August 1, 2017
An artist transforms Ovid’s Metamorphoses… with blood
by Peter Kranitz
The year is 1735. A scholar in London has just purchased a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Eager to read this enduring Latin classic in a beautiful new edition, he opens to the first page. Unfortunately, the scholar has a cold, and he immediately sneezes on the the text. Undismayed, he continues reading, spreading all kinds of snot, sweat, and other foulness throughout the book.
Fast forward to nearly 300 years later. An artist finds the book in a secondhand shop in Margate, England. (The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy reports that the book, which was purchased for £3, was actually worth £1,500 in its original snot-and-sweat-stained form.) She then makes the completely normal and not at all Frankenstein-y decision to reanimate the dormant bacteria trapped within the book’s pages using her own blood.
Transdisciplinary artist Sarah Craske’s latest project, now on display at Chetham’s Library in Manchester (the UK’s oldest!), does just this. Craske, a self-described “artist, without category,” named the exhibition “Biological Hermeneutics,” also the designation she assigns to the “transdiscipline” in which she works. The work uses pages from the rare Metamorphoses as petri dishes that, when combined with agar and Craske’s own blood, produce blooms of bacteria across the aged paper.
Generally, Kennedy reports, projects that reanimate long-dormant microbes rely on sheep’s blood. The blood, which supplies crucial nutrients for the bacteria, is gelatinized with agar to give the microbes a surface to grow on. Craske made the unusual decision to have her own blood—nearly half a pint of it—extracted by a phlebotomist friend, because she didn’t like the idea of “the poor sheep just waiting to be tapped for science.”
Although Craske created this work in the name of “biological hermaneutics,” I would be unsurprised to learn that she’s inadvertently reawakened a Roman god or two along with the bacteria. Please stay safe when venturing into labyrinths, and be sure to cauterize all wounds when decapitating lizards.
Peter Kranitz is an intern at Melville House.