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If the sinister, fast-growing fuzz that claims your forgotten strawberries for the trash triggers your gag reflex, you might need a little art therapy. In a rare feat of left- and right-brain cooperation, local biological artist Selin Balci uses microorganisms as her medium, shepherding their colonies’ colors and textures into elegant, kaleidoscopic three-dimensional patterns. With a degree in microbiology from Istanbul University, Balci worked in a research lab for half a decade before changing her petri-dish focus from science to art. Visit her solo show, “Arena,” at Honfleur Gallery to Oct. 31, and give those white, tentacled berries a good long look before you throw them away. There’s art there, too.
Most viewers of Balci’s works think they’re made of bacteria, but she only uses mold and fungi. (Safety first!) Balci usually finds her specimens in soil and tree bark she collects from her backyard, but sometimes, her husband (a plant pathologist) or one of his lab assistants will offer her samples of brightly colored growths they’d planned to throw away.
“I feel like I’m a painter, but my paintings are alive,” Balci says. Like a painter’s tubes of oils, her mold samples sit in clear test tubes in her refrigerator. When she’s ready to make a new piece, she slices a tiny bit off the top to seed each color block. Unlike expensive paint, Balci’s supplies automatically repopulate.
Balci’s older work is on boards; this is the first time she’s showing in frames. Mold eats through regular paper, so she’s started using Yupo paper, a synthetic, water-resistant, translucent material that plays up the furry textures and vibrant colors.
Before coating paper in the potato dextrose agar that feeds her colonies, Balci sterilizes the paper and her instruments with Lysol to prevent mold spores that are already in the air from contaminating her piece. “Chance, of course, is involved,” she says. The pieces take about a month or two to grow.
What you see hanging in the gallery aren’t living mold colonies: Balci lets each piece dry out, killing any live organisms, then sprays the whole thing with acrylic to prevent new growth. She’s taken extra precautions since her show at Hamiltonian in 2011, when she exhibited some live growths in glass containers, then got a call one night from then-director Jackie Ionita to tell her that her installation was dripping.
Balci does experiments in petri dishes to see how different molds interact with one another. “Sometimes they eat each other; they grow on top of each other. They get angry,” Balci says. Other times, they keep to themselves, delineating a strict border between colonies. “I find their behavior very similar to us, to humans.”
Images by Selin Balci, courtesy of Honfleur Gallery