Making vesicles

I knew from quite early on that I wanted my ‘natural history’ diorama for the peptide/membrane project to feature several globe forms which inspired by the vesicles / cell membranes under the influence of the peptide. (The peptide itself would be invisible – only detectable in its effects).

The vesicles were not intended to be a scientific representation, but more something between an evocation and an abstract sculpture. Having said that, there were a number of concepts that I had found really interesting from the time I spent in the lab that I wanted to inform the development of the vesicle elements, so I set about playing with ideas and techniques that would take on those ideas.

Creating Surface: While I was in meetings and labs with the team, I kept hearing about phase separation. In fact, to begin with i wasn’t sure if i was hearing about ‘phase separation’ or ‘face separation’, but that was soon cleared up! During my time in the labs i looked at images and heard more about this phenomenon in cell membranes and was fascinated by the confocal microscope images that illustrated it.

‘Spotty’ vesicle showing phase separation – image captured by Andrew Booth

I started to play with frit balls as a way of creating different surface effects within pate de verre. Frit balls are small granules of glass which are heated in the kiln to contract into little balls. I started to incorporate different sizes of frit balls into pate de verre samples in different ways – mixed in or adhering to the surface in groups. It was fun and I got some effects i really liked.

Once I had settled on some textures i liked, i started making vesicles. Initially I used rough textured spheres around which to make moulds, but I then moved onto using wax spheres that were smoother and easier to work with.

Colours: The first vesicle I made, i mixed up my colours and ended up with a vesicle with big pink patches which i hated. The plan had been for a much more subtle transition from white to a pale fleshtone, not only to evoke the biological but also in keeping with the overall palette that i’d talked to the Leeds team about, having seen the space and the way colours worked in the CRF area. This first patchy vesicle made a good test piece to try out the effects I wanted to develop using perforation, poration and metal mesh.

Through further experimentation and refining my process I finally got the three colours and textures of vesicles that I wanted.

The three final vesicles before I started drilling

Drilling: I decided to make the perforations in the vesicles by drilling into the globes rather than making the holes through the mouldmaking. Several reasons for this, including the likely strength of the ultimate vesicles and also the accuracy of the holes. I did, however, for the darkest vesicle, identify where i wanted the perforations to fall and created bulges around them as part of the model and mouldmaking process. Luckily the drilling went well and there were no breakages at that stage, which would have been heart-breaking as well as vesicle-breaking, as by this point, each vesicle represents many hours of work. Now they have been drilled, the white vesicle has no pores, the pale flesh vesicle has small pores, and the larger darker vesicle has extensive perforations.

So that, in a nutshell, was the development of the vesicle elements of the pieces. There’ll be more vesicle chat when I get to posting about the process of making the mesh elements that emerge through the perforations to create the overall effect of leakage, inspired by the action of the peptide…

Working, working, working

It’s been a long while since I last posted – which is not to say that I haven’t been busy moving forward with the project, just that I’ve been focused on the studio rather than the laptop! So this and future posts will start to bring things up to date, slowly but surely, to the point where I am at present, with all the glass elements made and about to start construction of the piece in earnest.

The first major landmark since the last post was bringing the team up to speed in May with the way I wanted to go with the composition of the piece. Having settled on the idea of a natural history vitrine, I took them through my initial ideas for a diorama based around the developing perforation of a series of vesicles by the peptide.

I felt somewhat hampered by the necessity to have the conversation by Zoom rather than being able to talk in person and bounce about ideas and look at samples; we had initially imagined that I would go back to visit them in Leeds during May, but as lockdown was still very much in place, that was not an option. So Zoom it was.

I constructed a brief presentation to take Paul, Andrew and Arindam through my thinking and to show them some of the samples that I had been making. It culminated in a rough and ready construction collage of the basic elements of what I was proposing. Here are the slides from the presentation to give you a sense of what I was thinking. There’s no text, so it’s not totally self-explanatory, but it does give a sense of the elements that were coming together in my thinking in May.

We had some great chat as a result of talking through my ideas which have led to more concrete developments. Arindam uploaded some images for me from his research process – some spheroid experiments and some cell images – which i am working on to be a backdrop to the piece. Andrew has provided me with some more of his handwritten calculations, which I want to collage into the backdrop and possibly use in other ways.

In terms of my glasswork, we had some productive thoughts about my ‘Z stack’ element (my very rough prototype is in the image at the top of this post) – which I shall post about separately. We also talked about a potential ‘wasp nest’ element, but agreed that the emphasis needed to be on the science/ research rather than wasps. By the end of the conversation I felt things had definitely moved phase from ‘what am i making’ to ‘how will i make it’. So I went on from there to making vesicles – more of that to come soon!

Thinking about texture, surface and edges

When I was initially thinking about my approach to the Peptides project, before my first visit to Leeds to present my pitch for the project, I was thinking very much about metaphors for the process by which the peptide acts on cell walls. Here are a couple of slides from my pitch, outlining my thoughts:

Since starting the project for real, I’ve returned to those slides and that thinking to see how it might guide my approach now I am actively creating samples to help me shape the work. From the conversations with Paul about how the peptide acts on the cell membrane, I keep coming back to the word perforate. I also keep visualising the process expressed in this image below, from one of the slides that Paul shared with me quite early in our discussions on my research visit in March.

