Sasha R. Gregor: The Beauty of Ideas

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Roger Grasas (b. Barcelona 1970)’ [detail] 1998 from the series ‘Lacrimosa’

Both science and art are forms of knowledge.


That which we call light is but a fraction of a much vaster electromagnetic spectrum. We call it light because we can detect it – defining it by our limitation rather than its nature. There are some creatures that have a wider sensitivity to this larger spectrum, insects especially but also some mammals. Vampire bats for example are said to be able to see infrared. But what we lack in sensory ability we have, over time, made up for in the development of technologies that can harness the invisible properties of gamma rays, X-rays, ultra-violet, infrared and radio waves. Some detect and then transpose those invisible wavelengths into the humanly visible range, others use the properties of waves to carry information, and yet others selectively apply the lethal properties of high-energy rays to sterilise food or fight invasive disease. In seeking to understand how the world functions, science provides insights that inform the development of technologies that extend our human capabilities beyond the purely biological.

Art aspires less to the description of function than to the evocation of meaning. While some forms of meaning are categorical (numbers, words, icons) it is more complex and subjective meaning that art engages most deeply. Not, What does this say? But, How does this make me feel? How do I relate to this thing, this idea? That said, art and science are not polar opposites but rather different ways through which to make sense of the world around us, branches of the same tree of knowledge. Indeed, it is only in relatively recent times that art and science have been considered separate fields of human investigation. The very definition of the Renaissance ideal was the universality and interconnectedness of human knowledge. In today’s world of siloed specialisms, one area that seeks that more hybrid approach is SciArt.

Sasha R. Gregor is an artist who is also a scientist, his specialist area being optics. In his work he explores the art of visualising the invisible by harnessing scientific technologies that reach into the world beyond human sensual awareness. His images do more than simply show us what the unaided eye cannot see. Each becomes a site of reflection, a meditative point of departure that leads us on a journey beyond the realm of the senses to re-envision the world. A paradigm shift that brings new insight, a fresh perspective. And, amid such a shifting of perception, it is perhaps fitting that Sasha R. Gregor himself is a personality made visible through the translation of his alter ego Roger Grasas into a new aesthetic and conceptual register.

Alasdair Foster

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Chitá to Khabaróvsk’ (thermal gradient 15.4°C to 2.9°C, ambient temperature 5.5°C) from the series ‘ThermoSibirsk’ 2018


As an artist you have chosen to have two distinct identities: Sasha R. Gregor and your birth-name Roger Grasas. The names suggest a mirroring, with Sasha, like Alice, exploring the other side of the looking glass. How do you see the relationship between the two identities?

The seed of both bodies of work is the journey. As Roger Grasas my work is a form of documentary that interrogates, almost always through a physical journey, the complexity, strangeness, and paradoxes of our contemporary world. It is an anthropological and political discourse on our species that generates reflective questions rather than dogmatic answers. Sasha R. Gregor’s more experimental and conceptual work shares the form of a journey but takes it onto a symbolic plane, moving from the anthropological to the theoretical, exploring the nature of meaning-making, aesthetics and so on. Roger’s production tends to be more organic or instinctive while Sasha’s is more methodical.

How did Sasha’s oeuvre begin?

Almost by coincidence. One afternoon, researching in the laboratory with salt samples under the Nomarski microscope, I discovered some fascinating abstract, almost lunar landscapes. That same evening, when I got home, I discovered my girlfriend crying because of a personal upset. After consoling her (of course) I asked her permission to collect one of the tears still running down her cheek. The next day I locked myself in the microscopy laboratory of the university where I was working on my final thesis, here to observe what was in that tear. What I discovered was a marvellous landscape of shapes and colours. Thus began the series ‘Lacrimosa’ and with it my work as a SciArt photographer.

[Left] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Erica Gomes (b. Tulare, California 1977)’ 1999 from the series ‘Lacrimosa’
[Right] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Marcela Pimienta (b. Ciudad de Mexico 1977)’ 2008 from the series ‘Lacrimosa’

How were you viewing the tear drop?

I was using the Nomarski microscope, which combines a conventional optical microscope with differential interferential contrast illumination. This system, which uses birefringent prisms and polarising filters, harnesses one of the most mysterious behaviours of light as an electromagnetic wave: interference. From this phenomenon, the microscope generates an image with higher resolution and contrast, revealing both surface details and internal structures. The most curious thing is that the use of prisms produces images with bright, saturated colours without the necessity of first staining the sample.

