place as Whittaker cut circles out of the 9 x 11 prints to fit into the petri dish biotectonics of her screen. .

At the macroscopic level, that is, when one steps back to take in all three panels of the screen at once, the large pattern is of a bacterial stream flowing from one edge of the screen to the other and thus reproducing the microscopic bacterial smear in each original petri dish. Both levels of magnification render visible what is invisible to the naked eye at the same time they make possible, by allowing a close approach, an experience both of intimacy with the images and the simultaneity of attraction and repulsion.

To view the reverse side of the triptych and the wall mounted enlarged images, viewers must pass between the river of Biotectonic's digital images and a set of live microorganisms colonizing one of the gallery's walls.

Pinned to this wall is an array of petri dishes containing live halobacteria in colonized clusters and in various stages of growth. The briny agar on which they were nourished is in various stages of dessication. As the agar dries and crystallizes it encases and captures the colonies of halobacteria in a state of suspended viability.

On the other gallery walls can be viewed large digital prints that demonstrate perhaps even more strikingly than their smaller, petri-dish counterparts the beauty to be found in colonies of halobacterial microorganisms. One sees in them expanses of cratered mountain tops, ablating glaciers, even tentacled marine life suggestive of poisonous jelly fish, another case of the incongruous co-existence of the astonishingly beautiful with the power to sicken or kill.

There is an array of colours to be found in (in)trepid cultures. When Whittaker photographed the halobacterial colonies under her microscope with the light passing up from below through the bottom of the petri dish, the dominant colour range she saw was the brown to orange to mauve of the agar base. But knowing halobacteria produce retinal pigments that absorb green light and reflect pink to red to blue (as contrasted with chlorophyll, the photosynthetic pigment of plants, which absorbs mainly blue and red wavelengths and reflects green ones), she realized she needed to photograph them under light shone from above in order to capture their vibrant colours. The millions of halobacteria teeming in salt lakes are the source not only of the visually startling pink of the briny water but of the pink of both the brine shrimp that ingest the halobacteria and the flamingoes that feed on the brine shrimp.

Whittaker works in a space combining scientist's lab and artist's studio, and for her the process of creating an art installation is as important as the finished product. At every step, her meticulous procedures are immensely time-consuming and labour-intensive, starting with the growing of salt crystals and continuing with culturing colonies of halobacteria. After first preparing the agar, which comes as a gel and has to be liquefied before being poured into petri dishes and left to re-gel, Whittaker painted the halobacteria onto the seaweed base using a wand-like instrument called an inoculating loop. She created different halobacterial patterns on the canvas of agar depending on how she moved the loop – flicking drops from it like an action painter or swirling or swiping it across like an expressionist. The bacterial paintings in their petri dishes were then placed in an incubator at 42° degrees centigrade for a week or two, where they grew and spread, colonizing their habitats. Whittaker is producing bioart in a key sense of that term.

Thanks to Whittaker's persistence and ingenuity, we are presented with the possibility of seeing beyond the limits of our eyesight into a world of astonishing beauty we experience with pleasure and perhaps a frisson of trepidation.