Beauty is only skin deep
A Toronto artist's latest exhibition showcases the exotic, yet intimate majesty of the microscopic by blowing up skin-based stem cells to photographic proportions
One giant photo looks like a cocoon enmeshed in strands of silk. Another, like a distant nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. A third brings to mind rivulets of lava pouring down the sides of a volcano at night.
Yet all of the images in Toronto artist Radha Chaddah's latest exhibition show the same thing: adult-human stem cells that have been reprogrammed to change from skin into neural tissue. The overall effect is similar to taking a voyage through a world that is both utterly exotic yet intimately related to the voyager.
"These are the most striking pictures for me," said Ms. Chaddah, directing attention to a photo in which a cell has been carefully prepared to reveal its cytoskeleton – a network of protein fibres that helps maintain shape and function. "People don't generally think of cells as having an internal architecture."
This is not the classic microscope view of the cell, familiar to anyone who has cracked open a high-school biology textbook. Often, the images do not show cell membranes or other recognizable components. Instead, they highlight the hidden structures within cells, which Ms. Chaddah tags with fluorescent antibodies and then blasts with a laser so they glow with vivid colour at the moment she captures the photo. Once the photo is taken, Ms. Chaddah can never go back. So intense are the exposures she requires, that her tiny subjects are destroyed in the act of imaging them.
Researchers are keen to exploit the potential of stem cells because they can be induced to switch identity. This property holds tremendous promise for regenerative medicine. For example, in the future, a patient's skin cells may be reprogrammed and used to help restore ailing vision due to a deteriorating retina.
This is the kind of possibility that Ms. Chaddah was helping to explore when she was a graduate student in cell and molecular biology a decade ago, eventually publishing her work on stem cells in the Journal of Neuroscience.
But, like the cells that fascinate her, Ms. Chaddah found herself changing identities. She had started off with training in fine arts and art conservation before going back to school to become a stem-cell researcher. After completing her master's degree, she turned to the arts again, this time with science as her inspiration.
Her current exhibition, which has been on display in Toronto as part of the annual Contact photography festival, is the product of a meeting of those two worlds. As a graduate student, she needed to repeatedly image the cells she was working with – a laborious and frequently frustrating process that could sometimes produce results that were beautiful to look at even when they weren't scientifically usable.
"I would go into that little microscope room and be lost in there for five or six hours," she said. "Then I'd come out with zero data, a major headache and a few amazing pictures."
Recognizing the visual potential of the technique, Ms. Chaddah made a deal with her supervisor, University of Toronto stem-cell scientist Derek van der Kooy: In exchange for some additional research she conducted in the lab, she was given access to the microscope to pursue her art.
"I think it's a great idea because we look at these cells under the microscope and they look fantastic to us, but they should be fantastic to everyone," Dr. van der Kooy said.
He added that while he was delighted to see Ms. Chaddah's images appreciated as art, he wished there was more about the science behind them in the exhibition. Ms. Chaddah has taken a less direct route, sparking the viewer's curiosity by giving the images biblical titles – a choice that is also meant to draw attention to the way medical discoveries can be viewed with something approaching religious reverence. While stem cells are the subject of legitimate research, they have also spurred the desperate to seek miracle treatments based on questionable evidence.
Yet, there is also plenty to feed a sense of wonder at the machinery of life. In a piece called Exodus, which is also the name of the exhibition, Ms. Chaddah has captured a neural cell in the act of migration – a reminder, she said, that when human cells are cultured in a Petri dish they can revert to acting as individuals rather than as part of a larger organism. On another level, it also refers to the new world of medical benefits – and risks – that the manipulation of cells is leading us to as a society.
But even without such layers of meaning, Ms. Chaddah said she is often surprised by the sense of connection her images seem to evoke, even when visitors are not entirely sure what they are looking at as they wander into the gallery.
"It's interesting how many people stand amazed in front of these things and they have some feeling that it has something to do with them even before they read that it came from human skin," she said. "I want to draw people in with beauty but I would love it if people would think beyond the beauty."
Exodus is on display until May 31 at the Arta Gallery, 14 Distillery Lane, Toronto, as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.