Light in the Dark

For something different, I thought I’d present a small photo essay of my own images surrounding the theme of light and plants. Rainforests are made up of thick layers of plants and trees that depend on light for energy. Each plant species has a different technique to reach for the sun. They weave and sway and wind around each other – all desperately searching for golden rays to photosynthesise. This journey into the sunshine usually goes unnoticed when we stroll through a thick path of greenery, but if you look closely, you’ll notice how alive the rainforest really is.

(These photographs were taken in Far North Queensland and the Blue Mountains, Australia)

 

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Beautiful Mutants

I don’t know if any of you saw the Simpsons episode where Lisa and Marge fed Mr. Burns a 3-eyed fish; deformed from radioactive waste leaking into the local waterways near his power plant? Most of you probably thought this was fiction – a good joke. But really this was a clever reflection on environmental truths.

Brandon Ballengee is a scientist and artist who, for over 20 years, has studied the effects of chemical pollution on amphibans (frogs, salamanders etc.). Amphibians are like the canary in the coal mine – they reflect the health of an ecosystem. If there is something wrong with an amphibian population in a given environment – there is probably something wrong with the habitat at large. Ballengee has continued to monitor amphibian populations around New York, Pennsylvania, Quebec and other parts of North America. In this time, not only has he noticed a decline in their numbers, but he has uncovered something far more unsettling: deformities.

The idea of mutation comes with a lot of baggage. Mutant organisms are unnatural, warped; they corrupt our notion of symmetry and order in nature. And yet there is beauty in Brandon Ballengée’s images of deformed frog skeletons. In eerie glowing blues and greens, their surplus of legs splayed chaotically, these creatures provide unnerving testimony to human impact on individual organisms.

Amphibian populations are collapsing worldwide, and his work acts both as a means of studying the pressures they are subjected to, and also as a way of engaging and inspiring the public. In reference to synthesising art and science, Ballengee articulates:

The art to science/science to art cross-over is natural. Both are a means of making sense of the world around us and it is only recently that art and science have become so divided.

Just like Marge Simpson presents Mr. Burns with a three-eyed fish, Ballengee’s work presents us with images of these helplessly deformed creatures. He challenges us to accept what we, humanity, are doing to our fragile ecosystems. Perhaps if we all had access to beautiful anatomical images of our own neighbourhood amphibians we too would spit their extra eyeballs across the table and say “that’s not good enough!”

 

Brandon Balengee, 2012: Cleared and stained Pacific Tree Frog collected in Aptos, California in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions

Brandon Ballengee, 2012: Cleared and stained Pacific Tree Frog collected in Aptos, California in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions

 

Brandon Balengee, 2013: 'Erebus' - Unique Iris print on Arches watercolour paper. Cleared and stained North American gree frog collected in North Hempstead, New York in scientific collaboration with Peter Raymond Warny

Brandon Ballengee, 2013: ‘Erebus’ – Unique Iris print on Arches watercolour paper. Cleared and stained North American gree frog collected in North Hempstead, New York in scientific collaboration with Peter Raymond Warny

Brandon Ballengee’s work extends beyond the realm of amphibians to other wildlife and human effects. Take a look at his website here.

Dead or Alive?

Being incredibly taken by taxidermy art, I was amazed when I found out that the artist, Cai Guo Qiang’s exhibition, ‘Falling Back to Earth’ comprised 198 handmade animals – not real!

The dramatic effect that these animals stirred, caused a bang at the GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art) in Brisbane this past year. Originally from China but based in New York, Cai Guo Qiang designed and created this exhibition and its instalments based on a visit to South-Eastern Queensland, Australia in 2011.

He was overwhelmed by the pristine landscapes of South-East Australia and says of his piece, ‘Heritage’:

“As the clear blue waters, the white sandy beaches of Stradbroke Island, and the rich palette of colors on the bottom of Brown Lake took my breath away, I came to realize that this paradise-like environment actually highlights the serious problems on Earth. Everywhere on Earth should have been just as beautiful.

The distance between Stradbroke Island and Brisbane, and the distance between Australia and the rest of the world inspired me to create a utopian scene, and the tableau in Heritage reminds us that this scene would be impossible in reality.”