But beyond that aesthetic effect, I was very interested in the concept. Crying defines us as humans and we can cry because of a great number of emotions, both positive and negative. In ‘Lacrimosa’ I sensed the possibility of presenting these photomicrographs as symbolic portraits of different human beings and the circumstance that provoked their tears. The series involved many variables: different people crying, different emotions, different conditions for the crystallisation the salts suspended in the tears… However, I decided to keep at least on value constant, with the degree of magnification set at 2000x.

[Left] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Gloria Toledo (b. Barcelona 1971)’ 1998 from the series ‘Lacrimosa’
[Right] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Jordi Samaranch (b. Barcelona 1970)’ 1998 from the series ‘Lacrimosa’

What did you discover about tears that you did not already know?

I have learned that the action of crying challenges us as humans because, in the brain, the amygdala [the seat of our emotions] and the hypothalamus [which maintains the stability of our bodily functions] are both involved in its generation. Through the microscope I discovered that the physical and chemical composition of a tear depends on its cause. The tears produced to moisten the eye and clear irritants are much more dilute than those produced as a consequence of emotion. Emotional tears contain many more proteins and hormones giving rise to a denser photomicrograph full of irregularly shaped structures.

[Left] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Colony of Spores in a Bottle of Wine’ 1999 (Nomarski system photomicrograph) from the series ‘Villa Colorines’
[Above Right] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘A Cup of Coffee’ 2020 (infrared thermographic image) from the series ‘Villa Colorines’
[Below Right] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Crystals of Tetenal Fixer’ 1998 (photomicrograph with polariser) from the series ‘Villa Colorines’

Your series ‘Villa Colorines’, which also makes us of Nomarski microscopy, has been made over an extended period of time. What are you exploring in this work?

This is also a kind of journey, though it includes much more than microphotography. The title of the project comes from the name of a small house located in the heart of a Mediterranean forest some ten kilometres from Barcelona. It is where I live with my partner Marta and our daughter, Siberia. This series is a journey into the infinity of the very small. Not simply in terms of physical dimension but in terms of significance. A way to pay homage to those small realities that are part of everyday life, things we take for granted, and to observe them in another way, making the invisible visible.

At its core, the series dances between the familiar everyday and the things present but invisible to the naked eye. There is a dialogue between such disparate – yet interconnected – realities as macro photographs of ash from the fireplace, polarised photomicrographs of a sodium hyposulphite crystal [photographic fixer], darkfield images of a colony of spores within a bottle of wine, an infrared thermographic image of our baby, another of my morning coffee, pinhole-camera images of the garden, and so on… In short, it is a selection of seventy samples recorded at very different dimensional scales that constitute a hypothetical jigsaw of our domestic universe.

[Left] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Ashes From the Fireplace’ 2020 (macro photograph) from the series ‘Villa Colorines’
[Above Right] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Six-Month Old’ 2020 (infrared thermographic image) from the series ‘Villa Colorines’
[Below Right] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘The Garden of Villa Colorines’ 2020 (pinhole-camera image) from the series ‘Villa Colorines’

I majored in physics at university and have always been interested in the way scientists draw on metaphor and analogy (and the abstraction of mathematics) when their research takes them beyond the humanly perceivable world. The mission of science may however have different aims from those of art. How do you approach the reading of your images in this hybrid art–science form?

Indeed, in science there are many cases (perhaps the most relevant) in which imagination has a central place. I am thinking for example of the theoretical physicists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who studied the nature of light, the workings of the subatomic world, the mathematical models of the space–time continuum, the theories of quantum mechanics and of relativity… These conceptual frameworks required considerable creative imagination.

At the margins of knowledge, imagining is crucial to progress. Chaos and complexity increase imagination. I remember the anecdote of a student who presented his teacher, Nobel laureate Niels Bohr, with a very complex mathematical proposal. Bohr, after analysing it, replied: “Your theory is very strange, but not strange enough”. Sometimes we have to go beyond reason to think of possible other worlds and perhaps understand our own better. That’s what I’m looking for, for the complexity through which to propose new models for relating to reality.

