SPOTLIGHT: artist Claire Beynon talks about her travels with polar scientists to investigate the marine life of the antarctic
By Elsie Percival
As humans we occupy a certain scale of space. We walk through forests and notice the trees and birds; we live in houses and interact with people, pets, objects. We also inhabit a specific timescale–one that rarely exceeds 100 years, and one that we live from one day to the next. Beyond our familiar parameters of space and time, we struggle to comprehend the micro and the macro; timescales that extend into thousands or millions of years, or ones that exist for fleeting moments. On the macro scale there are Earth’s physical systems–the churning circulation of oceans and air that carries oxygen and warmth around the globe and the slow grind of plate tectonics–where whole continents shift at the rate of a growing fingernail. On the smaller scale there are universes that exist around us hiding in plain sight. One of these tiny worlds exists on the seafloor.
Recently I saw Claire Beynon speak at the Otago Museum in New Zealand about her artistic exploration and research in Antarctica. Beynon is an artist and writer from Dunedin, New Zealand, who has traveled south with polar scientists for multiple seasons to investigate the microscopic marine life of the Antarctic. The team of scientists that Beynon accompanied study foraminifera—a group of unicellular plankton with calcified cocoon-like shells that live on the ocean floor. These organisms’ outer shells differ in morphology based on the sediment they live in and can tell us about past marine environments and weather conditions.
What stood out to me when listening to Claire was her perspective on time and scale in relation to forams. Claire spoke about these creatures in a way that I found humbling, pointing out that these organisms have existed for 550 million years, sifting through fine sand in a still underwater world. Humans have only occupied the Earth for a fraction of this time. Meanwhile forams continued to do their thing, oblivious to our existence, and–until recently–we were oblivious to them too.
Beynon’s work challenges our human-centric views through scientific and artistic exploration of a microcosm far removed from anything we know: life at the Pole, life under the ice and life in an ecosystem that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
By illustrating the scientific stories of these creatures for us to see, Beynon draws our attention to the rhythm of a different level of existence. This, in turn, compels us to position ourselves in the wider context of the Earth’s history and consider our place in the global ecosystem.
Beynon’s approach to her Antarctic studies varies immensely–from painting, sculpture, soundscapes, photography and creative writing. To see more visit her website and delve into the many layers of Antarctica.
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