Cai Guo Qiang suggests that, as the name goes, ‘Heritage’ is something that we are afraid to inherit. To me, this juxtaposition of imagery highlights our responsibility as human beings to take care of a world that is so rich in beauty and biodiversity; and yet it highlights our carelessness and mistreatment of it as well. The single drop that falls from the ceiling is a poignant reminder of the of the time we have left to protect our biodiversity, as well as a call to actively give life to what we have left.

(Feature image: photograph of the installation ‘Head On’, also featured at the ‘Falling back to Earth’ exhibition. Cai says of the artwork: “I wanted to portray the universal human tragedy… resulting from this blind urge to press forward, the way we try to attain our goals without compromise”. This theme visually and conceptually clashes with the artwork ‘Heritage’ to bring together human nature versus a Utopian future, and (perhaps) why it may never be attained.)

Cai Guo Qiang's installation from 'Falling Back to Earth' at the GOMA in Brisbane, Australia

Cai Guo Qiang’s installation from ‘Falling Back to Earth’ at the GOMA in Brisbane, Australia

More in the theme of 'Heritage'; Cai with an Ancient Eucalypt from Lamington National Park (died naturally I promise). By putting the grand scaled tree in the museum space, we are forced to consider it more carefully and appreciate it as an artwork of nature.

More in the theme of ‘Heritage’; Cai with an Ancient Eucalypt from Lamington National Park (died naturally I promise). By putting the grand scaled tree in the museum space, we are forced to consider it more carefully and appreciate it as an artwork of nature.

The Hyper-real Reality

Something you may not have noticed when you take a photograph, is that like your eye, your camera is usually limited to one point of focus. This means when we look at a photograph we are not presented with a super-real image. We are presented with a fleeting moment through the eye of the photographer.

Two artists that challenge this this limitation are Kaisa and Stanley Breeden from north-east Australia. Like, Bryant Austin (whale photographer) they use a technique called photo-stacking, which involves layering multiple photographs of the same subject into one photograph; leaving you with a hyper-realistic image. Their images are not limited to one feature animal, however; they use this technique to capture images of plants, animals and landscapes.

To get started, you need to look closely at nature, its patterns, textures, forms and other details. – Kaisa Breeden

 

Tropical Seed Pod, Kaisa and Stanley Breeden made with fine-tuned photo-stacking technique

Dumpling Plant: Inside a tropical seed pod, Kaisa and Stanley Breeden made with fine-tuned photo-stacking technique

In the past I have studied different techniques of best representing natural forms in the scientific sphere. And for me, this goes beyond what we have achieved to date. It combines the accuracy of photography – minus the flaws of single plain focus; it harnesses the clarity of super-realsitc drawing as well as scanning electron microscopy at a macro scale.

Through this astonishing technique we can unravel more of nature’s complex mysteries and appreciate it on several different levels – large scale, small scale and micro.

North-Western Australia: tropical savannah dipping into a gorge, Kaisa and Stanley Breeden

Deep Chasm: North-Western Australia: tropical savannah dipping into a gorge, Kaisa and Stanley Breeden

 

Have a look at more of Kaisa and Stanley Breeden’s images and how they do it at their website.

(Feature image: Cassowary by Kaisa and Stanley Breeden)

 

 

Bjork, Attenborough and the Nature of Music

Besides her ridiculously versatile voice box Bjork is great for many other reasons:

Her fashion sense

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Her country of origin

Iceland

Iceland (photograph by Johnathan A. Esper)

And her strong environmental activism

(just thought that picture was fitting 'cause it had a polar bear in it)

(just thought this picture was good ’cause it had a polar bear in it)

But Bjork has done one more thing to make me love her even more. She has combined science and music in her most recent album: Biophilia. Biophilia by definition meas (according to a theory of the biologist E.O. Wilson) an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world. In other words we are born with an instinctive desire to bond with nature and other animals. It literally translates to “the love of living things”. Bjork has worked to make her album into a series of small apps surrounding this theme. Each song explores a phenomena in nature, or a more specific reference to the nostalgic beauty of her homeland; Iceland. By using the app form, Bjork hopes to give people a chance to interact personally with her music and take something new from it each time. In an interview, she says of her songs in Biophilia:

“I wanted to map out on a touchscreen how I experience musicology and then write with it. The most natural way I could make music visual for me was to compare it to elements in nature. So shapes of songs are like crystals, arrangements multiply like viruses, chords are like strata in tectonic plates, rhythm like DNA replicates, arpeggios like lightnings and so on…”

If you didn’t think Bjork could get any better – she did. Bjork met up with David Attenborough last year and discussed the evolution of singing in humans. Attenborough explained to Bjork that the ability to sing was probably originally related to sexual selection; like the long tails of a man peacock on display to a lady peacock. Perhaps that is why so much music is rooted in the theme of love; or why it appeals so strongly to youth. We are not the only primate to use singing – think of howler monkeys:

A howler monkey singing (photograph by Deepak Bhatia)

A howler monkey singing (photograph by Deepak Bhatia)

Attenborough also explains that we, as modern day humans, only use a tiny amount of our larynx (or voice box), and it is actually capable of a whole lot more; like Bjork’s ability to sing. She pushes it to the extremes. He explains that there must have been a reason that we evolved these vocal abilities.

But it’s not just sex we are after when we hear music. In comparison to talking, music has been shown to activate lots of different parts of our brain, and connect us to different moments in our life. In this way, it may seem that music is something more transcendental for us.

In the music of Biophilia, Bjork tries to express the beauty of her home – Iceland. Along with her singing and innovative use of instruments, she uses an all girls Icelandic choir to capture the essence of the natural surroundings she grew up with.

Bjork makes a sound statement in relation to her music and ties to Iceland:

“Nature has always been important to me. It has always been in my music. In Reykjavik, Iceland, where I was born, you are in the middle of nature surrounded by mountains and ocean. But you are still in a capital in Europe. So I have never understood why I have to choose between nature or urban”

 

For more info on Biophilia and Bjork have a look at her website.

For now, I’ll leave you with the intro to her album narrated by David Attenborough, and one of the songs off her album: Crystalline.

 

Insect Jewellery Makers

Jewellers spend days making the ultimate artwork. They can spend a lifetime mastering their skills. But for the Caddisfly it is innate.

The Caddisfly is a moth-like insect that, in larval form (baby form), makes a cocoon that is fixed underwater. The foundation of the cocoon is first spun from silk and then interwoven by small pieces of rock and sand. There are two open ends to the caddisflys tube-like home. This is to allow oxygenated water to whoosh through over their gills (which they have until reaching their adult winged stage). The little pieces of gravel act as a net to catch food and also as protection from predators. Once they mature they lose their gills, leave their cocoons, head for the surface and spread their wings to live out their remaining days (2-ish weeks) in the air.

A French artist, Herbet Duprat, has found an ingenious way to use these animals as his architects. He has raised a group of Caddisflies in captivity, and instead of providing them with a regular stream-like habitat; Duprat replaces rocks with tiny pieces of gold and jewels. What follows is stunning:

 

Duprat deprives his insect workers of natural materials - leaving them only with gold and beautiful jewels to work with

Duprat deprives his insect workers of natural materials – leaving them only with gold and beautiful jewels to work with

 

Apparently, ecologically, these cases work just as well as natural ones. All I know is I want some Caddisfly earrings.

 

dupratTrio

Bringing the Jurassic to Life with Paleoart

As some of you may have noticed. Dinosaurs have been all the rage the last week. (To my dismay) the blue whale may not be the largest animal that has ever lived. Last week in Argentina, palaeontologists uncovered the bones of new species of tintanosaur that is bigger than any other dinosaur ever discovered. For more see here.

Bones of biggest dinosaur ever discovered.

Bones of biggest dinosaur ever discovered.

What cropped up next as I was trawling the net one day, was the google feature story on Mary Anning; a Palaeontologist from the early 1800’s who discovered the fossils of many important prehistoric reptiles – including my fave: Ichthyosaurs. As a woman living in this era, this was a massive achievement. She was also from a poor social class, and for these reasons, a large part of her life was spent being ostracised from the scientific community.

Mary Anning

Mary Anning

Although Anning struggled in the world of palaeontology, her skill and knowledge became well-known around the world as she continued to risk her life under the unstable cliff faces of Britain. And this persistence led to another huge step in palaeontology, that you might be more familiar with: prehistoric art.

Although none of us have ever seen a dinosaur, we all have a pretty good idea of what they look like. Why? Because of the work of illustrators and modellers that have recreated these for us. The most well known dinosaur imagery, of course, being Jurassic Park.

The work of Mary Anning inspired the illustrator and geologist, Henry De La Beche, so much, that he set out to recreate a Jurassic scene of the marine reptiles and other prehistoric organisms she had discovered. This might sound easy enough. But to put skin and flesh to skeletons that exist only as skeletons, is harder than you think. De La Beche worked hard to reconstruct what these animals would have looked like, and how they would have interacted with their surroundings.

His final piece, titled Duria Antiquior (1830), was the first of many prehistoric scenes called ‘paleoart’, which changed the view of our past forever. From this point, we did not just see prehistory as a collection of skeletons and fossils, but a world in which these animals interacted in an ecological web with different climates, forests and food chains; just like we do now.

 

 

Crocheting Disappearing Paradises

Imagine a world of cliffs; the top is covered in an iridescent kaleidoscope of colours – blues, greens, reds, purples and pinks. As you look down the colours dissipate into deep topaz blue, then black as the bottom is so deep it can’t be seen. 30 Floating animals, each as big as your body, move slowly to stay in position, lulling in existence. Smaller animals weave around you, in your hair, through your fingers as you rest your hands on a multi-coloured surface. This world is slowed down, and the smooth tentacles of peach animals float back and forth like willow leaves in the wind; unaware of any other existence.

The world I speak of is the coral reefs of Papua New Guinea, that I spent my days on this time last year. These reefs have grown off on old sunken volcanoes, and given life to millions of different animals. At the base of these environments are corals. Corals are made up of colonies of little sessile (stuck in one place) animals that secrete frameworks of calcium skeletons. Although they are animals they live off energy from the sun, because of their symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic organisms – zooxanthellae. In other words, there are tiny plant-like organisms that benefit from latching onto the corals (they are given a home) that suck energy from the sun and give pass it onto the corals to live. This is where corals get their vibrant colours; it depends on the zooxanthella that lives in them.

The serious future that these sea-homes now face is climate change and warming of the oceans. A small change of temperature can force coral to spit out their zooxanthellae, leaving them with nothing to feed off; eventually they die, or ‘bleach’. This is what coral bleaching is and this process is putting the future of coral reefs in peril.

An art movement that aims to enhance people’s awareness of these astounding ecosystems and their fatal future, and has caught on all over the world, is ‘Coral Crocheting’. Christine and Margaret Wertheim are the co-founders of this movement. They say:

“The Crochet Coral Reef is a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.”

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They first started their own project in their living room in Los Angeles in 2005 (although they grew up in Tropical Queensland). And from here the work of crocheting ecosystems of different types of corals has spread all over the world, where communities make a ‘Satellite Reef’; embodying a small culture of people and a disappearing habitat. These crocheted reefs are not only a symbol of the beautiful and crucial coral habitats, but a way that people can mimic the creatures they are making: that is, uniting to build something bigger and more magnificent.

“We humans, when we work together, can do amazing things” – Maragert Wertheim

 

 

For more, take a look at the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project website.

 

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The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef

Mole Crab Diamonds

There are moments in your life where you notice the tiniest things in nature; moments that change you in a way you can’t explain. One I can think of off the top of my head is when I found out what made these patterns in the sand when I was living in San Diego, California:

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For 3 months I would walk along the beach, glazing over the distinct intertwining diamonds of black and white; not bothering to question what they were, just accepting them as part of my surroundings. It wasn’t until an ecology class I had that I figured out what was really going on… Crabs were doing it. Crabs? Whaddayameeaan?

Pacific mole crabs. The crabs were filter feeders – animals that sift food out of the water (like whales). They would plonk their bums in the sand when they saw a wave coming, stick their filamenty feelers and feet up into the air, and catch as many tiny plankton out of the water as they could. In this field of couch potato eaters, the water would hit them and swash outwards leaving a diamond shape of black top layer sand behind them. The result was beautiful. And it framed the entire beach line for kilometres.

We walk past patterns like these everyday, and rarely do we take note of what they mean. But when we do, it brings us closer to understanding something deeper about the world.

The painter and writer from San Francisco, Christopher Reiger, believes these intense moments of observation are a door to a more reverent connection to the world; a spiritual connection (and by ‘spiritual’ I mean immaterial – not ‘religious’). In a recent writing of his, ‘A Modern-Mystic Look at Animals’, Reiger says of science and spirituality:

Indeed, a complete appreciation of nature requires us to interweave cognition with imagination; specifically, we must ground ourselves in reality while remaining open to the mystical or immaterial.

Science is often looked at as a rigid study – lacking in beauty and stealing the mystery from the world. But if anything, it is moments like the ‘mole crab diamonds’ that shine light on the beautiful and open more mysterious pathways for us to explore and be present in our surroundings.

I believe that the two magisterial are separated not by a great wall, as so may insist, but by a permeable membrane. At points of contact, then, there is a bleeding of one realm into the other. My pictures are the observations of a naturalist working at this intersection.

A lot of Reiger’s paintings explore the human-animal relationship; perhaps in the face of other species we may see ourselves more vividly.

 

(Feature painting at the top: ‘Slow Motion, Falling Through the Ylem’ by Christopher Reiger, 2009: ‘Ylem’ is defined as: (In the Big Bang theory) the primordial (beginning) matter of the universe, originally conceived as composed of neutrons at high temperature and density (Oxford Dictionary). To me, this painting symbolises the animals arrival of existence from the dawn of time; a journey exaggerated by the lines of movement surrounding it.)

 

Oscillation Study (Anhinga) 2012

Christopher Reiger, ‘Oscillation Study (Anhinga)’ 2012: ‘Oscillation’ means to move back and forth in a rhythm around a central point. This piece explores physical forces in nature and how we move within them.

Breaking off and starting again, again 2009

Christopher Reiger, ‘Breaking off and starting again, again’ 2009: this piece seems to explore ideas of our evolutionary history. How we are but a pawn in the force of evolution and nature. Our ancestors radiated sporadically to make us, birds and other vertebrates.

 

Christopher Reiger, Then and then (San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat) 2012

Christopher Reiger, ‘Then and then’ (San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat) 2012

 

Christopher Reiger, A dumb reference, alive and outside of time, 2010: this artwork explores different levels of time on Earth. Here we are shown the geological facet where things move incredibly slowly and have histories that span millions of years. In comparison, the bird's life is a fleeting moment; so is ours.

Christopher Reiger, ‘A dumb reference, alive and outside of time’, 2010: to me, this artwork explores different levels of time on Earth. Here we are shown the geological facet where things move incredibly slowly and have histories that span millions of years. In comparison, the bird’s life is a fleeting moment; so is ours.

For more on Christopher Reiger take a look at his website here.

Olly and Suzi – animal art in action

A duo of artists that have heavily influenced my own work and view of animal art, is Olly and Suzi. They bring together live-action ecology and art through painting: a rare thing for a painter to achieve. They do this by collaboratively creating an artwork (both working on one piece at the same time) in the presence of an animal in its environment, and by further letting the animal interact with their piece. In this way, they capture a fleeting moment of an animals’ life in the wild

They have been to over 70 remote ecosystems in the world, to fully immerse themselves in places unfamiliar to the average human, and create honest imprints of endangered and threatened animals to bring back to ‘civilisation’. They say of their work:

“Our art-making process is concerned with our journey; a collaborative, mutual response to nature at its most primitive and wild.”

Conceptually, they “aim to raise awareness and an understanding of (their) subject matter”: endangered animals, which people may never get to see.

Olly and Suzi’s work is raw and dynamic. They finish their works in a short space of time to capture what the animals were doing at that moment. It is a piece of time in an image, almost the same as a photograph is, but with more sensation and expression. By instinctively applying paint and stroke to paper while staring eye-to-eye with their animals, Olly and Suzi combine their gut feelings to produce a residue of a human-animal interaction. This strong-felt connection and raw response laid out on paper, may present viewers with an understanding of these animals’ lives that they have never experienced before.

(Image above: painting of a great white made underwater is then fed to their model)

For more of their paintings, photographs and info on their expeditions, check out their website here.

Cheetah's inspecting their portrait by Olly and Suzi

Cheetah’s inspecting their portrait by Olly and Suzi

Olly and Suzi painting a scene

Suzi and Olly painting a scene on their trip to visit Polar Bears

Wild dog inspects its portrait.

Wild dog inspects its portrait.

Olly and Suzi with their wild dog portrait.

Suzi and Olly with their wild dog portrait.

Baby turtles swimming into the sea

Baby turtles swimming into the sea

Olly and Suzi paint underwater.

Olly and Suzi paint underwater.

'Leopard Seal' by Olly and Suzi

‘Leopard Seal’ by Olly and Suzi

Moose in Frozen Taiga Forest of Northern Sweden

Moose in Frozen Taiga Forest of Northern Sweden, 2008

Painting a portrait of a Lion in Africa

Painting a portrait of a Lion in Africa