Wenting Zhu29 July 2017

How Ordinary Things Transform Into a Magical World Under The Microscope


View the stunningly beautiful crystallization art of Wenting Zhu, formed under the gaze of a microscope, illuminated with pigments and solution.

Cover Image: Experiments illustrating a myriad of crystals of ammonium chloride in different colors.

Miniseries is an art project featured in Beauty of Science which explores the microscopic world. The microscope can be used not only for scientific observation, but also for artistic creation. I mixed pigments with other chemicals in a small petri dish, recorded their movements and shapes through the microscope, and found that within each tiny spot lies another hidden world of complexity.

The shapes, you see in these images are created by mixing pigments with organic solvents

How would you define your work?

What I am trying to do is to link art and science together. There are movements and shapes that are too small for eyes to detect. The microscope extends the reach of my visual sense, and gives me the ability to go beyond conventional ways of seeing things.

I did a lot of experiments under the microscope and got abstract graphics: the crystallization process of ammonium chloride looks like growing trees; the mixture of various liquids looks like feathers, clouds and petals… I gradually realized that there is a magical tiny world beyond the world we are familiar with, which is full of imaginations.

Ordinary things can become truly extraordinary if we look closely and look from a different point of view. In this process, searching is everything, what is important is not what I see and what I capture, but how it drives me to explore.

Can you talk about your process? Do you prepare the colors, pigments or plan / improvise the reactions?

It all began with a brief study of Turkish Marbling Art three years ago, drawing on the surface of the water, which stimulated my interest in doing experiments. That was the first time in my life that I had ever perceived the flowing form of liquids is extremely graceful. Since then, I tried to use different kinds of liquids to create patterns, and I gradually became curious about their microscopic forms during my artistic practice.

After I joined the Beauty of Science, I had an opportunity to use more advanced photographic equipment so that I could observe at the microscopic level.

Scientist-artist Wenting Zhu preparing the pigments for the microscopic spectacle

The fun of artistic creation is to take materials and improvise on it. Unpredictable things take place all the time.

MINIGLOBELET I is about the crystallization process of alum. That was my first exposure to an OLYMPUS microscope and a chemistry lab. I was confused at the beginning because there were too many new things. I didn't have much chemistry knowledge, nor did I want to read chemical books, but I firmly believe that there is a more direct way to acquire knowledge. At that time, my colleague did experiments in the laboratory, and gave me a small beaker with alum crystals on its surface.

I was driven by curiosity and observed these crystals with the microscopeļ¼¨it was a splendid crystal palace that I could hardly imagine. Inspiration came from this, I began to prepare saturated solution of alum and observed the crystallization process. The shooting took a long time. Because of using warm transmitted light of the microscope, the whole film shows a yellow hue.

Small beaker with alum crystals on its surface under the microscope—a splendid crystal palace.

The alum crystals are forming

I never made plans, everything came to me by chance.

From then on, I had great interest in making art works about crystallization. But I wanted to make a little change in the second work (MINIGLOBELET II). I mixed saturated solution of ammonium chloride with different colors, and put droplets of their mixtures on slides. After waiting for some time, the crystallization began and the forms of crystallization in different colors were quite different. Crystals in red pigments looked more gorgeous than the others.

Crystals of ammonium chloride in different colors under the microscope.

I had to try more apart from making crystals. I went around in lab all day without any ideas until I saw a bottle of alcohol. A casual glance gave me a completely new direction. I poured some of the alcohol into a petri dish, then dropped in the paint by using a pipette. The paint rolled and shifted until it finally dispersed, like dancing in alcohol. In consideration of the main colors of MINIGLOBELET I and MINIGLOBELET II, I decided to choose cool colors such as blue and white to experiment and the result was MINIGLOBELET III. As a matter of fact, there was no plan for the use of colors. But white pigments were used in large quantities to increase the contrast so that I could see clearly. 

In addition to using lab chemicals, I collected common liquids, like oil and drinks. I firmly believe that there is an infinite sense of beauty hiden in ordinary life, it is impossible to know what beautiful reactions will happen until I try it.

A petri dish with colors, the diameter of this petri dish is 3cm.

As for the last two short films, MINIGLOBELET IV and MINIPOND, organic solvents were used. Upon contact with organic solvents, the pigments formed into magnificent structures, some of them looked like blooming flowers, clouds or feathers, while others looked like sceneries somewhere in the cosmos...The whole process of emergence and vanishing is wonderful and sentimental.

What I like about the MINIGLOBELET IV is that it came out of quite simple experiments, yet is strikingly beautiful and dreamlike.

Finally, because of the special structure of the microscope, top view was the only shooting angle I could use. But to some extent, I was released from considering too much about other possible viewing angles.

About the Author

Wenting Zhu studied painting for about thirteen years before 2012, and graduated from the Academy of Arts & Design of Tsinghua University in 2016, majoring in Visual Communication Design. Later, a few months after graduation, a beautiful meeting happened in her life. She was fortunate to become a member of Beauty of Science initiative, and be part of the wonderful stories they tel. Besides making abstract graphics and peculiar-looking structures by doing experiments, she want to get closer to the world. Wenting is always reminded to be good observer. By introducing experiments and photography into her life, she started perceiving all the things she saw in new ways, which helps her find a new means of communicating and interacting with the world.

For more on Wenting Zhu's work, visit Miniseries and Micro at Beauty of Science.

Wenting Zhu working in the lab

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