Dispersing Sublime: Towards a Bacterial Landscape

Though humans have often placed emphasis on their cognitive ability to know about the world as evidence of our intellectual superiority over other forms of lives, there is also an equally compelling tradition in the humanities where this sense of superiority is challenged through specific genres of literature, art, cultural and spiritual traditions. Nature here, as much as our understanding of it is a mediated by culture, serves as a counterfoil to human hubris. In different scales of time and space, the force of nature has come to stand for a factor which remains indeterminable and uncontrollable – be it a natural disaster or a disease.

Dispersing Sublime: Towards A Bacterial Landscape is an exhibition that explores what constitutes creative will when the artistic agency is shared between an artist and the most basic form of life on earth, the bacteria. In the exhibited works, Nur Amira relies on the biological process of the bacteria over time to produce a visual form within a controlled environment that says something new about what is a landscape.

Revisiting the sublime as an aesthetic experience, Nur Amira explores its relevance to a genre of contemporary art called, bio-art. Though originally foregrounded by the 19th-century Romantic movement in Europe to describe the experience of awe resulting from recognising human mortality gained through one’s encounter with large and powerful forces of nature, Nur Amira explores if this is an aesthetic that can be experienced if we turn towards the microscopic. By collaborating’ with other ‘agents’, she suggests that larger existential questions about what constitutes life can also be experiecned by paying attention to life-forms that are invisible to the naked eye.

The exhibition also seeks to question: who is the author of a research? Throughout the making of the work, Nur Amira has also collaborated with scientists from the Science Faculty here at the University of Malaya. While authorship is normally attributable in research papers, the outcome here in the exhibition is less certain. In deciding to stage an exhibition of bio-art works, Nur Amira uses parts of her PhD research to reflect on our contemporary research culture.

For instance, how do we begin to regard all forms of research as collaborative, not just amongst academics, but also between scholars and non-scholars, informants and participants, humans and other non-social actors or agents or life-forms? How does this expanded idea of authorship and agency help us to rethink our current obsession with intellectual property rights? What is knowledge when it is only narrowly defined as property? What changes if instead of seeing knowledge as property, we see it as a landscape? How does this metaphorical force of nature challenges our understanding of the values that go into our research?

Does thinking about knowledge as landscape motivates us to recognise wonder, humility and open-mindedness as important attitudes to orientate research? How do we build a more humane and creative research culture when so much of research discourse today is dominated by the commercialisation of knowledge and measured by media success and social prestige? What has art to offer as lessons about other equally important values that we should cultivate as a research university?


Nur Amira Hanafi majored in Marine Biology for her Bachelor in Science at University Malaysia of Terengganu (UMT). Deciding that art is something that she wants to pursue after her undergraduate studies, she obtained a Masters in Art and Design at Universiti Institut Teknologi MARA (UiTM). She is currently completing her PhD research in the Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya. In microbiology, Nur Amira has always been fascinated with the visual dimensions of the bacteria life-forms and what this says about the life-forms physiological process and their survival capability in nature. When it comes to art, she discovers that bio-art as a genre provides her with an opportunity to explore bacteria as an artistic medium. Bio-art also offers a new understanding of the role that medium plays in the creation of art, which allows her to formulate new research questions about the varieties of human cultural experiences.

Nur Amira acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Chai Lay-Ching, Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Malaya for facilitating the use of the laboratory. She also likes to thank Assistant Officer Hafizatul Anis bt Mohd Zan at the Institute for record keeping and ideas suggestions. Lastly, she acknowledges the efforts of Assistant Officer Joohari bin Ismail for going the extra mile in guiding her on the use of the lab, providing her with relevant materials, and sharing some ideas for her research.

22/12/2018 - 28/02/2019
11:00 am - 5:00 pm

Piyadasa Gallery

Visual Arts Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya

Open in Waze


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Others: Contact: Simon Soon (simonsoon@um.edu.my)


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