An insight to the artwork Symbiosis by artist Rebecca D. Harris and how it represents the enormous microbial communities of our bodies.

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Welcome to your invisible world, for every single cell that is you, they are outnumbered 10:1. You are host to around 1,000,000,000,000,000 microbes, a community of microorganisms which are a vital cycle of life and this microbial community which colonises your body make you an ecosystem. In 2015 I was commissioned by the Eden Project (supported by the Wellcome Trust), Cornwall, to create an artwork to convey this story.

Our bodies are an enormous microbial community, known as the microbiome, consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses and other microbes. Contours of the body’s undulating surface host a huge diversity of microbes taking residence in the various terrains of our bodily countryside. The variations of the surface play home to a variety of different microbes, just like the rainforest differs from the desert, so does the armpit to the elbow. We are an ecosystem, an analogy of our bodies not too dissimilar to that of the fragile nature of our planet.

When we normally think of microbes we think of those bad for our health, never more so than within our current climate of Coronavirus. However, in the main microbes are essential for good health. In Symbiosis I created a hand and machine embroidered artwork which is bright and tactile, and so, enables the viewer to engage with the positive aspects of our microbial community. Our bodies are not blemished by the microbes, but like what I am doing with the embroidery, they are embellishments, a way to view the positive side of the microbes we share our existence with, and more so, owe our existence to.

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Symbiosis, 2015 by Rebecca D. Harris

The artwork took at least six months to complete, starting digitally with creating the topographical style map of the body and finishing with thousands upon thousands of hand embroidered French knots. The different colours represent the major groups of microbes present on the skin, and give a sense of the diversity, proportions and distributions of those communities. As part of the commission, I worked with microbiologists Professor Michael Wilson from University College London (UCL) who was also lead scientific advisor for the permanent exhibition. It was a fascinating experience to merge our two worlds, think together on this project, and to see what outcome would develop from this engagement. Part of which featured as a BBC World Service documentary, that did not air in the UK, but a clip and article can be read at the BBC website.

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Data from Professor Wilson

Professor Wilson presented myself with a large range of information and data on the differing groups of microbes. It was a huge challenge to resolve how to best handle this range of information for which I had no grasp of myself. With all my embroidery threads before me, I clustered them and simply assigned them to the major groups of microbes.

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Planning material for Symbiosis by Rebecca D Harris

It is not necessary to have ‘a key’ with the work. This was just my starting point to ensure I could give a sense of the diverse colonies of microbes and where they like to congregate the most or, as specific to my piece, where they are not congregating at all.

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Detail shot of Symbiosis by Rebecca D. Harris

The specific topic I covered for the exhibition was regarding how when in the womb we are microbe free, 100% human, awaiting our seeding of microbes when we enter the microbial world. To convey this, the In Utero part of the figure contrasts with its mother’s vibrant and multitude of hand embroidered French knots. During pregnancy, we have everything we need for survival from our placenta. It is through birth we acquire the first stage of crucial development of human health, microbes.

How we are delivered has its impact, as demonstrated by how our gut bacteria differs greatly of those delivered by caesarean section compared to those receiving their first microbial seeding through the birth canal. Following this first journey, as you would guess, Mother Nature gives mother another tool for ensuring a healthy microbial life and this is through breastfeeding. We have a symbiotic relationship between baby’s gut health and the milk its mother is producing, this is what inspired the title of the artwork.

There is a ‘small window’ of opportunity in early life for future mental health, immune health and gut health all from this microbial life. This is not to say that opportunity is our only opportunity. For my hand embroidered artwork Rhizome (below), produced for UCL Neuroscience Society’s SANE mental health charity auction, I was inspired by how gardening is said to alleviate depression. This is not only due to food production satisfaction, sunshine and the exercise — but also the microbes Mycobacterium vaccae found in the soil; absorbed by the gardener, which is said to then stimulate serotonin production within the brain. It fascinates me just how much of a symbiotic relationship our bodies have with the natural world, that there is a reward system for our interaction in tending to the land.

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Rhizome, 2015 by Rebecca D. Harris

Which brings me back to feeling a stronger link about how our bodies are like a ecosystem. Microbes forge the link between us and the natural world, ensuring good health, together forming the landscape of our lives. The painstaking process of months and months of hand stitching those tiny colourful dots to convey this, was time well spent. I enjoyed every moment of exploring this topic and especially for this piece of embroidery to continue its story where it can still be viewed (ironically, this particular exhibition is currently closed due to the pandemic) at the most fitting location, Eden Project.

All photographs of the artworks are the copyright of the artist.

A creative of many sorts. Artist with a passion for public engagement of biomedical sciences — rebecca-harris.com Creative director for Penca.io

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