Installation, 2012

Adam W. Brown (US), in collaboration with Dr. Kazem Kashefi (US)

Historically, magnum opus (Latin for ‘great work’) was an alchemical process that incorporated a personal, spiritual and chemical method for creating the Philosopher’s Stone, a mysterious red coloured substance that was capable of transmuting base matter into the noble metal of gold. Discovering the principles of the Philosopher’s Stone was one of the defining and at the same time seemingly unattainable objectives of western alchemy.

The Great Work of the Metal Lover is a live biochemical installation that transposes the alchemist’s historical attempt to synthesise gold into the present, and combines it with today’s increasing interest in primitive but robust organisms that played a crucial role in the origin of life on Earth — extremophiles. 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 extremophiles hold the key to understanding how life may have originated due to their unique ability to metabolise toxic substances like uranium, arsenic and gold chloride. They are currently being studied in order to transform them into cleaning devices for industrial sites that mankind has polluted with heavy metals and other toxic substances.

Unlike the ancient medieval alchemical process to create the secretly composed magnum opus substance, this piece makes use of extremophile bacteria that can survive under the most hostile conditions: within a reducing atmosphere of carbon dioxide and hydrogen in a glass bioreactor. Cupriavidus metallidurans bacteria metabolise toxic gold chloride and produce gold deposits on biofilms, which can then be harvested, extracted and transformed into 24 karat gold leaf.

The installation solves the ancient riddle, but at the same time shifts the focus from the humancentric obsession with life creation, to the creation of wealth by overlooked life forms. The Great Work of the Metal Lover speaks directly to the scientific preoccupation with trying to shape and bend biology to our will within the post biological age, essentially questioning the ethical and political ramifications of attempting to perfect nature.

Artist's Statement

The Great Work of the Metal Lover is a work where a specific colony of anaerobic microbes are literally grown in a synthetic biological system resulting in the precipitation of gold out of a solution consisting of high concentrations of soluble gold compounds, like gold chloride. The colony biologically processes the ‘toxic’ solution resulting in 24 karat gold. Interestingly, the earth’s lakes and oceans contain vast quantities of dissolved gold, perhaps as much as ten trillion dollars worth, though in dilute concentrations. Because of its form, it is virtually unusable. There is now compelling evidence suggesting that many of the Earth’s gold deposits are formed not through heat, pressure and geochemical processes alone, but are indeed formed by microorganisms.