Radiation exposure isn’t often thought of as the foundation of great art. But for Dutch physicist-turned-artist Arie van ‘t Riet, X-ray machines serve as paintbrushes, and radiation as paint. And it’s hard to see his X-ray images of the inner workings of plants and animals as anything but artistic.
The idea for X-ray art was planted when van ‘t Riet’s colleague asked him to X-ray a painting. He didn’t think it would work, but gave it a shot. And as it turns out, the different paint thicknesses on the canvas made for a readable X-ray. So, naturally, van ‘t Riet decided to experiment with other objects, starting with a bouquet of tulips. It was a stunning success. “And then some people told me ‘That’s art,’” he says to laughs at a 2013 TedX Talk. “And I became an artist.”
Now, working from his studio, van ‘t Riet creates elaborate “bioramas” – a chameleon resting on a begonia plant, or a patch of mushrooms and weeds protruding from the earth. He then exposes the scenes to varying levels of radiation – a lizard requires higher energy radiation than a flower petal, for example – to create a black and white image. After digitizing his analog X-ray, van ‘t Riet adds pops of color in Photoshop: a green leaf here, a red flower there.
Through this process, he transforms the everyday into the remarkable. The final images are captivating. They offer a new way of seeing the world, and a fresh perspective on the flora and fauna it contains. As van ‘t Riet puts it: “Looking with X-ray eyes adds a new dimension to my experience of nature.”
He works only with animals that have already died. “In my opinion, it’s not justified to expose living animals to the risk of X-rays for my purpose,” he wrote in an email from the Netherlands. That means he works with a lot of traffic victims found along the roadside, as well as the deceased lizards and snakes of a reptile-loving friend, fish from the supermarket, and insects purchased from a shop in Amsterdam. “I use animals as I find them,” van ‘t Riet adds. “Especially in the case of traffic victims, it means that the anatomy often is mutilated. In a number of my images you will see animal injuries.”
When it comes to expectations for his art, van ‘t Riet’s are simple: to use beauty as a way to cultivate respect. “I hope that my images will help to increase respect for nature, especially for animals,” he explains. “I hope my X-rays will show the complexity and beauty of animals. And flowers as well of course.”
Arie van ’t Riet’s images are made available through the Science Photo Library. To see more of his work: www.x-rays.nl
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