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Artists Reveal the Bacterial Beauty of the Human Microbiome

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"Symbiosis" by Rebecca D. Harris represents the microbiome through hand-embroidered French knots. Image Credit: Courtesy The Eden Center

In one sense, you are more bacteria than you are human. At least, you are vastly outnumbered by the amount of bacteria inside you. The human body contains 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. Advances in DNA technology are finally allowing scientists to study these microbial companions in depth, deepening our understanding of how the colonies of bacteria that coexist with the human body—the microbiome influence mental and physical health. Each one of us has an utterly unique melange of different types of bacteria that can affect our anxiety and depression levels, influence our weight, and serve as protection against disease, among other things.

As a way to help nonscientists understand these organisms that call our bodies home, the Eden Center, an educational charity with a visitor center in Cornwall, U.K., commissioned 11 artists to explore the microbiome through a visual medium. The new permanent exhibition, “Invisible You,” includes a 7-foot-tall bouncy inflatable gut, a paper sculpture of an E. coli bacterium, embroidery of microbial communities on human skin, and a sculpture containing a fecal transplant. 

“We wanted to take people inside their bodies, making the actual concept easier to understand,” Gabriella Gilkes, the Eden Project’s science program manager, tells mental_floss.

Mellissa Fisher’s “Microbiological Portrait” is a sculpture cast from the artist’s face, covered in bacteria from her skin. Image Credit: Courtesy The Eden Center

Brooklyn-based artist Joana Ricou turned belly button gunk into bacterial paintings with her contribution, “Other Self Portraits.” She asked individuals to swab their belly buttons, then wiped the sample on a Petri dish covered in agar, a jelly-like food source for bacteria. A few days later, when the samples had blossomed into moldy-looking colonies of bacteria, she photographed them and added a post-production swirl of color. (All the bacterial belly button portraits are on display on Tumblr.)

"Other Self Portraits." Image Credit: Courtesy Joana Ricou

The belly button served as a particularly significant source for the project because of its importance in child development. The placenta linking mother and child may be cut after birth, resulting in our innies or outies, but the mother-child physical link isn't truly severed, thanks to microbes. During and right after birth, microbes are passed from mother to child from the mother’s skin, birth canal, and breast milk. “The microbiome blurs the boundary between generations,” Ricou says in an email. 

Indeed, it blurs the boundary between all people. In her first 60 portraits, Ricou (and her scientific partners at North Carolina State University) identified a handful of the same bacteria common to individuals in the U.S. There are certain bacteria common within groups of people. “This strong similarity marks the microbiome truly as a connector, linking each of us not just to our environment but to all other humans and living things,” she says. 

Image Credit: Courtesy Joana Ricou

Though people may share some of the same kinds of bacteria, your microbiome is as unique as your DNA. Scientists postulate it could identify you as easily as a fingerprint does. And yet we contain multitudes of living creatures. "We are these walking colonies," observes sculptor Rogan Brown, whose cut-paper renderings of E. coli are on display in the exhibit. "Of course it isn't an alien species. It's part and parcel of who you are."

"Cut Microbe," by Rogan Brown // YouTube

As initiatives like the Human Microbiome Project try to pinpoint exactly how bacterial changes help or hurt our health, “Invisible You” is a reminder that though it may feel like your body belongs to just you, it's a trillion-organism ecosystem unto itself. That's a good reminder that you're never truly alone.

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Ape Meets Girl
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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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presidents
Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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