“Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”
So reads the quote of French mathematician Blaise Pascal, emblazoned across the top of photographer Marcus DeSieno's website. There's probably no better phrase to describe the sublime oddity that is the artist's series "Cosmos." In essence: he allows bacteria gleaned from the seats of toilets and the bottoms of motel hot tubs to eat away at images of the universe -- elliptical galaxies, planets, nebulae and all. The "microscopic and macrocosmic coalesce" into a whole new universe that looks something like this:
A Photograph of the Milky Way Eaten by Bacteria Found in Unpasteurized Milk (Archival Pigment Print of Bacteria Grown on Photographic Film, 2014)
So how does he do it? First, he grows microscopic bacteria atop photographic film. The film contains appropriated images of outer space, originally taken by Hubble, NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency), depicting everything from Venus to the Reticulum Constellation. The bacteria come from various locations, some more heinous (an asshole, a public bathroom) than others (a seemingly harmless iPhone screen, a friendly light switch). DeSieno then lets the bacteria breed, growing and multiplying, interacting with the film in slow and unpredictable ways. The results are scanned to make the final prints. That process, the artist writes, kills the microscopic ecosystem that he himself helped create.
Just as the bacteria consumed the cosmos, deleting its colors and shapes, DeSieno's photographic experimentation obliterates the bacteria, leaving neither party untouched in the end. It's carnage all around, a repetitive cycle of destruction that doesn't even end with the pictures. "The nature of photography itself is called into question," the artist writes in a statement online, "as the bacteria eats away the image into material abstraction, demolishing the pictorial, and freeing the photo-object from the burden of depiction."
A Photograph of a Barred Lenticular Galaxy Eaten by Bacteria Found in My Belly Button (Archival Pigment Print of Bacteria Grown on Photographic Film, 2014)
"The imagery from Hubble and NASA of space, these intangible representations of our larger universe, are destroyed by the very real and tangible invisible forces of nature," DeSieno exclaimed to HuffPost in an email interview. "Nature attacks and alters the surface of the material film, annihilating the original indexical image and imprinting its own, becoming a tactile abstraction of color and texture. Can a photograph be more than a mere index or referent? And how can the use of this analog photographic technology be re-imagined in the 21st century?"
In the end, the manipulated photos, part appropriation/part chemistry, blend aspects of the micro and macro worlds in such a way that the universes end up looking like they belonged together in the first place. Of course, they do. A concept not lost on DeSieno. The infinite just comes sweeping back to us, full of psychedelic bulges and hallucinatory abysses.
"My inspiration for 'Cosmos' comes from three very specific notions. The first is a lifelong fascination with the vast invisible spectrums of the universe. My parents got me a microscope when I was a kid and I would put everything under its lens," DeSieno added. "The second source of inspiration is a desire to interrogate photographic materiality in an age of digital uniformity... The third inspiration is very much an exploration and confrontation with my childhood fears of bacteria and germs as I go out into the world, find various locations, and swab for them as I look for microscopic life. This act is itself a defiant performative gesture against my lifelong neurosis."
Feast on the series below: