Microscopes reveal worlds invisible to the naked eye, but no matter how awe-inspiring the revelations, they are likely to confront us with the limits of our comprehension. As Steven White writes, “… rapture! But then what?”
Microorganisms, cells, and organic molecules appear in a fair number of art works, including by Kandinsky, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Terry Winters, Suzanne Anker, and Gary Schneider. Such art rises out of and has contributed to a Darwinian cultural narrative that all life is kin. On the microscopic level, the human and nonhuman look so much alike that they can be difficult to distinguish, even by experts.
Steven White and confocal microscopy specialist Jill Pflugheber have created remarkably beautiful images of hallucinogenic plant cells and tissues. Crisp forms and fluorescent colors seem to float in darkness. Confocal microscopes are very expensive, and used almost exclusively in laboratories, where data collection is the primary concern, not aesthetics or cultural narratives. In art, the opposite prevails: aesthetic experience and cultural narratives are central (even when artists question, ignore, or scorn them). White and Pflugheber’s images celebrate science while evoking dream states and drug visions. In these works, kinship goes beyond biological evolution to include relationships inherent in the basic components and energies of life. Indigenous uses of hallucinogens explore some of the same territory.
Beautiful, solemn imagery of plants can produce a sense of the sacred, and remind us of what can be lost. We are in the midst of a mass extinction. Whether or not any particular species survives, including us, fulfillment lies where it always has, in connection. Because we are kin, we can find plants in ourselves, and ourselves in plants. Steven White’s and Jill Pflugheber’s images welcome connection.
George Gessert, artist and writer. Author of Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution.