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Plankton Portraits

The underlying theme of this series of prints is the extraordinary, single-celled plankton organisms that are to be found in the waters close to the surface of the ocean. The visual material, upon which these prints are based, consists of photographs and observations made by microbiologists from the Department of biology at the University of Bergen, using light and electronic microscopy. The water samples were taken from the sea around New Ålesund, Svalbard. The initial contact with the group was made in 2007, where they were part of an international research project called PAME (Polar Aquatic Microbial Ecology). The project took place during the International Polar Year 2007 - 2008. Our collaboration was based upon a common interest and fascination for the patterns and forms that are evident in the microbial, marine universe.

Art and science often begin with visual observations followed by mental adaptation and subsequent interpretation. My aim was to make visible something that is normally both invisible and inaccessible. One of the things that interested me was what happens to the motif when the original photographs taken under the microscope are enlarged, adapted and reproduced using a printmaking process.

The Plankton Portraits are based upon four different groups of organisms that have very special architectural structures. They are invisible to the naked eye, and have a life cycle of only a few days. For example is a coccolithophorid only a few microns long. A micron (µm) is one thousandth of a millimeter. Despite their size, these organisms are extremely important in a number of ways. Plant plankton is the meadow grass of the sea; these organisms use carbon dioxide and produce just as much oxygen as the plants that grow on land. Because of this, all larger forms of life in the sea are dependent upon plankton, and this cycle is an important factor in regulating the earth’s climate.

Climate change has already created changes to the Arctic. Over the course of the last three years there have been very swift changes to nature in the North – changes that are just as great as those that have taken place during the last 1000 years. The water temperature along the western coast of Svalbard – for example outside New Ålesund - has risen dramatically. The fiords have been ice-free for the last three winters. The micro-organisms in the sea are affected by the warmer water that is moving in a northerly direction. Plankton that is tolerant of warmer water are on the increase, whilst those that prefer colder water are disappearing.

This is the second series of prints I have produced, based upon material from the world of natural science from Svalbard. The first series – Geotrykk (Geo-prints) - was based upon geological patterns and structures, and was made in collaboration with geologists from the research centre Physics of Geological Processes (PGP) the University of Oslo in 2003 – 2006.

The Exhibition- Plankton Portraits consists of a series of silkscreen/ serigraphy prints. This method gives the images the photographic and pointillist quality I was looking for. The microscopic photographs are processed using a computer – selected segments and backgrounds are combined in order to enhance the shapes and structures of each image. I have also drawn and painted on a number of the photographic films. The series entitled Choano combines silk- screen printing with drypoint. The digital images are transferred to films which are then applied to large, silk screen printing frames. Each image requires three to four frames, depending upon how many colors are used. The images were printed at The Royal University College of Fine Arts in Stockholm (KKH) I 2008-2009, where I was doing project research. The sizes of the prints vary - the smallest prints are 61 x 63 cm, and the largest are 450 x 600 cm. The largest prints are mounted on aluminium sheets and MDF.

Plankton Portraits will be shown at the Münsterlandfestivalen pART5 in Germany in September 2009, at Ibsenhuset, Skien Art Sosciety, in October 2009, and at the Gallery of Norwegian Printmakers in Oslo in February 2010.

Many thanks to the researcher Mikal Heldal and the engineer Egil Severin Erichsen, who took the majority of the SEM - micrography. They showed me an amazing universe through the lens of special microscope at the University of Bergen. Many thanks to the entire research group. They answered my many questions with equanimity, and taught me a great deal about these extraordinary organisms and how important they are.

About the microbiologists from UiB
The International Polar Year
About plankton