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Bio-art gone viral: Cantor Arts Center displays models of human viruses

Gold pipe cleaners, pillow stuffing, Play-Doh, tampons, painted dried pasta, purple beads, Q-tips, plastic balls, construction paper, syringes and glitter. Supply crafty hands with these items and a hot-glue gun and you could have a costume fit for Trannyshack. Or, give them to science-minded Stanford students and watch artistic renderings of viruses emerge through origami, whittling, collage and more.

On display at the university's Cantor Arts Center through October 28, Adventures in the Human Virosphere: The Use of Three-Dimensional Models to Understand Human Viral Infections explores the awesome and terrible properties of, as a wall text describes, "the complete pantheon of viral predators that use humans as their hosts."

Art works depicting smallpox, hepatitis B, rabies, herpes simplex, polio, rubella and other troublemakers are divided into two categories in the show curated by Judy Koong Dennis: icosahedral and helical viruses, and viruses surrounded by an envelope. The enveloped kind feature shapes that don't fit categories such as cube or sphere; rather, the asymmetrical figures differ wildly from one another.

The pieces are select assignments from Humans and Viruses, a multidisciplinary Stanford course that Robert Siegel, MD, PhD, began teaching in 1983. Students with other backgrounds may take the class, but most are undergraduates studying human biology. Siegel first assigned the model project in the late 1980s, explaining, "Various structures and processes are best understood in three dimensions and from the kinesthetic learning associated with model building."

Clean edges and symmetry characterize the many faces of the icosahedral and helical structures; several of the geometric pieces use traditional materials such as ceramics, paper or wood. Yu-Jin Lee, who contributed three icosahedral viruses to the show, told me, "As a student and origami enthusiast, I was excited with the challenge to create a virus out of paper. This project has allowed me to have a greater understanding of how objects come together and the importance of models in offering insight into the complex nature of medicine."

I wavered on whether these contained, efficient structures of the icosahedral and helical varieties felt more intimidating than the exploded treasure chest titled HIV-1, or more dangerous than SARS, the hanging sparkly baby mobile, which could double as a jellyfish with puffball-topped tentacles and ribbons spilling out split sides. The flashy, translucent wrappings of HIV and SARS hint at their interior contents in a manner both dreadful and seductive, and they illustrate a displayed quotation from Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir Peter Medawar, OM CBE FRS, who described the composition of a virus as "a piece of bad news wrapped in protein."

An electron micrograph of a virus accompanies each object. However faithful to form or radically offbeat each student's imagining may be, seeing the microscopic made visible, colorful and even humorous (once recognized, the tampons got a laugh) left this viewer curious to know exactly how the immune-system pirates pillage. That something so small as an actual virus could cause so much harm to a comparatively giant human resonated equally scary and impressive. It also made me want to attend the next of Siegel's Model Marathons, wherein students share their work with each other in "a celebration of infection including costumes, poetry, music and surprises - a clear example of learning gone viral."

Previously: Science, apps and wonder and Rodin: Real art, but not real anatomy
Photo of Elena Jordan's Model of SARS Virus, 2011 (fabric with glitter, puff balls, pipe cleaners, ribbon, pillow fill, hot glue) by Cantor Arts Center

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