The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis

I had the wonderful opportunity to develop a new artwork to be exhibited at the Museu Picasso, Barcelona for the Art, Ciència i programme of the Festival de Ciència, Tecnologia i Innovació 2014 as part of my project about the relationship of art and Tuberculosis which is called “The Romantic Disease”. The new work was inspired by Pablo Picasso’s 1899-1900 series ¡Pobres genios! (Poor Geniuses) from the museum’s collection, which shows a group of people around a bed of a very sick patient, believed to represent a tuberculosis (TB) sufferer.


Workshop results

I often work by altering antique objects, not fine museum quality pieces but giving a new life to worn items. I was particularly struck by the powerful image of the bed in Picasso’s ¡Pobres genios! and decided to make a representation of that bed. I managed to get hold of an antique dolls bed from around the period when Picasso painted the work and dyed and embroidered the bed linen with natural substances such as safflower, walnut husks and madder root, which were all used in the past as a treatment for TB, which was also known as ‘consumption’ at the time, as patients appear to be ‘consumed’ from within. I created a small quilt using squares of fabric stitched with antibiotics and antibacterials, upon which environmental bacteria had been grown. TB is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis but there are many benign or harmless strains of Mycobacteria in the environment, including in soil and even in tap water. The bacteria was completely sterilised by using steam at high pressure, a process known as autoclaving, which is used in hospitals. I collaborate with scientists in the UK to develop the work and am artist in residence on a project called “Modernising Medical Microbiology” based at Oxford University and in collaboration with Public Health England scientists, in particular Dr John Paul.


Dolls bed and doublebarred cross

The bed itself was carved intricately, a process that seemed to take weeks, to give the appearance of the patient’s decaying lung tissue, echoed in the walnut husk dyed antique crochet work used to make the pillow. I based these textures on my first hand observations of lung tissue made in an anatomy laboratory at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. The token on the pillow is the double-barred cross, which has been used, since 1902, as a symbol of the fight against tuberculosis.

Finally the bed has been tainted with the disease itself, or at least a trace of it. It is impregnated with the extracted DNA of Tuberculosis, made in the lab in collaboration with the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project. The organisms have been rendered sterile using a validated process used in their cutting edge research into whole genome sequencing of TB. The work was created in collaboration with Dr John Paul, Kevin Cole and Dr James Price.

Tuberculosis has long been associated with artistic genius, one need only to look at a list of famous sufferers, and scientific projects such as “The Genius Germ Hypothesis” have sought to somehow ‘prove’ this link.


Participants during the workshop

I also had the opportunity to participate in a talk event and to run a workshop in collaboration with Barcelona based TB researchers Pere Joan Cardona and Cristina Vilaplana de la UTE de l’Institut Germans Trias i Pujol on 14th and 15th June. Their fascinating research will certainly be inspiring further artworks that I make. They gave a talk, which unpacked the history of humanity’s fight against TB and various attempts to cure it. They talked about current concerns about drug resistant (untreatable) forms of TB which have evolved to counter our ability to kill them and told a story of a patient who was said to have been cured through the use of a medicine made of gold.

The workshop was extremely busy and people of all ages and levels of knowledge created their own “Infective Textiles” using Petri dishes filled with agar, natural dyes and other antimicrobial herbs and spices, such as oregano, known to interrupt the chemical signals used by bacteria to communicate (known as quorum sensing). They patterned tiny quilt squares of their own and photographs of the bacteria that have grown on them will be posted on as soon as they are available, then sterilised and then used in some of my future works.


Anna Dumitriu with the artistic installation and the results of the workshop

After the workshop I also added some of the results of the workshop, in particular visitors experiments in making antimicrobial dyes and “Infective Textiles” experiments, to the installation. The wonderful colours used by the participants particularly impressed me, as well as the fascinating discussions that we all had with the scientists. It was truly an honour to be involved with these events.

Anna Dumitriu

Related links
The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis
Festival de Ciència, Tecnologia i Innovació 2014

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