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How Does One See Art Made From Unicellular Algae?


Klaus Kemp’s invisible universes, made with diatomaceous algae, are the perfect temporary refuge.

Among the eccentric practices the Victorian age bequeathed to us, one stands out for beauty both tiny and dignified. Geometric mosaics, parts within a kaleidoscopic art now almost forgotten, are made from a raw material of algae, called diatoms. Though the profession is nearly entirely abandoned today, there’s still one man who practices it obsessively. The results are wonderful …

During the Victorian era, a curious practice consisted in the assembly of diatom algae used for cosmetic purposes. These unicellular beings, imperceptible to the naked eye, create colonies in the forms of fans, zigzags, stripes or stars, and with transparent cell walls and sometimes symmetrical orientations. With the aid of a microscope and a human hair mounted on a thin wooden handle, the diatoms could be placed with millimetric precision in the forms of patterns and geometric designs as beautiful as they were strange. The tiny assemblages were sold as eccentric miniatures to naturalists and lovers of curiosities.

Fortunately, an artist working with diatoms still exists in this world: Klaus Kemp, the self-taught guardian of an almost extinct tradition. He works by collecting algae from puddles, ponds, and tanks, then by cleaning them, accommodating them and transforming them into spectacular and tiny universes. An arrangement of 100 diatoms fits within the space that occupies the period at the end of any normal-sized text.

Kemp spent eight years developing a formula for making these eccentric arrangements. He even developed his own formula for glue. Current technology allows for his creations to be even more vibrant and colorful than their Victorian predecessors. And Kemp has already discovered several new species of diatoms (of which, at present, about 100,000 species are known). His passion is the genus Mastogloia.

In 2014, filmmaker Matthew Killip, fascinated by Victorian diatom arrangements, made a small documentary, with a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, about the work of Klaus Kemp: an inspiring tribute to this spectacular madman.

The unparalleled beauty of Kemp’s diatomaceous arrangements lies not only in their special aesthetic, but it also emanates from the implications of creating imperceptible, minute universes, and the strenuous manipulation of this unique expression of nature. An invisible art, it’s born of a most precious discretion.

The Diatomist from Matthew Killip on Vimeo.

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