Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus

Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus 4

(Photos of work by Naoe Suzuki )


Stories Retold:

Naoe Suzuki is artist-in-residence at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which works to improve human health by using genomics to advance our understanding of the biology and treatment of human disease. She discusses her work on a theme of sequencing, from ancient Egyptian healing traditions to the Human Genome project, in this blog and accompanying video.  Her “Stories Retold” installation will be on view through November at the Broad Institute, 415 Main Street in Cambridge.

Suzuki is a Tokyo-born visual artist who works primarily in drawing. Her upcoming exhibitions include solo exhibitions at the Boston Arts Academy (September through October 2017), the Cambridge School of Weston (October 29th through mid-December), and a group exhibition, “Of Land & Local” at the Burlington City Arts in Vermont. More of her work is featured below.

She encourages fellow BMC residents to participate in her ongoing project about water: Flow: Art project investigating our relationship with water.  

Suzuki offers these thoughts of this year’s work weekend:  “Former residents and friends were all scattered around the property, busy cleaning, picking up dead branches, weeding, planting, repairing, and being giddy happy that we could contribute something to a place we so love. BMC has become such an important place for me over the past twelve years, and I could tell from everybody’s face that each one of them felt the same. We all felt a homecoming as soon as we saw the wooden sign for BMC, and encountered friendly faces and familiar environment. For me, seeing Eagle Lake and swimming in it was like saying hello to my dearest friend.”


The concept of the passage of time as a subject for inquiry is at the core of my exploration in the work currently on public view in the main lobby at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge (on view until the end of November). Weaving past and present together, I contemplate data mining, knowledge, history, and our belief systems. Stories retold, an exhibit of selected works completed after being selected as the Broad Institute’s fifth artist-in-residence (video), reflects my fascination with, and observation of the scientific community where I’ve been immersed since April of 2016.

In the light-filled lobby of the Broad Institute building on Main Street in Cambridge, I have installed nearly 200 brightly-colored decals on the floor and stairs. Close examination reveals that each circular shape contains images similar to organisms one might observe in a microscope. The decals snake around to form three circular shapes on the floor, then trail up the stairs to the mezzanine level.

Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus 2

This site-specific installation, Stories retold, examines the ancient roots of our belief systems around the treatment of disease. The work combines and overlays images of magic spells traced from a copy of the Edwin Smith papyrus—the oldest known medical textbook to include prognosis. The papyrus is from ancient Egypt, 1600 BC, and the spells are written in hieratic, a form of ancient Egyptian writing. These magic spells were used as medical treatments in the ancient world. I traced the magic spells by hand and made them into drawings first, then made laser cut versions on vellum paper and created “microscopic” views of the spells by scanning and editing the laser cut drawings in Photoshop.

Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus 3

The shape on the floor was inspired by the artistic rendering of the Congo River by Stephen Gire, then a Broad Institute researcher who worked in the Congo during the Ebola outbreak. In that project, Gire digitally rendered the river to form the shape of the Ebola virus in the forest suggesting its ancient origin, which dates back to between 16 and 23 million years ago.

This work contemplates our ancient beliefs about medicine in a time when science, medicine, and technology are all accelerating at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. Bridging together the layers of history, I explore the interconnectedness of meaning between knowledge and belief, bringing forth forgotten beliefs—the magic spells that were written on the papyrus—and asks us what is legitimate, what we may have lost, and what we still believe.

Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus 5

On the mezzanine level, a large horizontal scroll drawing titled, Unapologetic work of a data parasite and a digital slide presentation, Field Notes, bring the viewers into the present.

Using as source material my original tracings of the writings on the whiteboards at the Broad, I retrace my original tracings— then enlarged, reduced, repeated and sliced to create the composition. It was composed in a flow, following the energy that I felt from the original marks.

Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus 6

“Unapologetic work of a data parasite”
45″x 216″, Mineral pigment, gouache, color pencil, and graphite on paper


Field Notes juxtaposes the scanned images of traced writings from the whiteboards, which were further edited in Photoshop, with bits of overheard conversation. The piece subtly critiques the challenges of data sharing in a scientific community, while shedding light onto scientists’ genuine enthusiasm and joy as well as frustrations. It is composed as “a day in the life” of a scientist.

As an artist, the scientists’ challenges and hard work resonated with me. Most of the time, being an artist or a scientist involves a lot of hard work. We often occupy uncertain space, trying to figure out a path to discovery or creation. It is in this dark place where we struggle, but simultaneously we must feel comfortable being in this place.

Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus 7

Stories Retold: From Magic Spells to Ebola Virus 8

Stills from “Field Notes”


In all of my work presented at the Broad Institute, the gesture of tracing is meant to honor the original manuscripts or writings. The deliberately slow process of transferring these writings is a meditation on our progress. Scholars believe that in ancient Egypt when the Edwin Smith papyrus was written, the same content was copied over many times, over the span of 200 or 300 years. This means that the methods of diagnosing and treating patients did not change significantly for a couple of hundred years. Compare that to what’s happening now in our time. The sequencing of the human genome was completed a little over fifteen years ago, and we’re now talking about precision medicine. Things have been moving at exponential speed in science, medicine, and technology in the last few decades.

I hope my artistic practice allows us pause for a moment in the world where everything seems to be moving fast.


Stories retold: Artist-in-Residence Exhibit

Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

415 Main Street

Cambridge, MA