Living Art: Meet the Woman Making Sculptures With Bacteria from Her Skin

Oscar Wilde famously wrote, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” However, in artist Mellissa Fisher’s "Microbial Me," the line between the two is very is hard to define.

by Stephanie Leke
Apr 23 2016, 12:55pm

Microbiological Portrait.Photos courtesy of Mellisa Fisher

One never knows how or when inspiration will strike. For UK-based artist Mellissa Fisher, it was during an extracurricular course taken during her undergraduate studies at The University of Westminster. The class, "Broad Vision," provided students with the opportunity to collaborate across disciplines, and combined subjects such as photography, life science, and illustration. Surprisingly, Fisher (at the time, majoring in illustration and visual communication) became most intrigued by the life sciences component.

"The first time I looked down a microscope," she tells me over e-mail, "I was won over by the invisible world of living organisms and cells in the human body." What she saw was beautiful, she says, and kick-started her ambitious imagination—she began to think on a sculptural level.

This interest manifested further when Fisher was shown "agar plates"—Petri dishes that contain some type of growth medium (like agar, which is a jelly-like substance obtained from algae) used to culture microorganisms or small plants. Could she use agar to make art, and if so, how? Turns out, she could, and the result is Fisher's latest project, Microbial Me.

Fisher tells me that Microbial Me, a collection of sculptures combining microbiology with art (created in collaboration with scientists Dr. Mark Clements and Dr. Richard Harvey), showcases the connection between "nature and the self."

To create each sculpture, Fisher must first create a mold of her face using agar in a process similar to that of making gelatin. The agar powder is dissolved in water, which is then poured into her face-shaped cast and left to set in a cool temperature. Once hardened, it's removed from the cast leaving her with the mold that will serve as the foundation for her piece.

Fisher chose her face for these sculptural self-portraits because it's "a way of visualizing the organisms that are on my skin," she says. She explains that focusing on her face was an introspective experience ("It's kind of another way of getting to know myself, but my invisible self," she says), but also a way to connect with those who would be viewing her work: "The main reason I use my face, is to get the public to relate to it," she tells me. "Everyone has a face."

With the mold ready, Fisher swabs various areas of her skin to collect the bacteria that live there—saying "the face became an interesting grounds for growing bacteria because there is so much [bacteria there], passed through your hands, phones, the list goes on." Then, she rubs what she's collected onto the agar mold before placing it into an incubator, which provides a controlled and regulated environment for her microbial cultures to develop. In about three days the sculpture will finally begin to show the first signs of growth. Each sculpture can last up to a year, changing over time.

"Cress" shows the difference time makes.

What's striking about the project is the variety of colors and textures that emerge as the bacteria grow and spread on each mold. Each piece starts out as a monochromatic, plastic-looking face before transforming into a wealth of bumps and recesses. In some, mold-like growths manifest reminiscent of rotting fruit with welts of varying colors and sizes spread throughout. Fisher explains that this depends on what kind of agar she uses.

"There are hundreds of different types of agar in science that grow specific cells." The type used will depend on what kind bacteria or microorganisms a scientist trying to grow. Factors like the environment and temperature also have an impact on the bacteria's progress. For Microbial Me, Fisher opted for UTI agar (generally used to help differentiate between the various micro-organisms that cause urinary tract infections), allowing for more striking and chaotic results that are also visually appealing because of how the bacteria engages with it.

In essence, Microbial Me is a reflection of our own life ecosystem depicted in an accelerated manner. We witness the birth of new life, how it adapts and interacts to an environment, and as each piece matures and ages, the initial beauty transforms into decay and ultimately death. By drawing connections between illustration, sculpture, and living organisms, Fisher's Microbial Me explores the body as a landscape for growth.

Citing mixed reactions when the project was first shown—some viewed it as unappealing while others understood the uniqueness of it—Fisher has plans to continue expanding upon and evolving the project. Already, through a residency last Fall in Canada called "Biophilia—Where Art Meets Biology," she's begun to examine how to use fungi in her work for an upcoming project called Immortal Ground. For it, Fisher says she will use the body as a landscape for growing a different type of ecosystem from the Microbial Me project, with the the Reishi mushroom—believed to be "the mushroom of immortality" in Asian culture—at its core.

Microbial Me (sponsored by Thermofisher Scientific) is currently on display as part of The Human Microbiome exhibition presented by The Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Fisher's work will also be displayed in the upcoming show, Unfolding Realities, opening May 25 at Central Saint Martins in London, England.

At one time, Fisher considered creating a full body mold versus just her face for the project. "Microfloral Femunculus" a smaller version of this idea.