The Great Work of the Metal Lover: Art, Alchemy and Microbiology


Session Title:

  • Bio Art Session 1

Presentation Title:

  • The Great Work of the Metal Lover: Art, Alchemy and Microbiology




  • The alchemical term ‘The Great Work’ (Latin: Magnum Opus) refers to Western alchemy’s perhaps defining, yet seemingly unobtainable, objective – to create the ‘philosopher’s stone’, a mysterious substance considered capable of transmuting base metals into gold or silver. The term has also been used to describe personal / spiritual transformation, as well as individuation, and as a device in art and literature.

    The Great Work of the Metal Lover straddles art, science and alchemy in its attempt to solve the ancient riddle of transmutation through modern microbiological practice. A metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium is paired with gold chloride in an engineered atmosphere to produce 24 carat gold. Extremophiles are microorganisms that are able to survive and flourish in physically and/or chemically extreme conditions that would kill most of the life on our planet. It is believed that they hold the key to understanding how life may have originated, due to their unique ability to metabolise toxic substances such as uranium, arsenic and gold chloride. Gold, in turn, has been treasured throughout history for its rarity, malleability and incorruptibility, as it resists oxidation, corrosion and other chemical bonding processes.

    This artwork, in addressing the scientific preoccupation with trying to shape and bend biology to our will in the post-biological age, questions the ethical and political ramifications of attempting to perfect nature.