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One Artist’s Scientific Method

Fabian Oefner exposes beautiful unseen moments of daily life

Fabian Oefner’s work catches your attention. Check out any of his vivid psychedelic images, and you never know what you’ll see. Maybe it’s a coral reef glowing fluorescent below the surface of the sea. Or an inky black sky filled with stars. Some might see a human brain where others spot a mushroom cloud. Perhaps the only consistent truth to Oefner’s work is that whatever your first assumption, you’re in for a surprise. Leaving plenty of room for interpretation, inspiration and imagination—all integral parts of the art experience—only once you discover the Swiss artist’s experimental process can you fully appreciate his genius. 

The melding of science and art is no new phenomenon—look no further than Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” for a perfect example. Science is one type of exploration and art is another, but in Oefner’s case, it’s nearly impossible to tell where art ends and science begins. Especially when comparing his photographs to real images of, say, neurons or the process of mitosis or even breast cancer. He manages to evoke ideas of biology without being biological, a compelling characteristic when it comes to appealing to the tastes and attention span of a vast audience.

With a background in art and product design, and a lifelong interest in science, Oefner says blending the two fields came naturally. In fact, only through feedback from others is he reminded that they are two separate studies. “They both look at their surroundings,” he says, “they just do it in a slightly different way.” Science offers a rational way of approaching the world, while art is considered more emotional. In bringing those views together, Oefner speaks to the viewer’s brain and heart.

Much like a scientist embarking on research, Oefner’s artistic approach is experimental and observational, often on a very micro level. His current body of work was set into motion in 2012 with a bottle of ferrofluid, a liquid containing magnetic nanoscale particles. Curious about its reaction with other materials, he began mixing the fluid with sand and various solids over a magnetic surface. The surprise came with the addition of watercolor paint, which repelled the hydrophobic fluid as it would oil, yielding fantastic pods of color diffused into sprawling, intricate designs. The result is “Millefiore,” a series of hypermagnified images that captured the magnetic reactions. “It’s so beautiful when you do something for the first time and something marvelous happens which you didn’t expect,” Oefner explains. “That’s exactly what gives me the thrill of being an artist.”

In “Black Hole,” inspired by Jackson Pollock, Oefner drips acrylic paint onto a black cylinder connected to a drill. The images capture the moment the drill is turned on, centrifugal force creating a brilliant spray of color around what appears to be a black hole. Staying with the theme of forces acting in space, he created “Aurora” by putting flame to a glass vessel containing oxygen and a few drops of whisky. (Yes, it sounds like the makings of a high school lab disaster.) The resulting photographs seem immediately identifiable, though inaccurately so: what bears a striking resemblance to the human brain is actually a burst of fire illuminated against a completely darkened background.

These split-second reactions captured by Oefner’s high-speed camera are the center of his work. Perhaps this is an extension of his desire to bring awareness to the beauty that surrounds us daily, small yet incredible moments not visible to the naked eye. Take “Iridient,” for example. How could you notice, much less appreciate, a wobbly iridescence soap bubble hovering in space the second it bursts?

Oefner’s experimentation does not stop at the visual level. He created a “scent sculpture” through the chemical mingling of air-bound perfume and spray-paint particles. In “Dancing Colors,” a collaboration with LG Electronics, he pulled sound into the mix, spreading hundreds of tiny colored crystals across a thin piece of aluminum foil placed atop a speaker. The vibration of sound waves traveling through the speakers caused the crystals to spring into the air, giving them the illusion of dancing when photographed at more than 3000 frames per second.

A microphone connected to a high-speed flash literally brings much of Oefner’s work to light. Whether it’s the burst of a paint-covered balloon or the sound of an object hitting the surface of liquid paint, the perfectly timed flash allows his camera to catch a reaction the instant it happens. Ultimately, this timing—Oefner’s determination to coordinate each independent element in such an exacting way—is what allows him to step back and let the unexpected take over.

Despite the extreme precision of his photographic setup and the microcosmic nature of his images, Oefner claims his processes are based on very simple scientific phenomena. Yet the results are impactful, and as approachable by scientists working in the field as they are by small children. First, you’re taken by the colors, the shapes. Then you start to wonder what it is you’re actually seeing, and your rational brain gets involved. “People can look at it and just enjoy it for the beauty of it and go on with their lives,” he says. “Or they start thinking about what’s really going on in those images, but it’s not a complicated thing they’re looking at.”

This is true, save for one particular idea that might have required blowing up a 1967 Ferrari 330 P4. Few would condone such an experiment, even for the sake of art, which is why for “Disintegrating” Oefner painstakingly dismantled scale models of classic cars, photographed each piece independently, then arranged the photos to give the impressive effect of automotive masterpieces in mid-explosion.

It’s not easy to hone one’s craft in a way that successfully supports the convergence of art, science and advertising. When you take the scientific conversation down to a cellular level, it can be easy to lose people. But Oefner’s compelling yet accessible images are quickly making him a favorite in the advertising world. He has a number of high-profile projects in the pipeline, and it’s easy to see why. People pay attention to his work.

Oefner appreciates the opportunity to help bring awareness to Fluidigm technology, noting that if people are captivated by the visual beauty of his images, they might be inclined to look deeper. For instance, the idea of single-cell research may conjure up visions of a cancer cell. “It’s a horrific thing, but the image itself can be beautiful,” he states. “I like that because people will like the images for the aesthetics but go deeper and learn about what’s really happening.”

He says his inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. “Sometimes I go for a walk and see something that captures my attention, and sometimes it’s a scientific article I read. It can be the work of other artists. There are so many sources of inspiration and you never know when it hits you—that’s the thing.”