What are the philosophical challenges when blending art (which tends to the subjective) and science (which aspires to the objective)?

While my images, being photographic representations, point to a certain evidence or objectivity, my aim is not to extend scientific knowledge but to reflect upon it. There is a metaphotographic component to my work as Sasha R. Gregor. I am interested in generating debate around how meaning is created, and to do so I make use of technical resources more usually associated with science than with the fine arts. But in both art and science it is ideas rather than sensate perception that generate progress. Ultimately, what I aspire to is the beauty of ideas.

After having been twice driven back by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty’s ship Beagle a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831. The object of the expedition was to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego … to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and of some islands in the Pacific and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world.

Excerpt from ‘A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World’ by Charles Darwin.

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Plymouth (England)’ from the series ‘Beagle 2.0’ 2017

February 29th, 1832— Near Fernando Noronha the sea gave out light in flashes. The appearance was very similar to that which might be expected from a large fish moving rapidly through a luminous fluid. To this cause the sailors attributed it; at the time, however, I entertained some doubts, on account of the frequency and rapidity of the flashes.

Excerpt from ‘A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World’ by Charles Darwin.

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Fernando Noronha (Brazil)’ from the series ‘Beagle 2.0’ 2017

How did ‘Beagle 2.0’ begin?

It began when I first discovered the iconographic technologies of Google Earth and Google Street View. These tools, both satellite and terrestrial, have led to a conceptual mapping on a one-to-one scale such that the whole world is already photographed and represented as a parallel reality on the Internet. When I discovered Google Street View it made me think of [Jorge Luis] Borges’ story in which a map is designed on the same scale as the empire it depicts, and the meaninglessness of such a map.

September 15th 1835— In the morning we landed on Chatham Island (Galapagos), which, like the others, rises with a tame and rounded outline, broken here and there by scattered hillocks, the remains of former craters. Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sunburnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life.

Excerpt from ‘A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World’ by Charles Darwin.

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Galapagos Archipelago (Ecuador)’ from the series ‘Beagle 2.0’ 2017

At the Cape of Good Hope the same hospitality, and very nearly the same points of etiquette, are universally observed. The difference, however, between the character of the Spaniard and that of the Dutch boor is shown, by the former never asking his guest a single question beyond the strictest rule of politeness, whilst the honest Dutchman demands where he has been, where he is going, what is his business, and even how many brothers, sisters, or children he may happen to have.

Excerpt from ‘A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World’ by Charles Darwin.

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Cape of Good Hope (South Africa)’ from the series ‘Beagle 2.0’ 2017

What ideas are you exploring in this work?

In ‘Beagle 2.0’, texts from Darwin’s travel diaries, which describe the places, landscapes, and territories that the biologist discovered and studied, are juxtaposed with the images from Google Street View that show how those locations appear today. The starting point was the idea that the landscape is not the place or territory but the aesthetic or political way of observing it. As such, ‘Beagle 2.0’ is more post-photographic than SciArt. It reflects on the virtual duplication of the planet on the Internet and how these technologies affect the way we relate to territory today. The work is also a form of appropriation that challenges the concept of authorship and, given Google Street View is created by an automated system, the nature of visual creation itself. On a more narrative level, in following Darwin’s journey, it raises questions about the way human evolution has led to a culture that translates territory into an artificial world.

Sasha R. Gregor ‘Beagle 2.0’ installed in the Arts Santa Mònica Center, Barcelona in 2019 [photo: Jordi Play]

How is this work installed?

The images are presented in light boxes that simulate the omnipresent screens of computers, smartphones, tablets… that are then mounted in carved wooden frames, which echo the aesthetics of Charles Darwin’s day. The curatorial journey follows the texts taken from Darwin’s travel diaries.

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Kazan to Yekaterinburg’ (thermal gradient -0.2°C to -33.9°C, ambient temperature -12.4°C) from the series ‘ThermoSibirsk’ 2018

We move now to another journey, this time through latter-day Siberia.

