To see the world in a grain of sand

Over two hundred years ago, in the opening lines of Auguries of Innocence, poet William Blake attempted to express the beauty in nature’s smallest details:

To see a world in a grain of sand


And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

Artists often turn to the microscopic as inspiration by growing bacterial culture to represent a particular place, subject or experience.  One such example is New Zealander Joyce Campbell, a multidisciplinary artist whose LA Bloom (1992) images were Ilfachrome photograms of bacteria grown from swabs taken around LA neighbourhoods.

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Above and Below: Some of Joyce Campbell’s LA Bloom images

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You can read more about Joyce’s LA Bloom project here:

Another artist worth a mention here is Anicka Yi, whose You can call me F exhibition at The Kitchen in New York earlier this year featured biological swabs cultivated from one hundred women, giving the viewer not only an interesting aesthetic experience, but also allowing them the olfactory experience of the stench of live bacterial cultures.  The concept behind the work is the portrayal of the female figure as a viral pathogen, which undergoes external attempts to be contained and neutralized.

Anicka Yi : Grabbing At Newer Vegetables (2015) 

As time passed, the exhibit above became more populated with bacterial growth around her painted words You can Call me F.  I really like the idea of ephemeral, time-based art, and the fact that the exhibits change over the course of the exhibition. The scale of this piece (7ft long) and the amount of varying types of bacteria within it allows it to become a natural piece of abstract expressionism, which is dramatised its illumination within the  dark room.

I’m  interested in the sensory aspect to this piece, although apparently it was rather unpleasant – however I’m sure it created the desired effect- giving the viewers an experience to remember and a creating a talking point within the art circles of New York. I am considering the possibility of offering a sensory experience in my MA show – perhaps trying to give the viewers a sense of the smells within Birnam wood, or the landscape between Birnam and Dunsinane. Perhaps this could be delivered through a plinth which contains strong smelling substances and an area inviting the viewers to sniff – or maybe through a wilting installation, or a cauldron containing a potion of picked ingredients.  This is still just the beginnings of an idea. but it will be  interesting to further investigate how other artists go about delivering this sort of experience to their audience.


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