Rob Kesseler’s works sprout to life as microscopic images of plant matter, and then evolve into spectacularly colourful exhibition pieces that are a combination of photography and digital art.
To say that British artist Rob Kesseler’s repertoire explores beauty that is skin deep would be doing it injustice by several nanometers. The plant aficionado’s approach is not restricted to the surface beauty of pollen and petals, he likes to delve deeper and showcase what escapes the naked eye. Thereby he has produced works that form a complex collage of high definition images which bypass the macro and present the microscopic beauty of plant life.
By amalgamating the wonders of photography, design, fine art and craft, he answers what all of us would have wondered at some point while walking through a thicket – is there another world of intrigue flourishing under the green cover?
What Kesseler conjures up is visceral – his eye is as sharp as a two-photon microscope in scooping out every complex cell’s structural detail. The contours of these works may be those of leaves or stamen, but the spotlight is on their insides, exposed to the deepest possible depth.
In the American Beech, Stomatal Leaf Cell, for instance, the leaf’s green façade is an ephemeral entity. It is dominated by an orifice that opens up at the centre and seems to go on forever into darker depths. Depending on your philosophical leaning, this piece could mean many things, or may just seem like another biology lab’s work-a-day product.
The response to Kesseler’s work can be understandably befuddling. The pieces his imagination throws up, sit on the fine fence between subtle beauty and unsettling imagery.These are undulations and crevices that our eyes are not used to seeing. His passion for the plant kingdom, and his professorship of Ceramic Art & Design at Central Saint Martins College of Arts & Design, London, affords him a distinct perspective that the average viewer is challenged into developing. It is safe to say that these works take time to grow around you, and once you allow that to happen, they suck you right in. Layers suddenly open up in front of you, revealing a subtext you were just about to miss.
On another wavelength, his images can open up a can of divergent inferences, at once making you feel like you are looking at something known and something alien. His piece entitled Monetery Pine Pollen doesn’t look anything like what we understand of pollen, but like extra-terrestrial pods floating in space.
In his essay titled A New Phytopia, Kesseler writes about striving to create a sense of “wonder” with his work. “The final result is one in which the manipulative hand of the artist, aided by the creative application of diverse technologies has intervened to produce an image autonomous with science but with that disturbing sense of hyper-reality that science can evoke. It is this other worldliness that distinguishes the result from a functional specimen, however alluring it might be,” he states.
At a solo exhibition titled Canopy, held at Nash Conservatory at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, silk banners with images created by Kesseler unleashed cellular colour-spotting in the 19th century building. The images were microscopic images of sections of oak, pine, larch and ash, only now stripped down to their real core identities. In a similar vein, the Go Wild biodiversity festival held at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, used photographic specimens of leaves collected from trees and shrubs, and celebrated the garden as a place promising infinite creative possibilities.
What makes Kesseler’s work transcend the dangers of the regular is the ever fascinating beauty of the subjects themselves. Over many years, he has developed a distinct signature in visual artistry, which marks his works differently every time. His collaborations with botanical scientists and molecular biologists at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Portugal also keeps the research end of this fascinating confluence of botany and art pulsating with new material. His books further celebrate his passion for the “bizarre” and the “incredible” world of plants.
Text By Shruti Nambiar
Photographs Courtesy Rob Kesseler