German artist Edgar Lissel has been working with microorganisms to create intriguing images since 1999. He combines the light-seeking behaviour of cyanobacteria with his expertise in photographic techniques, using the exposure of light on petri dishes to influence the growth of the microorganisms in specific patterns.
As he describes the process,
In Petri dishes filled with a nutrient solution of agar and various salts, the bacteria undergo a rather complicated breeding process. Subsequently, in a darkroom or alternatively a darkened room, a negative or light silhouette is projected onto this living algae emulsion locked inside the Petri dish. Over the course of several hours or days, the algae migrate from the dark to the light sections of the projected image. They position themselves toward the light. All works in these series are therefore connected through this special method of creating images, a method based on the phototactic characteristics of cyanobacteria. The processes of the movement and growth of the bacteria in the nutrient solution within the clear Petri dishes is similar to the exposure of photographic paper: Those sections which are hit by incoming light turn dark, those which receive only little light remain light.
Below are five series featuring microbial art created by Edgar Lissel, described in his own words.
Bakterium – Wasser licht(et) Geschichte
The series Bakterium – Wasser licht(et) Geschichte reflects the potential transformation of all architecture into ruins, using the Kilian submarine bunker in Kiel (which has since been demolished) as an example. In the interior of the Petri dishes one can recognize the contours of the gigantic, partially destroyed bunker. Parts of the bunker appear to be sinking like a shipwreck, while others remain standing, with dark, cavernous windows and concrete walls that appear to be several meters thick, yet are already affected by decay. The decay of the building corresponds to its metaphor, the creation and disappearance of its image in the Petri dish.
Bakterium – Selbstzeugnisse
For Bakterium – Selbstzeugnisse, microscope images of the structure of individual bacteria were projected onto Petri dishes filled with bacteria solution. Thus, the bacteria cultures form their own microimage. Myriad organisms too small for the unaided eye to see combine to form a superimage of an individual organism, whose aliveness becomes a part of its image.
Bakterium – Vanitas
For Bakterium – Vanitas, the petri dishes filled with bacteria are exposed to light while in direct contact with the objects. As silhouettes, only light which is not held back by the objects, falls on the bacteria. The objects of the image are subject to their own transitory state. During the long process of the development of the picture, which lasts for a few days, the objects changes. This highlights the contrast between the decaying process of the original and the development of the image. The decay of classic still lifes such as fruit or dead animals is transferred to their depiction in the Petri dish. The objects appear as relatively clear silhouettes which stand out from their backgrounds, yet even where only a small amount of light has passed through, the bacteria have begun to grow. All pictures in this body of work were created through the organic growth processes of the bacteria, and were subsequently photographed and enlarged. These works document a highly ephemeral state, a moment in an organic process of generation and decay. The fragility of this state is reflected by the shadowy pictures which are reminiscent of the early days of photography.
Human skin harbours myriad different microorganisms. By physical contact with a nutrient agar my body therefore leaves traces in the form of bacterial and fungal colonies, which mirror the contours of my body. These colonies form a biological image of my body. They, who are not visible when present on my skin, represent my human body independent of its physical presence. This scientific experimental setup is going to be documented by photography and transferred into a picture context.
The Domus Aurea, built circa 64 A.D. by the emperor Nero near the Colosseum in Rome, remained unfinished by the time of his death in 68 A.D. and was razed and filled in by his successor Trajan in order to serve as the foundation of Trajan’s bath complex. Only in the year 1480 were its chambers and frescoes rediscovered. Since their historical origin was unknown at the time, they were taken for subterranean rooms, or “grotti” in Italian. Their frescoes were therefore called grotto paintings, or “grottesche” in Italian. The grotesque, the decorative combination of architectural, plant, and animal motifs to a metamorphosing whole, was rediscovered by numerous painters of the Renaissance and spread by countless painters throughout the centuries.
My project DOMUS AUREA deals with the destruction of the frescoes in Nero’s former palatial estate caused by light-sensitive bacteria. Together with archeologists and Biologist Dr. Patrizia Albertano of the department of biology of the University of Rome, I have been conducting research into the situation at the site since 2005. We were able to trace the decay of the frescoes to bacteria of the cyanobacteria family. These bacteria, known as leptolyngbya, have a reddish hue and grow primarily on walls containing calcium. In my work, these bacteria will be coated on the walls of an artificial room and, over the course of several weeks, illuminated with the image of an already destroyed fresco from the Domus Aurea. Due to the tendency of these bacteria to move toward light, the image of a fresco will grow.
In this experiment the bacteria, which acted – and still act – as agents of decay on the “original“ site, serve a constructive purpose. The agent of decay’s role is reversed and used to create a new image in a different place. This living process is documented meticulously; this documentation becomes, as is the case in scientific, archaeological examinations, part of the observation. The result of this work is therefore not only a picture, but the documented interplay between destruction and creation.