Meadow is the Summer exhibition at Platform, the gallery in our King’s Road store. It’s a celebration of the art of science and the science of art, with microscopic imagery, drawings, photography, ceramics and glass by artist Rob Kesseler demanding, ‘Wow, come and look at this!’.
He focuses an electron microscope on a pollen grain not just to reveal its intricacies and pattern, but also to show the wonder that’s going on every day, under our noses. The natural world has been a constant source of inspiration for designers for millennia. By looking closely at chemical and plant structures, and communicating them though various media, Rob suggests new ways in which these ubiquitous patterns can be used.
We speak to Rob about microscopes, art and turning into a boffin.
Rob, where did your fascination with the microscopic world begin? I have a hunger for trying to understand how things work. Looking at them very closely is about getting to know them. I want my work to inspire people to do the same. My father gave me a beautiful old brass microscope when I was 10, which I still use. That opened up another world to me.
I remember having to choose to study either art or biology at school, and I chose the latter. I found it was mostly about chemistry which is a different sort of mystery and one I couldn’t fathom. I was and still am completely driven by images, so when I switched to art, everything made much more sense.
What’s your process? I’ve been collaborating with scientists and with Kew for decades, but I do all my own lab work and preparations. Seeds are about the largest specimens you can get into an electron microscope, but I sometimes work with pollen, which is dust-like. You have to coat the specimen in gold or platinum, then it goes into a chamber where it’s bombarded with electron particles to produce a visual representation of measurements in phenomenal resolution.
While I’ve definitely morphed into a bit of a scientist, I use the technology slightly differently. A scientist might use a detail of a shot, whereas some of the pieces in Meadow are made up of 20 frames, panned across the surface of the sample. It’s like reconstructive surgery at that point, placing all the images together to create a perfect whole. While I work on a computer, there are no programmes to help, it’s all done by eye.
People often ask, ‘is that the real colour?’ when they look at my work. The image I start with is black and white, but the final version isn’t a false representation. It’s not false colour, it’s my colour in response to the specimen. Just as the plants will use colour as a device to attract pollinators, I use it to attract a human audience.
I also work in ink, creating spontaneous, detailed representations of plants and flowers, which I build up in layers. These two processes are not as far apart as they seem, they both rely on my eye and are essentially made by my hand. No machine could do it.
How does your work marry with the scientific world? Pre photography, the only way to record the story and discovery of plants was through intricate botanical drawings and paintings, so scientists and botanists needed that skill. The separation of art and science in this area really began in the 19th century. Microscopes had been improving, photography was invented and, in 1847, someone had the idea to bring the two together, creating the first micro images.
The consequence was that the imaging was put in the hands of the scientists and collaborations with artists didn’t happen very much. The technology was an inadvertent gatekeeper, even more so as it became more complicated and expensive. It was used less and less by artists and that trajectory didn’t really change until the 1950s.
How did your collaborations with Kew begin? By the 1990s, I had amassed a very large collection of science books on microscopic images, but felt no one was really using them in the mainstream as a source for art and design work. I wrote letters to research leaders at Kew, asking if they’d be interested in collaborating with an artist.
I only got one reply, but that was from Madeline Harley, who at the time was head of pollen research. She had been an interior designer in her earlier career, so had a visual awareness and knew what fantastic images she was developing. I think she had had ambitions to do things, but I’m not sure Kew thought there was an audience. She invited me in and I fell off my stool looking at these fantastic images. We started doing a bit of work and she showed me how to use the microscope.
I also work with Wolfgang Stuppy, seed morphologist at the Millenium Seed Bank. The labs there are fairly quiet places, but we get together and are whooping over the images as they appear on screen. It’s great thing to be able to share that passion.
Why do you think natural pattern has such a powerful influence on design? It’s a very primitive instinct we have as humans to use pattern to navigate our way through life. Patterning could tell us whether something is edible or not edible; it tells us what’s happening around us. Another instinct is that we use pattern as a celebration of our relationship with the natural world as a provider and nurturer. That has been translated from generation to generation.
As a race, we have always been fascinated with plant life, for one reason or another. It strikes me as miraculous that a 2m plant can grow out of a wall on the King’s Road from a single seed, for example. Nature itself is very strong, it will look after itself in the end.
Rob Kesseler is a Professor of Ceramic Art and Design at Central Saint Martins, a recent NESTA Fellow at Kew and a Research Fellow at the Gulbenkian Science Institute, Portugal. Over fourteen years, the artist has collaborated with botanical scientists and molecular biologists in an exploration of the living world at a microscopic level.
Find out more about Habitat’s gallery, Platform, by clicking here.