Coexisting with nature: Junko Mori’s ‘Hope in Balance’

From a talk given at Goldsmiths’ Fair with the Goldsmiths’ Company Curator Dr Dora Thornton, silversmith Junko Mori, immunologist Dr Saba Alzabin and Mark Piolet of Adrian Sassoon Gallery.

This being the first fare since the pandemic, it has been markedly changed by it. Although the beautiful wares of the jewellers’ stalls transport the attendees to a world of precious stones and crafted metals, one cannot attend any event without being aware of the virus due to the Goldsmiths Company’s dutiful precautions. It would have been a miss not to commemorate with gravitas a year that has changed all our lives. This is not a subject that was taken lightly and the commission chosen, Junko Mori’s Hope in Balance, deftly reflects the period with sincerity and depth.

Unlike other commissions where the desire for a piece arrives before selecting the artist suitable, curator Dr Dora Thornton explained that the idea for the commission came to her through the artist. Having visited Adrian Sassoon Gallery’s exhibition Modernity, Dr Thornton was inspired by Junko Mori’s work. Her small-scale precious sculptures, although created prior to the pandemic, reminded her of the virus due to the sculptures’ trumpet like expressions. Dr Dora Thornton wanted to commission a piece that reflected the difficult times we had all experienced, believing that this period of collective grief and remarkable human endurance should be remembered with a work of “permanent artistic significance”. Silversmith Junko Mori, whose work is mainly expressed through “light sculptural modelling” and contains an affinity with molecular forms, seemed to Dr Thornton the perfect fit for such a project – and she has undoubtably delivered.

Having started the UK’s first lockdown isolated from her family due to contracting covid, Mori spent a lot of time reflecting on the virus. As she already possessed a “strange nerdy obsession with microscopic images”, Mori did her own research to find out more about the enemy her body was fighting with. Whilst sick, she found that mainstream media was causing her to become more frightened and it didn’t further any understanding of her body’s reaction to her illness.

Mori’s aim in making Hope in Balance, was to create more than just a depiction of the virus. Understanding that many people have suffered loss and separation due to the pandemic she wanted the focus of the piece to be on the human response. With her interest in human biology at a microscopic level, she endeavoured, with the help of immunologist Dr Saba Alzabin, to understand the immune system’s reaction the virus. Hope in Balance delicately reflects this. The piece’s gentle nature is designed not to startle its audience, but to demonstrate the importance of cohabitation between cells. Forming memories of microbes to enhance our immune response, Mori discovered through extensive conversations with Dr Alzabin, that our body needs both good and bad bacteria to exist.

Every element of this piece was pensively reflected on, from the hand-crafted cast work, giving each microbe its unique shape, to the choice of size and metal. The piece’s handheld quality is a noteworthy touch, as throughout the pandemic we have all become extremely conscious of the multitudes of bacteria we can transmit to one another through touch. Although Mori is extremely fond of working with silver, it was chosen for this commission for its antiseptic quality, adding another dimension to educational value of this work. She notes that many precious metals are “medically quite amazing” as ironic to the pieces subject, bacteria cannot grow on the surface of silver.

This commission has not just enabled the creation of a beautiful piece of silverwork, it has also created a potential catalyst for further endeavours. Mori expressed a desire to create a series, having formed a long-lasting relationship with Dr Alzabin based on their mutual fascination with microbic cells. So, we can look forward to further pieces from Junko Mori, that leave us in awe of our body’s microscopic functions.

The learning and making process of Hope in Balance, from conception to production has broken down Mori’s fears and replaced them with positivity. Through this piece she has expressed a need for coexistence with bacteria, rather than a demonisation of them. Hope in the Balance offers a creative way to explain the complex science of our immune systems, whilst its appearance as an ever-growing form offers an optimism for our future of understanding covid. It is not just through one solution that we can evolve from this pandemic, but a multitude of microscopic changes that will see us through this challenging time.

Dr Dora Thornton is the Curator of the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection. She was formerly Curator of Renaissance Europe in the British Museum and has published widely on the history of applied arts and collecting from the Renaissance into the present. Her most recent book is The Brooch Unpinned, The Goldsmiths’ Company Collection 1961-2021, available to purchase from the Goldsmiths’ Centre bookshop.

Junko Mori was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1974. She studied Musashino Art University in Tokyo and Camberwell College of Arts in London. She now lives and work in rural Wales. Her work can be found in a number of major public collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, The British Museum, the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection.