Rob Kesseler talks us through his creative practise, being inspired by Karl Blossfeldt, and the power of a shared interest.
Introducing: Rob Kesseler
In the context of academic research, interdisciplinary collaborations between science and art are not unusual. Due to the crossing of multiple specialties, the results from these projects might be perceived as anomalies - mainly due to not belonging to one set discipline. Yet, there is an argument that the natural evolution of our current system is for disciplines, as we know them, to expire.
In this series, we meet with those who work at the intersection of art and science in attempt to understand their methodologies. Today, we hear from Rob Kesseler, who talks us through why and how his images became a global source of inspiration for plant lovers and creative professionals alike.
Rob Kesseler is an award-winning artist who is most recognised for his famous series of images entitled Phy-topic. The extensive collection of images derives from plant samples; pollen, seeds, fruit and leaves. These create images that lie somewhere between science and symbolism, as the many complexities representing plants are concentrated into mesmeric visual statements. Kesseler is Chair of Arts, Design & Science at University of the Arts London (UAL) and a professor at Central Saint Martins (CSM). From 2001-04 he was a NESTA Fellow at Kew and was recently made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the Linnean Society and the Royal Microscopical Society.
Transforming a Childhood Interest
“My career taught me that there are many benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations between art and other fields, especially science. To me it really has been about being curious and finding opportunities.
My passion for plants comes from childhood. I was always intrigued by the cyclical, annual metamorphosis - the magic transitions from spring to winter and then spring again. If you think of it, the fascination of plants has been extremely popular in the history of crafts.
It all started in the late 1990s; I wanted to start a new project and began using an old microscope my father gave me as a Christmas present when I was about 10 years old. It is a beautifully made Victorian brass instrument – perhaps the best present ever, as it forever changed my life. It gave me a new view on the world I could not access with my bare eyes. Looking at microscopic images I realised there was a potential, especially as a creative source.
Back then, microscopic photography was not popular in art as it has recently become. It was a bit of a magic moment. When photography developed in the 1840s and someone smartly put a camera on a microscope, the technology became confined to the hands of the scientists, who until then had required sophisticated drawings and representations of their studies, collaborating with artists on an almost regular basis.
In the 1990s, with the digital revolution, this separation was somehow reconciled. We all started to access and use the same platform – for image making and manipulation with Photoshop, Illustrator etc.
By then, science had also become far more specialised – the scientists had to consider being more open to collaborating outside of their discipline as they started to feel at times like they were in a dark alley, with quite narrow and defined paths ahead. Initially artists were involved as communicators, to help externalise scientific activities. But that was the opportunity to realise there can be more than that – a bigger role for deeper engagement, which is essentially what I try to do. As an artist, you strangely have the legitimisation to cross over to other disciplines that scientists do not have by the very nature of their practice.
Developing a Visual Language
I decided to write to a number of heads at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, simply showing my interest in collaborating on some work at microscopic level. The only response came from a lady called Madeline Harley, who turned out to have an earlier career in interior design and was producing some microscopic images of pollen. In fact, she was aiming at putting up an exhibition of them, yet Kew did not think there was an audience for it – that the general public would respond to photos of flowers, but not of that kind, it was ‘scientific’. So, I turned out to be just the perfect opportunity to explore this new avenue. Also, our university was at the beginning in dealing with government research funding and were looking into encouraging members of staff towards research. So they gave me £700 - which would be the seed fund to write a project proposal.
So, it really came down to Madeline Harley and the fact that I was coming in as a 'University Researcher', something which suddenly gives you a status - that you are supposed to know what you are doing, whereas an artist sounds vague and could be anything. Two individuals spontaneously shared an interest and the ‘research’ tag gave the institutional legitimisation.
Around 2000, I started producing images of pollen to translate them in a different way. It was taking me a while to learn how to use the technology and manipulate the images properly. Ultimately, I developed my language. I was never going to change the physical structure in anyway, it was just about cleaning them up and adding colour. My process was very hands-on. I would go out, collect the plants, extract the pollen grains, put them under the microscope, take the photo, clean the background, add colour layers.
My reason for that was to try and imbue the images with all that I know and have experienced about that particular plant. I would use colour to enhance specific functional characteristics of a plant, for instance to highlight the most vital part of a specimen, the one responsible for reproduction. Scientists use something called ‘false colour’, which is dictated by a software and has purely functional purpose. I suppose what is different about me is that the colour choice is also informed by my artistic sensibility and can result in images that have a scientific value to them but also are visually compelling.
The end result was an exhibition and yet, Kew still weren’t sure what I was doing. I was left to get on with it, until I received the NESTA Fellowship Award for a project I did in the Lake District. They gave me 3 years funding to work at Kew between around 2002 and 2004.
