Visions of Vaccines
Each step taken around British sculptor Katharine Dowson’s latest work, a translucent form frozen within eight crystal cubes, seems to change the look and composition of the sculpture’s surface. It’s like the glass is mutable: sometimes it is hard and opaque, sometimes fluid enough to reach through. A Window to the Future of an HIV Vaccine is a puzzle. The eight scored, polished blocks, each about the size of a biscuit tin, reflect, refract, and divide the ghostly shape etched inside: the clover-shaped protein that dots HIV’s surface known as the HIV trimer. “I’m hoping people will look at it and want to know what it’s about,” Dowson says. “And then they’ll read.”
Dowson modeled her sculpture on the precise structural details of the trimer protein obtained by researchers at The Scripps Research Institute. Her sculpture is part of “The Art of Saving a Life” project, commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and bringing together photography, illustration, paintings, music, and written stories to illustrate how vaccines continue to change the course of history (theartofsavingalife.com). The project started when Christine McNab, a Bangkok-based communications consultant, began working with the foundation to prepare for Gavi’s donor conference, held recently in Berlin, Germany, at which some of the art was exhibited (see Spotlight, this issue).
Dowson has worked for some time now incorporating science and anatomy themes into her artwork, including turning magnetic resonance scans of her brain and heart into printed molds and crystal sculptures. She’s connected to the GV Art Gallery in London, which specializes in science-related art, and sometimes works with another public health charity, the Wellcome Trust. While making A Window Dowson consulted many times with Imperial College of London mucosal infection and immunity professor Robin Shattock and his team of researchers, visiting the lab and going through the complex current scientific literature. With the Scripps trimer as a model, Dowson employed laser etching to cast the image of the protein inside the glass, each cube containing part of the whole. “The laser is light. In a sense the image doesn’t exist. It’s where the light has chipped the glass. It’s like a breath or memory. It’s there, but you can only see it because a third force has made it visible. That is what, for me, science is like: this crystallography that makes the trimer visible,” Dowson says. A Window to the Future of an HIV Vaccine is presented with seven of the cubes stacked together and one missing from the group. “Each block has a bit of the puzzle that all these laboratories and all these scientists are working on,” Dowson says. “And the puzzle hasn’t been solved.”
Chris Elias, chief of the Gates Foundation’s global development program, saw the exhibit in Berlin. “There’s a tremendous diversity of perspective and story,” he says, “and a sense with vaccines that this is one of the most important things we can do to save children’s lives around the world. We’ve made great progress but we’re still missing one out of every five children.”
Not far from where Annie Liebowitz’s group collective portrait of vaccine pioneers hung, children’s book illustrator Sophie Blackall had four watercolor-wash and ink images of village and city scenes in the middle of a bustling day: children playing, laundry fluttering, men hauling carts. In each case health workers are arriving from one side of the image; bad news on the other. “We tell stories,” Blackall says, and recounts going to the Congo jungle, where she came to a village hit by measles. “The chief of the village had a two-year-old daughter. He’d carried her on foot for two days to the nearest clinic. She died in his arms. We arrived to a village in mourning.” Blackall’s work is carefree, fun, and deadly serious, all in one busy sweep of the page. “Art can transcend language,” Blackall says. “I’ve drawn myself out of many a hairy situation.”
German painter Thomas Ganter’s contribution focuses on how a single person can make a difference. Based on an image of a Nepalese health worker, Ganter’s painting The Unknown Health Worker presents a woman with no backdrop, in traditional dress, a cooler of vaccine strapped over her shoulder, and a wryly amused, beguiling expression. She seems to be saying “What, you expected something else?” or “Do you think this medicine would make it out there by itself?” Ganter is expressing respect and admiration. “I wanted to make a kind of monument to all of these health workers.”
For Elias the exhibit reflects many stories, all with a singular purpose. “It will help to get audiences that don’t normally think about vaccines to think about vaccines.” –Michael Dumiak
Michael Dumiak reports on global science, technology, and public health and is based in Berlin.