X-Ray Photography of Nature, by Arie van’t Riet

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Art
X-ray coloured tulips

Last week’s art by Greg Mort connected the intimate with the infinite. This week, I thought it would be interesting to explore art that delves into a world hidden from plain sight. With the use of  x-ray radiography, medical physicist and artist Arie van’t Riet creates stunning glimpses into the inner workings of the natural world.

For me, van’t Riet’s photographs work on multiple levels. I enjoy the story of his path towards becoming an artist. In his work, I find a keen aesthetic judgement that balances an artist’s intention with the intrinsic beauty of the subject matter. Most importantly of all, I connect with his desire to showcase the vibrancy of life in his more complex pieces.

The Journey from Science to Art

“…And then some people told me that’s art. And I became an artist!”

- van’t Riet in his Tedx talk

Van’t Riet’s journey towards becoming an artist began when one of his colleagues asked him to take an x-ray of a painting. Intrigued by the result, he started scanning on other objects, first with flowers and other plants before progressing to insects and larger, thicker animals. (As an aside, no living animals were harmed during the process.)

X-ray tulips in vase

A bunch of digitized, inverted, and colourized tulips. Image displayed with permission from Arie van’t Riet.

This transition from scientist to artist reminds me of a recent New York Times article exploring the life of Dr. Jacob Bronowski, host of the BBC documentary series “The Ascent of Man.” In it, Simon Critchley writes about how Bronowski saw the connection between these two ways of making sense of the world:

“… Scientific activity was always linked to artistic creation. For Bronowski, science and art were two neighboring mighty rivers that flowed from a common source: the human imagination. Newton and Shakespeare, Darwin and Coleridge, Einstein and Braque: all were interdependent facets of the human mind and constituted what was best and most noble about the human adventure.”

- Simon Critchley

A discipline of mind; an insatiable curiosity; the drive for experimentation; the willingness to make mistakes and learn from failure: All of these elements are crucial for doing good science. And also for making great art.

Beyond the Wow Factor, New Realities

At first glance, van’t Riet’s images are visually captivating. But a more thorough examination reveals different layers of meaning beyond superficial aesthetics. His restraint in the use of colour highlights and contrasts the beautiful and delicate complexities of the structures that make up life: I see the dark compact vertebrae of a mummified monkey, the wafer-thin tissue of a tulip petal; the vestigial limbs that lurks beneath a ray’s diamond form. His photographs become portals to a hidden reality, one that is as true and pervasive as the one we take for granted in our everyday lives. This realization encourages me to be more receptive to different ways of seeing, and to be more appreciative of the wondrous intricacies that make life possible.

Images displayed with permission from Arie van’t Riet.

In his Tedx talk, van’t Riet speaks about how he was struck by the similarities of hawks and owls despite their very different outward appearances. In one of the images above, I am reminded in convincing fashion that common fowl had dinosaur ancestors. Van’t Riet’s x-ray radiography reveals that even drastic differences can literally be skin deep.

 The Creation of Tiny Tales…

Like many kids, I grew up with a dinosaur obsession. I drew them, looked at bones of them, made plasticine models of them. This love faded over time but never completely died out and in the past year, I found it rekindled after coming across a vintage series of dinosaur books. What made these books special was not that they were particularly well-drawn or had impressive factoids, but because they told stories of these ancient beasts living their lives with a community of other plants and creatures. I remember them because they were my first ecological narratives.

Images displayed with permission from Arie van’t Riet.

My favourites of van Riet’s work remind me of those eco-narratives. In these more elaborate constructions he calls “bioramas”, I see tiny tales being told, ones where tiny turtles come up for air and scramble to shore, frogs skim across the surface dotted with waterlilies, and chameleons freeze in anticipation for unsuspecting insects. Each beautifully composed scenes is populated by diverse array of flora and fauna, captured in the process of living and interacting, agents of environmental co-creation. Human agency shapes these bioramas, but there is subtlety and respect behind that force. As a result, these works resonate deeply with me.

There are many more photographs on van’t Riet’s website. You can also learn more about how he creates his art in a TEDx talk he gave last October. Enjoy!

Questions:

  • Which image is your favourite? Why?
  • Can you tell what the animals are without looking at the title?
  • Do you agree with the statement that imagination is the source for both science and art?

Related Ekostories:

The Author

Environmental essayist. Interested in stories on nature, culture, and self.

7 Comments

  1. I love the “bioramas” best, too. I guess the one with the chameleon is the most aesthetically pleasing to me, but I like all three, both on an aesthetic level and because they exemplify the kind of ecosystem portrayal that you mention.

    I also love the statement about the common roots of art and science.

    Thanks!

    Like

  2. What I especially appreciated was that science, technology and human experience came together to generate artistic outcomes that nuance and respond to life forms. Excellent post…

    Like

  3. “Do you agree with the statement that imagination is the source for both science and art?” Most definitely. Every breakthrough in science began with imagination. Someone had to dream it first. Van’t Riet’s work is a beautiful example of the marriage of science and art. My favorite of his images (and all were lovely) is the one of the tulips.

    Like

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