My NESTA Manager at one point started to talk about making a book and gave me six months to put it together. It was a short time, but those are the people I actually enjoy working with: solo operators, who make decisions and do not need to be convinced by a long document that I write – usually not very well – that has to get the approval of a committee. I did have a book put together as I would always do as part of my practice, to go with an exhibition. So, I took it around at book fairs. We showed it to Phaidon, Thames&Hudson, etc and they said, “Oh wow beautiful! But we would not know where to put it in a bookshop. It’s neither photography or gardening, sorry we are not interested.”
Then I found a very small publisher [Papadakis Publishers] who was open to giving it a try. As we went on bringing the images in, it grew. The Pollen book became 260 pages with a full scientific text that uses the language of science yet it’s very approachable at the same time. Some told me that it is a coffee table book with content. We wanted to produce something beautiful that would also meet the approval of our peers in the scientific community. Taking this line has been perhaps one of the most important elements in the success of the project.
We were also looking at Karl Blossfeldt. In the 1920s, he was essentially a Professor of Decorative Arts collecting his famous botanical images essentially for his own pleasure and for the sake of sharing them with his students. But he is still a major source of inspiration. We wanted to try and achieve a similar power and reach, just in a more contemporary way.
So, that was the Pollen book, still in print today, more than ten years on. At the launch, I was approached by Wolfgang Stuppy, a seed morphologist at the Millennium Seed Bank, which is also part of Kew. With him we added the book on seeds, then the one on fruits.
So far, the three books and the combined one have sold together around 170.000 copies. They were translated in Europe and Asia and helped me gain a global reach – which otherwise would have been much harder for my type of work. This is in part because of me. I was never great at maximising the potential of my work through art galleries. But also the art world was reluctant because they did not know where to put me. In a way, had I possessed a bigger ‘art world profile’ before doing this, it would have been ok. However, because I came in sort of sideways, my work is now seen more as science, despite the huge difference between it and that of a scientist!
We were pleased that this could reach many audiences. Beekeepers and gardeners, but also jewellers and architects. Thomas Heatherwick worked with Wolfgang Stuppy; he used the Seed book for his Seed Pavillion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and he still quotes it in his lectures. What this gave me was professional and institutional respect. I know it sounds strange, but Kew took quite a long time to understand what I was doing. They were still coming from a very scientific point of view and somehow did not receive the added value that I was giving to the images. The fact that the books were published by someone else did not help too – but working with a small publisher on a small team allowed me to fully take part in the creation of the book, which was too important for me. But they do understand it now and our images are regularly featured as part of their corporate, visual language.
Also, I began to be a fellow member of key institutions in the world of plants - such as The Linnean Society - and got involved in more collaborations and educational projects to support them and their fundraising initiatives. This is the way that has worked for me. Within universities, you have to operate in a much more funding-based environment – and I was never good at writing proposals about what I might do if I was given the money. I just do not work in a way that is structured enough, linear enough. My research process is definitely meandrous and serendipitous but has results. I look at meaningful engagement, local impact, global reach and collateral advantage.
So, what’s the payoff for the science community? One of the projects of this type I am particularly attached to is one I did in support of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Malina Schuh has leading a team that is looking into mitosis – which is cell division, the very beginning of life. The idea is that if you could crack the codes of it, you might be able in the future to cure cancer or tackle birth defects. Around 10 institutions in Europe, including her team, were supported by the EU. Yet, when they applied again for more funding, it was denied, as it was thought that there was not enough public access to the topic, that it would be just relevant for the scientific field. So someone called Marina Wallace, she used to work at Central Saint Martins and be part of a group called Artakt. She organised a whole initiative including talks, exhibitions and a film. I took part and also produced a glass sculpture inspired by cells. In the end, they got their funding. That was mainly because we created a buzz and an educational programme around it.
The scientists themselves often have no idea of what we are doing – which is why, also within Central Saint Martins, I have been organising exchanges and talks, getting them to visit our workshops and talk to the students, then vice versa. Our role is not just to explain what scientists do. As creative individuals, our role is to reveal aspects of the science and how it impacts on the world, through the eyes of the artist. Something I learnt is that, as an artist, I had the freedom and time to move closer to the position of scientists as they were able to move closer to mine. They have to work with very tight deadlines and goals, sometimes it was simply about me having the time to learn their language just to be able to have conversations.
I know that working in research can be very frustrating – having to almost prove everything before you are even given the funding to go out and try, which in a way is the point of research. I suppose that is where I have been very lucky in many ways. I had regular teaching projects on a fairly small and very energetic course, I lived in a really big house in Hackney for virtually nothing – so I could use my income to support my work all the way through. Except for the NESTA Fellowship, I never went for big funding.
The drive has been what interests me, so it was about trying and doing it. I am interested in life, in looking at things and sharing them. Life is precious and short, I like to draw attention to things that would not been seen otherwise and celebrate them. I always believed you can walk out of the front door and see something you have never seen before. And to me plants contain that sophistication and complexity of life that is really fascinating: how it all grows from one tiny, little cell.
I am intrigued by the difference between looking and seeing. Looking is more active.
If you see, how then do you take in what you see?"
Images courtesy Rob Kesseler, Papadakis Publisher