‘ThermoSibirsk’ is based on a dream I had had since childhood: to travel the length of the Trans-Siberian railway, the longest line on the planet. Conceptually, my aim here was to leave the field of luminous energy to investigate the poetics of heat which, despite having certain similarities with light, is not visible. My intention was to plot the geographic journey of the mythic Trans-Siberian through images which depict the thermal gradient as a range of colours. This technique of thermography, in turn, allowed me to connect with the ecological discourse around global warming in Siberia, one of the regions hardest hit by the climate crisis. It also introduces the paradoxical effect that the thermographic technique translated the white-on-white landscapes of the Siberian winter into a wide chromatic palette. In this way, ‘ThermoSibirsk’ suggests the tension between nature and human technology, both through the metaphor of the railway and in the context of climate change.

[Left] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Novosibirsk’ (thermal gradient -5.9°C to -22.1°C, ambient temperature -10.4°C) from the series ‘ThermoSibirsk’ 2018
[Right] © Sasha R. Gregor ‘Stalin Statue, Moscow’ (thermal gradient -12.2°C to -23.4°C, ambient temperature -11.7°C) from the series ‘ThermoSibirsk’ 2018

What is it that art can add to science, and vice-versa?

Both science and art are forms of knowledge. In my opinion, both disciplines seek to resolve the same essential question of why the world is the way it is and not any of a myriad of other ways. Imagination and creativity are inherent to human beings, and both are radically manifested in artistic creation as well as in scientific production. Einstein’s view of the world is no less creative than Duchamp’s artistic creation, the difference being in the method or perspective from which one or the other describes it. Perhaps science is more directed towards discovering of the mysteries of nature while art invents realities that seek to give meaning to the world and to oneself. In artistic creation, rather than a functional description of the world, what is generated is emotion, reflection, provocation… To explain this difference, I sometimes think of the psychological phenomenon of falling in love. On a scientific level, falling in love could be reduced to a series of electro-chemical reactions between certain neurotransmitters in our nervous system. On an expressive or artistic level, on the other hand, Klimt’s painting ‘The Kiss’, Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, or Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot’ are capable of elevating the often-irrational emotions of love, giving meaning and worth to one’s feelings and a sense of connection to wider human experience.

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Vladivostok’ (thermal gradient 21.6°C to -40.0°C, ambient temperature 9.2°C) from the series ‘ThermoSibirsk’ 2018

Since art is essentially linked to the communicative capacity of being human, it can bring to science the miracle of understanding others. It can open our minds to possibility, to the principle of non-limitation. The irrational, Dionysian character of art can be very useful in scientific research, as the study of quantum physics has shown us. Science, on the other hand, can contribute to art the capacity to recognise a certain order within chaos, bringing a certain intelligibility to nature: that reality speaks to us through a language. It can also contribute, through the application of its technologies, new ways of representing and connecting with the world.

What are you working on now?

I am currently editing and designing a photobook of the ‘Beagle 2.0’ project. I am also working on a new project about the origin and evolution of human life during pregnancy and the first year after birth. My partner Marta and I are expecting a baby this summer!

What have you learned through making these bodies of work?

Three things. First: I have learned to relativise our position in the world and in the universe. Second: there is no absolute knowledge but only a mediated interpretation. Third: dualisms are reductionist, over-simplifying. Science and art are two terms referring to human activities that in their essence are much more connected than may at first appear.

© Sasha R. Gregor ‘Roger Grasas (b. Barcelona 1970)’ 1998 from the series ‘Lacrimosa’

Biographical Notes

Sasha R. Gregor (aka Roger Grasas) was born in Barcelona in 1970. He has degrees in optics (1992) and techno-scientific photography (1998) from the Universidad Politécnica of Catalunya, and he was awarded a master’s degree in aesthetics and theory of art from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (2004) and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Universitat de Barcelona (2012). His work has been showcased in twenty-seven solo and thirty-six group exhibitions in Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Oceania, and is held in a number of public and private collections including the Centro de Arte Alcobendas in Madrid and the Foundation Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France. He has won several of awards including first prize in the Head On Photo Festival Landscape Awards (Sydney 2018); a Discoveries Award at PHotoESPAÑA (Madrid 2018); the Mezquita prize at the City of Córdoba International Awards (Spain 2020); and a silver medal at the Festival Verzasca (Switzerland 2021). His monographs include ‘Ha Aretz’ (Kehrer Verlag 2022) and ‘Thermosibirsk’ (De Broglie Books 2022). He lives and works in Catalunya, Spain.

Photo: Marta Garriga

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.