Tuberculosis takes center stage in U.K. art-science exhibition

What does the word “tuberculosis” bring to mind? For some, it might be a sterile, cold image of a modern-day hospital room. But a London solo show by artist Anna Dumitriu — titled “The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis” — offers a new perspective.

The show is being held at Watermans from January 16 through March 24, 2014. It’s accompanied by a public lab workshop that will span five Saturdays, as well as a one-day multidisciplinary symposium to be held on World TB Day (March 24).

Maternity dress in the Romantic Disease

As part of “The Romantic Disease,” Dumitriu infused this antique maternity dress with bacterial DNA, as well as madder root, safflower, and walnut husks, which have been used as treatments for tuberculosis. All images courtesy of Anna Dumitriu.

The project is intended to investigate “mankind’s strange relationship” with tuberculosis, an infectious disease that in the 1800s acquired an air of romanticism, weaving its way into poetry, novels, and opera. Sufferers included John Keats, Franz Kafka, and Emily Brontë, and tuberculosis (or “consumption,” as it also came to be known) appears in works such as “La Bohème,” “Les Misérables,” and “Anna Karenina,” to name just a few.

“Since the beginning, [tuberculosis] has been surrounded by myth and superstition as humanity tried to understand what caused it,” explains the exhibition outline. “Bad air, demon dogs, and vampires have all been blamed. It has been linked to creativity due to its long association with art, literature, and the Romantic Movement.”

Dumitriu’s works combines textiles, tuberculosis-related apparatus, and even strains of sterilized Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria responsible for the condition.

For example, for “Where There’s Dust, There’s Danger,” she created small lung-shaped sculptures out of wool, dust, and DNA extracted from M. tuberculosis. The lungs illustrate different stages and treatment of tuberculosis, according to the project description, and reflect past confusion about how the disease is transmitted.

Wool lung from Romantic Disease

The small lungs in “Where There’s Dust, There’s Danger” contain wool, household dust, and extracted bacterial DNA.

While we now know that tuberculosis spreads through airborne droplets produced by actions such as a sneeze or cough, transmission was initially a mystery. Dumitriu used dust to create the lungs as a nod to early theories that tuberculosis was primarily spread by household dust.

Shifting to treatment, “The Romantic Disease” also includes a carved and engraved pneumothorax machine. These machines were used to collapse the lungs of tuberculosis patients, under the belief at the time that immobilization would help the lung heal. (A 1919 article in a nursing journal explains the rationale: “Imagine an infected cut across the palm of the hand and ask yourself, What are the chances of … healing if that hand is opened and shut twenty thousand times a day?”)

Pneumothorax machine in Romantic Disease

Collapsing a patient’s lung (i.e., pneumothorax) using such a machine was once a common treatment for tuberculosis.

The carvings on the machine case mimic the texture of lung tissue in the tuberculosis patient, the exhibit description notes. Meanwhile, the engravings reflect the appearance of M. tuberculosis when it’s detected on a Ziehl-Neelsen bacterial stain test.

The exhibition also includes “The Romantic Disease Dress,” an antique maternity dress stained and decorated using safflower, madder root, and other dyes, reflecting the historical role of such dyes as tuberculosis treatments. And for “Blue Henry,” Dumitriu engraved a patient transmission network atop a sputum flask known by the same name.

The engraving, which shows the pattern of disease spread among a group of patients, is based on DNA-sequencing research from the Modernizing Medical Microbiology Consortium. (Dumitriu is an artist-in-residence with the project.)

“By identifying minor changes in the bacteria’s genome as it moves between people, it is possible to reveal who passed the disease to whom,” the exhibit description explains.

Blue Henry from the Romantic Disease

Tuberculosis patients carried flasks such as the “Blue Henry” to collect coughed up mucus. Dumitriu has engraved a tuberculosis transmission network on the one shown.

More information about the solo show, symposium, and workshops is available at the Watermans website. To learn more about Dumitriu’s other art-science investigations, visit annadumitriu.tumblr.com.


Nicole is an editor and writer living in San Francisco.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *