What you notice first here are the colors and textures. Velvety greens, yellows, whites and greys; glistening droplets in amber and amethyst; glossy pinks and blacks. The mounds look like bizarre geological formations, studded with crystals and covered with soft moss… Something you might expect to find on a forest floor, or deep within a cave.
Although these strange heaps are indeed products of nature, they are also the work of photographer Heikki Leis, and they are rotten — literally. Leis created these multi-hued artworks from piles of decaying vegetables after being inspired by a pot of boiled potatoes he had left sitting out for too long. “They had started to mold and on closer examination I discovered some interesting textures and colors there and that’s how it started,” he told us.
After his discovery with the potatoes, Leis began to experiment with other vegetables, to see which ones produced the best results. The aim was to create mounds that decomposed in ways that would make them interesting subjects for photographs. Not just any old pile of moldering vegetables would do!
A process of trial and error proved to Leis that the best subjects for his photogenic mounds were beetroots, turnips, and his original inspiration, potatoes. We can only imagine the various experiments it must have taken to reach these conclusions. The smell alone would probably have discouraged a less motivated artist! Potatoes in particular are known for their pungent smell when they decay.
The type of vegetable used was not the only variable for creating these pretty heaps. Leis also had to ensure that his timing was right. Some vegetables took only a couple of weeks to achieve the desired look, others up to two months. The nature and progress, and indeed smell, of the decomposition depends largely on the vegetable’s chemical make-up.
Getting fungus to grow on vegetables is not difficult. In fact, mold loves veggies! Both moisture and cellulose, the perfect ingredients for mold development, are abundantly available in vegetables. Once the mold has taken hold of one vegetable, it quickly spreads to others nearby.
It isn’t surprising to see the different kinds of mold on these vegetable piles, as there may be over 300,000 different types — no one really knows for sure. The furry or hairy appearance of the fungus is actually made up of a great many stalks and branches. Magnified, it looks like hundreds of thin mushrooms, another kind of fungi. The reproductive spores that top these stalks are responsible for the different colors.
Although encouraging fungus to develop is not difficult, Leis says that getting the right kind of mold to grow was one of the most challenging aspects of creating his decomposing artworks. It required the correct amount of light, heat and bacteria, otherwise the vegetables would be overrun by a fungus producing “long grey hair”, as he puts it, rendering them useless for his photographs.
The beautiful jewel-like water droplets on the mounds are composed of water leaching from the vegetables during the decomposition process. Different chemical compounds in the vegetables decay at different rates, and some (such as lignin, found in wood) can only be broken down by particular types of mold.
Following his painstaking experiments and procedures to get the desired effects, Leis was able to photograph and exhibit his unusual art. “People are genuinely surprised that on closer examination, mold can look beautiful and even aesthetic,” he says.
It’s true that the moldy vegetables are gorgeous-looking, whether seen in close up or as part of a heap. In most cases the original vegetable can no longer even be discerned, so changed is it from its original form. In any case, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to look at pictures of fresh beetroots or potatoes!
If Heikki Leis’s work highlights anything, it is the beauty of nature in surprising contexts. Even something most of us would consider repulsive, such as decomposition, can produce astounding and delightful results. After all, one organism’s decay gives rise to a different organism’s growth.
Special thanks to Heikki Leis for allowing us to use his stunning photographs in this article. If you are interested in knowing more or purchasing any of his pictures. you can do so through his website http://www.heikkileis.ee/heikkileis.html. His exhibition is currently running at the Tartu AHHAA Science Centre in Estonia, but he is hoping to find other galleries internationally to showcase his work.