It’s been an interesting week for ‘Heirloom‘ – the artwork we’re currently exhibiting that grows cell portraits of the artist’s daughters in bioreactor tanks, and then preserves them for display.
The cells have grown so successfully that last week the tubes became blocked, causing increased pressure and a leak. Then on Monday we discovered a microbial infection. White fluffy clouds and pink pearls scattered over the surface of the thick cell layer forming on top of the liquid in the bioreactor tanks. Luckily, the microbial growth had not infected the cell layer forming across the glass face casts sunk down inside the liquid.
So our head of collections and conservator Ion Meyer leapt into action, and with guidance from the artwork’s creators over WhatsApp, we skimmed off the microbes, then fixed the cell layers onto the glass casts with formaldehyde solution.
The resulting portraits are now drying out in the conservation workshop, and will be the second pair produced – the first pair are hanging in the exhibition.
We hope to have the system set up again by the 1st July – but for the rest of the summer, it will run without cells. To prepare a third cell culture and ship it from the UK, and to purchase the growth serum, is not possible within our budget. Life on display is unruly – and expensive.
Visitors will still be able to see the innovative system John Hunt and Gina Czarnecki developed to allow growth of human cell layers inside an exhibition – and fluid will still rush around the tubes, dripping onto the glass faces, driven by the rhythm of the heart bypass pump. To the naked eye, it will look much like the start of a growth cycle – the liquid will be clear and the face casts easily visible, unlike the later stages when proliferating cell numbers make the liquid thick and cloudy. Ironically, the viewing experience is in some ways better when the growth is less successful.
When the installation is running as intended, it’s a closed system mimicking the conditions of the human body, with any microbial inhabitants kept firmly under control. The tubes and tanks are sealed up, and nothing extra is added over the weeks that the cells grow. But when the balance shifts and something goes wrong, it actually starts to seem *more* like a body – porous and vulnerable. Trying to mimic the inside-outside relationships of the body brings home just how intricate and strange they are.