From this, and from the previous images of vesicles and cells through the microscope, I am developing a series of samples with different textures and qualities. So far the samples are not perforated, but more ‘frayed’ at the edges (they are quite small) but I envisage that I will develop more punctured surfaces when I scale things up.

Punctured surfaces and interesting edges also give me scope for another idea that I am developing, of wrapping edges in aluminium mesh to mirrors the process suggested above where the peptide seems to ‘edge’ the emerging perforations in the membrane….

Using mesh to wrap the inside and edges of a form. The beginnings of an approach?

The image here was a first experiment, using a complete form that I had to hand, but I will be experimenting further with edging and wrapping.

Creating and curating cabinets and vitrines

So, for those of you who have read my post on placing the artwork, you know that there are some major advantages to placing the artwork under glass (even if it is itself made of glass!).

I know that I don’t just want to make an artwork and pop it into a standard cabinet – often glass art does not fare well when placed inside a glass case. So my plan is to create an artwork where the cabinet or vitrine is an integral part of the piece.

When thinking about how to use cabinets or vitrines in this artwork, I am very much drawn to thinking about natural history exhibits. A lot of natural history museums in particular evolved complex settings for displaying their flora and fauna specimens in their vitrines during the late nineteenth century and enduring well into the twentieth century. This approach also spilled over into more general taxidermy.

Taxidermy display of Australian birds

Various artists are also known for using vitrines in their work. Here are examples from Carsten Holler, Anselm Kiefer, and an artist new to me Fiona Hall. They have used vitrines in different ways, creating types of taxonomy, mises en scenes and

Carsten Holler’s meditation on chanterelles and the colour orange.
Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer
Fiona Hall
Fiona Hall

Reviewing how curators, collectors and artists use of vitrines, some of the key things I know I want to think about going forward include:

  • Backdrop – coloured and or sandblasted
  • Drawing or writing on the case
  • Mise en scene inside the case – including narrative elements
  • Composition of main elements as specimens (or not)
  • Integrated lighting

I already have my eye on a specific vitrine / display case so am going to be thinking about those things in light of that….

Context, cleaning and cabinets – the practicalities of placing the artwork

While visiting St James Hospital, I spent some time in the Bexley Wing looking around where my artwork might be placed, both temporarily and on a more permanent basis.

The idea, if all goes according to plan, would be for the artwork to spend its first three months once completed in the Atrium Gallery of the Bexley Wing. This is an amazing, huge, high-ceilinged and light-filled space which already has a considerable number of artworks on display at any one time.

About the Atrium Gallery

Following that it will move to the Clinical Research Facility (CRF) which had just opened for business when I was on my visit to the hospital, although without inpatients. Chris and Debbie showed me around the space and pointed out a couple of options for where my artwork might be placed, depending on which I preferred and what kind of artwork i would be making. We also looked at what else would be in the space, including the lightboxes (the edge of one of which you can see below) and some watercolours which had been commissioned for and donated to the CRF.

A long flat wall if I am making wall based work
If i want to make something plinth, table or floor based, this area of around 1m x 1m would be an option, also with handy power source

While we were looking at the space, Chris also shared that the CRF might be converted into a coronavirus treatment unit if required by the hospital for providing care during the pandemic.

This heightened our existing awareness that the artwork would need to be easy to clean, or possibly sterilise, as well as allowing the walls / floors near it to be cleaned effectively. For that reason Chris and Debbie were both very much in favour of having the artwork housed in some sort of a cabinet that would allow for external cleaning without disturbing the piece itself, and would enable the artwork to be moved to allow the areas around it to be cleaned.

I hadn’t really considered the artwork being encased in any way up until that conversation. We had talked about the requirement for the artwork to be safe for patients and staff, and I had been thinking about how to finish rough or sharp edges so that they would not present any difficulties, as well as how the piece could be kept clean. But most of my creative ideas had to that point been for an installation where the component parts were not contained, and so this represented quite a change in creative direction for me to contend with.

I mulled for a short time about whether I could happily create a work which would conform to the necessary cleaning requirements without being held in any form of container or cabinet, but quite quickly decided that this would be both limiting and complex, determining what kind of finishes and materials that I could use – probably mainly shiny and smooth surfaces, which does not fit well with my usual aesthetic or approach.

However, constraints can be very positive, and my first thought was to find a way to make the ‘cabinet’ part of the piece itself, which would be an interesting and challenging way forward. My mind immediately went to my ‘Blood Morphology’ pieces which have integral bell jars containing the blood cells.

My Blood Morphology Series with their integral glass domes

Bell jars or glass domes would definitely be a possibility for this artwork, but currently i am much more drawn to the idea of specimen cabinets or vitrines, especially as I don’t want to find myself repeating myself. I will be doing some research about the aesthetics of specimen cabinets and vitrines as well as looking into other artists who have used these, and will post about that separately…