An illuminated statue of E. coli in a park in lower Manhattan
The king of New York: E.coli. Jason Wyche/Public Art Fund

What better place for a giant statue of E. coli?

New York City, especially in its more fragrant 1970s incarnation (not to mention the even filthier 1860s), has long grappled with its reputation as a giant cesspool. So perhaps it makes sense that there’s now a giant statue of an E. coli microbe in City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan.

“Earth Potential: E. coli” is based on a 10,000-times magnified electron-microscope image of the fecal bacterium that causes 265,000 infections in the U.S. yearly, with symptoms including cramps and diarrhea. Made from a digital print on cut-out aluminum, it rests in City Hall Park as part of the larger exhibition, “Earth Potential,” by the Estonian artist Katja Novitskova. The show intends to portray “organisms and bodies” that have “significant research value within the scientific community for their potential to advance our understanding of our species and world,” according to the non-profit Public Art Fund. Aside from E. coli, the other pieces in the show include a huge earthworm, a slippery nematode, and a human embryo magnified to resemble a clump of moldy peaches.

Hooray for gut-borne illnesses! (Jason Wyche/Public Art Fund)

The exhibit went up in June but was highlighted this week by Politico reporter Laura Nahmias, who tweeted that she considered the E. coli “[s]uper grosssss, especially in conjunction with the other worm(s) and bacteria on display in City Hall Park.”

To be fair to this particular germ, though, only certain strains of E. coli cause gut-churning maladies; others are beneficial components of the human intestines and boons to science. As the show’s primer explains: “E. coli has been at the center of groundbreaking research: Genetic engineers have used new synthetic biological techniques to recode the bacteria’s genome, potentially changing the organism’s functionality and radically increasing the prospect that humans will have the ability to rewrite the codes for life.”

Still, the folks behind the show acknowledge that this is a microbe with an image problem.“We were well aware of what E. coli does to the human body, but had no hesitation putting it in the exhibition,” curator Emma Enderby tells CityLab. “We wanted to create an alien landscape that was also a very real landscape, with images of things found on Earth. What’s a better alienlike creature than E. coli blown up to this scale?”

And what’s a better place to put it than in front of City Hall? Indeed, Disney-fied modern New York City can use a few reminders that, until recently, this was surely the American city most closely associated with germs and bacteria. (And science is continuing to use the human Petri dish of the New York subway to further our understanding of the city’s microbial residents.) Below, find a few more images from the show, starting with a soil-enhancing earthworm superimposed over a satellite-based image of Earth, a scan of Saturn’s moon Titan with a C. elegans roundworm (the first multicellular being to have its genome digitized), a human embryo that one day might be used in CRISPR research, and some tentacle-tangling cuttlefishes whose intelligent brethren are sometimes studied in the field of cognitive development.

(Jason Wyche/Public Art Fund)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A view of traffic near Los Angeles.
    Transportation

    How Cars Divide America

    Car dependence not only reduces our quality of life, it’s a crucial factor in America’s economic and political divisions.

  2. Life

    Don’t Throw It Away—Take It to the Repair Cafe

    This series of workshops aims to keep broken items out of the landfill, and it might help you save a few bucks, too.

  3. Equity

    Bike Advocacy’s Blind Spot

    The biking community is overwhelmingly concerned with infrastructure. For urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo, that’s an equity problem.

  4. Transportation

    Hartford Trains Its Hopes for Renewal on Commuter Rail

    Connecticut’s new Hartford Line isn’t just a train: It’s supposed to be an engine for the capital city’s post-industrial transformation.

  5. Equity

    CityLab University: Inclusionary Zoning

    You’ve seen the term. But do you really know what it means? Here’s your essential primer.