Dazzling Diatoms

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One of Klaus Kemp’s wonderful diatom arrangements

I recently came across the work of Klaus Kemp, a dedicated scientist-cum-artist who spends his spare time collecting and mounting diatoms; single-celled organisms which form algae. These tiny organisms cannot be seen by the naked eye, but under a microscope they reveal their beautiful forms through their cell walls which are made of silica. According to Burgess, in Under the Microscope (1990, p.120 ) the sea is full of these creatures, with a litre of water continuing up to 15000 diatoms. Klaus who is well known in this field of art and science, is one of just a few practitioners who are trying to keep this dying art alive.

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Klaus at home with this microscope

Diatom arranging was popular in the Victorian era, when the art of amateur (as well as professional) microscopy was very fashionable. The diatoms, which were collected from far flung corners of the globe would be arranged into stunning kaleidoscopic patterns on glass slides, which were sealed and sold to collectors for amusement.

A recent film was made by Matthew Killip called The Diatomist, in which Kemp discusses his obsession with these tiny organisms. It also shows stunning displays of his work accompanied by a fitting soundtrack, which includes fairground organ music, evoking in me a sense of childhood nostalgia and wonder.

I found his number online, and gave him a ring, and we chatted to about 20 minutes about his work and our mutual respect for Ernst Haeckel, who he coincidently is basing a project on at the moment. I asked him if he would answer a short questionnaire, and he kindly agreed, returning it to me the very same afternoon.

When and why did you begin to use the microscope as a method of studying parts of the environment?   1954, aged 16 at Flatters and Garnetts Biological teaching material supplier.

Were you ever inspired by the works of the “Romantic” scientists/artists such as Ernst Haeckel?  Yes, by his plates which are I believe astounding for their accuracy and so much so that it is easy to identify all the species he has figured.

What type of microscope do you use/ what are its capabilities?  My main microscope for mounting type slides and arrangements is a Biolam, which in the main uses low power objectives, but also has a rare X100 objective configured to work on dry uncovered specimens, ideal for working out the species being dealt with. I use a Leitz Orthoplan for careful study of any species, which has a Heine condenser and phase, it also allows me to use oil on the minute forms of diatoms.

Why do you think artists are turning towards science – what advantage does a scientific slant bring to a body of work on the environment? Art!!!Nature has it by the handful, and the best we can do is create art around Nature, even at quantum physics stage or Nano technology  we have to admire the complexity of nature and stand in awe.

What do you enjoy about viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable tool for themes of environment or the natural world?  Difficult question, but think of the number who have been or are now on the planet, and have never seen this awesome world and yet we are surrounded not only by the microscopic world but astronomy opens up another world, which then makes humankind the “pimple on a fleas leg”.

Do you think that studying the species of a particular environment can help to capture its ‘spirit of place’? Yes Darwin was right, everything is in its rightful place and if not Nature will modify the species until it is – evolution is just magic.

Is there ever a health and safety aspect to what you are doing, for instance, do you ever work with potentially toxic or harmful aspects of nature? Only in the cleaning process in getting rid of the organic matter in diatoms so that the silica is all you are left with. The cleaning process uses boiled Hydrochloric Acid which deals with any calcium present in the sample, and fuming Sulphuric Acid which removes the organic matter. Both processes are carried out in a fume cupboard.

One of the visions of the Romantic artists was to capture the “sublime”- the beautiful yet often startling forces of nature. Do you get a sense of this when you look down the microscope, or are you ever unsettled by what you see?  Mankind has the ability to manipulate only to a degree, but we are powerless against the forces of nature. We will ultimately either destroy ourselves by war, fooling around with physics, messing around with genes,or be destroyed by forces we are unable to control, the environment, global warming (not new), mass extinction (not new). The flip side to this is that Nature abhors a vacuum, so something else will take our place, we are at least fortunate in beginning to understand our position in Nature.

I was really grateful for Klaus taking the time to chat with me and to answer my questionnaire. The study of diatoms is yet another interesting aspect to microbiology, which highlights the hidden and wonderful invisible elements of the world around us, and I found it especially interesting that it was an art practiced in the nineteenth century, the latter end of the Romantic era and the Age of the Enlightenment.

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