Art and science: two distinct disciplines and never the twain shall meet. However, think a little further, and you realise that both focus on pushing boundaries, venturing with experimental zeal into mysterious, unobserved areas and illuminating them with fresh perspectives.
This desire to reveal the unknown and shine a light on the unseen is precisely what drives Mellissa Fisher, an artist whose primary medium is microbiology. Simply put, she grows bacteria on sculptures of the body and it generates for fascinating, unpredictable results. Her main aim is to show the symbiotic, all-too-often forgotten relationship between ‘nature and the self ’ and her project ‘Microbial Me’ slaps this link right in the face – in a very literal sense.
Fisher created several sculptures of her own face using agar, a jellied substance derived from algae and ideal for culturing organisms. Armed with a cast of her face, she poured the agar inside, left it to set and ended up with a blank mould of her face; the perfect canvas to let bacteria bloom on. Her various faces are subsumed by cloudy, gleaming masses of microbes, which lace over the surface: both intriguing and repellent, natural and alien. Her work is all the more striking as it essentially depicts an inversion of the bacterial reality of our faces. These bacteria are present on our skin all the time, but no one can see them, and they’re simply not relatable, so Fisher takes them and makes them the main attraction, as she puts it “making the invisible world visible”.
It was thanks to an extracurricular science course that Fisher even realised the scope of this ‘invisible world’. She’d embarked on an Illustration BA at the University of Westminster but sticking to drawing alone grew stultifying. “I found myself very bored, and then this extracurricular Art and Science module came up, Broad Vision, run by Heather Barnett, so I thought I’d give it a go. I looked down a microscope for the rst time and I was sold. I saw the invisible world and it was awesome.” Her interest was ignited, all the more so because revealing this invisible world was not just a conduit for raw creativity but could also engage people, teach them and show them something entirely ordinary and simultaneously extraordinary. Having latched onto such an invigorating and creative eld, it made sense to pursue an MA in Art and Science at Central Saint Martins. Aside from it being “the best two years of my life”, it gave her the space, connections and expertise to really get to grips with this new, unpredictable field.
In a sense, Fisher’s faces are effectively self-portraits, but they are in a state of perpetual flux and wholly at the behest of the power of nature. Her field is experimental and entirely her own, but for her “it doesn’t matter if it’s been done before, I just really enjoy it”. This sentiment is the backbone of her work: Fisher’s interest is sparkling and genuine and propels her willingness to try new things. Her art is an evolving, grand experiment and this is what makes it so ful lling: “It’s highly unpredictable, every day is a surprise. Every day is a challenge as well – there’s constant troubleshooting and you have to make it as safe as possible because it can be quite dangerous, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.” This is where her scientist collaborators come to the fore, namely Professor Mark Clements, a biologist based at the University of Lincoln. He’s particularly interested in innovations in teaching and learning and working with Fisher is testament to this; they bounce effervescent ideas off each other, their converse approaches combining together to create thought-provoking concepts and pieces.
For Fisher, scientists are “fascinating creatures and they find artists nutty too but in the end they’re such similar disciplines, art and science. All the testing and the process behind trying to get to the bottom of a question. But science is far more controlled.” Occasionally some of her more wacky ideas have rather alarmed her laboratory-based collaborators “but we end up pulling it off because they’re willing to step out of their comfort zone. You need someone with pure biological grounding and knowledge, so then I have the space to test things out and push the boundaries. And you need someone to say if those boundaries are about to break!”
The fact remains that dealing with bacteria is not a risk-free pursuit: “sometimes we can’t do something, it’s dangerous and we have to think of a different way to make it happen.” But this isn’t a problem, as Fisher clearly thrives on the need to think differently. “I always mention my failures whenever I do a talk. It’s really important, I know I’ve had a hell of a lot of them but in science you can’t express your failures because then you’re a bad scientist. Fortunately, in art, you’re not. Failures are rather a way to ask and answer questions.” This willingness to delve into the unknown is vital to her work. In 2015, Fisher installed one of her faces at the Eden Project. She initially proposed to replace it every six months, not sure how long it would last. Pleasingly, it’s still going strong, the mingled array of textures and various blotches spreading like the contusions on rotting fruit, some fuzzy, others jewel-like.
For another project, ‘Cress’, Fisher planted cress seeds on one of her face moulds, documenting their growing process. As with the bacteria, seeing them sprout from a face leads you to consider the self and the capacity we all possess to grow, whether organically or personally. Similarly, all Fisher’s moulded faces recall traditional death masks, when casts were taken directly from a corpse. But when the bacteria is introduced and the growth process begins, we are shocked by just how alive they are. Nothing lasts in perpetuity, and Fisher’s novel approach not only demystifies elements of science but disrupts our preconceived notions of the longevity of art. We are reminded of the impossibility of knowing whether something will stand the test of time.
When Fisher showed her first bacterial face, she was taken aback by the number of people who had had no idea that bacteria even existed on our faces. “It inspired me to make far more art with bacteria because I realised how many people had almost no knowledge of it. I saw how important it was to try and change people’s anti-bacteria point of view because it’s in fact really vital to our own systems.” She’s trying to shift people’s gut reactions from ‘gross’ to ‘fascinating’, and, as any artist would, understands the power of aes- thetics: “I think people are more likely to embrace something beautiful.” And that’s exactly what her art is, unsettling the viewer but also pleasing, and in doing so igniting thoughts that collide and grow in unforeseeable, natural ways – just like the bacteria itself.