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Interview with Maurice Mikkers

Beautiful Tears

Maurice Mikkers is fusing art and science. Certified as a Medical Laboratory Analyst in 2007, he then shifted to studying Interactive Media Design at the Royal Art Academy in The Hague (KABK). Later, working with the medium of photography, he began to look at substances of everyday life under a microscope, starting with medications, drugs and food additives for the series Micrograph Stories, and this year, taking a close-up look at tears. The resulting body of work, Imaginarium of Tears, takes center focus in his upcoming talk on the TEDxAmsterdam stage in November 2015.

You’re creating photographs on a microscopic level of common substances that end up looking like beautiful, delicate snowflakes. How do you personally see the balance between art and science in your work?

For me, art and science are together indeed. So, I use techniques that are available within science, to show things that are normally unseen, and in this case I use the microscope.

Yet this is not a scientific study.

No, it’s not a scientific study; I just do it for fun. I started just by doing it at home, and I’m still doing that. I figure out what I want to visualize, and in the case of Micrograph Stories, it’s about the things we consume and or encounter in our daily life that we don’t know that much about. For instance, pain killers. We all take them but we never really think about what they are or what they do with us. The only thing we want is for them to ease our pain. By taking that pill and putting it under a microscope – by crushing it, diluting it, and boiling it, I’m able to crystallize it, and then put small drops on a slide – I can then image them.

By doing so, I want to start a conversation. It’s a sort of aggregator for stories: every painkiller has a story behind it, because you take it when you have a headache or you’re sick or you’re in pain. It always has a story of the person that uses it. And the same goes with general prescription medication – if you’re a diabetic, you probably use insulin – so if I can visualize your medicine, I can visualize your story.

You’re going to be speaking at TEDxAmsterdam about your series Imaginarium of Tears, correct? How does this idea of visualizing stories apply to your work on tears?

Right, my talk is mainly going to be around Imaginarium of Tears.

Often, in society, it’s seen as a weakness if you cry, and you do it behind closed doors. But they all have a story and it’s the way you connect with our world. For example, a good friend of mine came over and she cried because her dad is sick. And because I took that tear, I visualized her story. By doing that in different ways, I can visualize different moments.

The images visualize the three different kinds of tears (basal, reflex and emotional). Has that been the basis for how you approached your study of tears?

Yes and no. When the first tear came, I didn’t even know that there were three sorts of tears! So, I started to explore the types of tears and if there would actually be difference when I look at them underneath a microscope, but soon it became not a question about looking at the different types of tears, but more about the stories behind the tear.

So there’s no relationship between the type of tear and their microscopic appearance?

Yes, exactly, and that’s also why I want to evolve more to the story behind the tears. Because it’s not that interesting that an onion made you cry – probably we won’t really connect with that – but if there is a tear from the moment I lost my grandfather, then the story becomes more personal, and we can connect easier.

Normally, in public, I wouldn’t really cry, or I wouldn’t show you, because I don’t know you. But if I can capture the tear, and image it, and tell a little bit about the moment, I open up and I can maybe connect with you without actually crying in public.

The images are nevertheless, completely unique. How do you explain the differences?

The uniqueness of every tear is just a variable of the physiology of the tear. Every tear has water, lipids, glucose, ureum, sodium, potassium, oil, salts, minerals – they’re all in there. Because we are all unique and different, and we all do different things, and we are all unique, they will probably not all be exactly the same.

And then you also have the crystallization part. When you crystallize a teardrop, it has to dry up on a slide, and depending on the temperature, it also dries slower or faster. If it dries up faster, often the crystals stay very small, and if it crystallizes slowly, then it has more time to grow; they don’t break or they don’t shatter. The same goes with the effect of humidity.

So there are a lot of variables in the process that also create the shape of the tear, and all these things together make sure that every time you crystallize a tear that it will be unique.

What about the experience of harvesting the tears themselves? It might be easy to look at the finished product as an object, but even this act of harvesting a tear from a person has got to have its own story.

Yeah, it does. It’s actually quite hard, because you have a sort of responsibility if you ask someone to cry from an emotion. Often I don’t even know the person, so it’s quite weird if you would come over, sit on my couch, and I would ask: “Could you please cry?”

But, that’s also part of the question: Where do you need to cry of / from? You might say, “I lost my grandma,” or “My dad is sick,” or “I just had the greatest moment in my life because I just heard that I’m finally pregnant after years of trying.” But knowing their stories did not mean that the tear would magically appear, getting the tear is a second thing. It’s really hard for me to help with that – that’s your process.

And, doing that process, depending on how the person is, they might share more about their life than maybe I feel comfortable knowing, or can handle! So, some of them really looked for their own space, and I gave them the pipette to capture the tear themselves, but some of them wanted me to actually capture the tear, or it happened so fast that I really had to run and get it. Depending on the person and the story and on my relationship to the person, it’s really different every time.

What I learned is that it’s better to give the person his space, where he’s able to cry in a way he or she feels comfortable. So, with not me being physically there when they need to go through this process. What I do now, every time I don’t know the person, is I give them a mirror, and I give them instructions about how to capture the tear and they will just get their own room and space to actually take their time to cry. And the moment they cry, they can capture the tear themselves, and afterwards give it to me. That’s actually the most convenient way to do it for both of us.

What did you personally end up learning about tears through this process?

Well, I never knew that tears could look this beautiful. I mean, I was busy with crystallizations of prescription medication and food additives and other things I was currently working on, and one day I had to cry, and I was like: “Hmm, what happens if I take the tear and crystallize it?”


This interview with Maurice Mikkers was published on TEDxAmsterdam. We talk about the strange beauty of microscopic tears.

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