Beauty in Danger

There is a concept and associated expression, that of “Dangerous Beauty”, which I find interesting. You often find it placed near or alongside that of the “Femme Fatale”. It is generally a trope around seduction and betrayal and is one I want to try and subvert if I can. I believe beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places. I certainly like to look for it where others wouldn’t. Work I have made in the past includes looking at the presence of crucifix-like forms in the intersection of paving stones, or the hidden language that might be divined from the lines and curves on sports grounds. Things that people, in general, will walk over or past without paying them more than passing attention. I refer to this as “Hidden Beauty”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made me consider more deeply my long interest in, and appreciation of, scientific and medical illustration. Prior to the use of photography, artists were employed and trained as illustrators. They recorded discoveries, creating images that would illustrate reports, voyage logs, books, and a variety of other purposes. These artists formed an important part of voyages and journeys of exploration. Now, these illustrations can be read in ways that the originators would not have expected, for example, as artifacts of colonialism and the reinforcement of ideals of cultural superiority. They can give us an insight into social norms of the time, shows how genders were considered and treated and how social and racial groups were represented.

Now, with ways of capturing images that range from high-powered telescopes to electron microscopes, we can see the beauty in the formation and destruction of stars and planets along with the world of bacteria and viruses. Watercolor artists, scientists with sketchbooks, and lithographers have been replaced by people with cameras and graphic and image manipulation software. They create images that range from false-color manipulations to highly accurate 3D models. From general representations to detailed mapping of details, today's images can hold as much artistic power as earlier examples.

Sometimes these are things of outstanding aesthetic beauty. The famous “Pillars of Creation” image of the Eagle Nebula, for example, has probably led to many a person developing more than just a passing interest in astronomy. At the other end of the scale images of alluring beauty can be made of animate and inanimate objects invisible to the naked eye.

Aposematic coloration, a form of reverse camouflage, is an example of where beauty can be found in danger. Animals, insects, and plants can display this as a warning that they are dangerous to approach or consume. Now, with advances in technology that let us see down to the microscopic level, we can observe things such as viruses that are often, when viewed in a different context, outstandingly beautiful. Sometimes seductively so. The deeper I look into this, the more beauty I find. The colors of mold growth, the patterns formed by bacterial colonies. All these can pass into the realm of great beauty.

Why am I calling this body of work “Beauty in Danger”? Because it can be read in a variety of ways. There is some beauty in things that are dangerous, and some dangerous things are beautiful. Finally, because we are currently reminded how fragile our place in the universe is, and that we, and the beauty around us, may simply disappear. Any other way that you may read it is equally valid.

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. ”

Edvard Munch.