When the novel coronavirus arrived, microbiology went mainstream. Part of the challenge that governments, doctors and journalists faced early on in the pandemic was conveying the very real threat posed by something too small to see. Thankfully, a visual emerged to assist them: a spiky red and grey rendering by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins that went on to win a 2020 Beazley Designs of the Year prize in the awards program’s graphics category.
At Amsterdam’s Micropia museum of microbiology, Dutch textile artist Lizan Freijsen provides another point of entry into the realm of infinitesimal particles. Installed in the museum’s main exhibition space, her 5-by-13-metre Fungal Wall acts like a microscope’s eyepiece, representing eight actual microbes at a macro scale.
By rendering these specimens in wool, the design also engages with visitors’ sense of touch, inviting closer interaction and deeper reflection. “The moment you come into the museum and see such a large work, you become smaller,” says Freijsen. “The role humans play in life should be smaller, I think. That’s something you experience here.”
Freijsen has been working with fungi and micro-organisms as her subject matter for almost 20 years, beginning with photography and evolving into textiles. “The more I zoomed in, the more interesting the world that appeared,” she says. “It’s a world that we often take for granted.”
For this commission, she collaborated with the scientists at Micropia and the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute, which offered petri dishes as models. She then worked with Tapetes Beiriz in Portugal to weave and hand-tuft the background of the piece, and with Tilburg’s TextielMuseum and her long-time collaborator Hester Onijs to tuft the tapestries entirely by hand.
As it happens, the project coincided with the pandemic’s early arc almost exactly, with initial planning beginning in March 2020 and the installation completed in June 2021. “The timing, in that sense, was perfect,” she says, “because we made something that people were afraid of more accessible. We now know we need to change our relationship to microbes, because they have more power than we’d like to admit.”
Lizan Freijsen offers a tactile way to get up close and personal with the microscopic world we’ve been avoiding.