Rachel Sussman: Bearing witness to environmental history
This 37-year-old artist's project, 'The Oldest Living Things in the World,' features stunning portraits of 30 organisms from every continent, all of which are at least 2,000 years old.
Thu, May 10 2012 at 1:27 AM
MICRO ART: As part of her project, Rachel Sussman, (inset) photographed the 400,000- to 600,000-year-old Siberian Actinobacteria, the oldest organism on the planet. (Photos courtesy Rachel Sussman)
With the click of a camera shutter, one-60th of a second, Rachel Sussman has captured tens of thousands of years of life.
The 37-year-old artist’s project, titled "The Oldest Living Things in the World," features stunning portraits of 30 organisms from every continent, all of which are at least 2,000 years old. These subjects range from the oldest known living organism — the 400,000- to 600,000-year-old Siberian Actinobacteria — to lichens in Greenland that grow just 1 centimeter every 100 years to a colony of 80,000-year-old Aspen trees in Utah.
Researching, studying, traveling to and ultimately photographing these organisms has been humbling, says Sussman. Her work is meant to personalize what she calls “deep time” and create a connection from the viewer to the subject. “You can look at this and say 'Here’s this plant that’s 13,000 years old — what has it seen?” she says. “Some of [these organisms] bore witness to the entire history of human civilization.
“All of these organisms have displayed remarkable resilience,” she continues. “I do believe we have much to learn from them collectively and as individuals, and that it is not too late as humans to change the collision course we’re on. Perhaps by uncovering the past in the living present, we can help steward in a more sustainable future.”
Sussman herself has born witness to some awe-inspiring sites and experiences. A lifelong visual artist, the Baltimore native had been searching for a fulfilling project outside her day job as a digital producer. On a trip to Japan in 2004, she visited Yakushima, a remote island on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List of sites of "outstanding universal value." There, Sussman photographed Jomon Sugi, a supposedly 7,000-year-old tree. She returned home to Brooklyn, N.Y., with the idea to combine her passions for art, science and philosophy through images of continuously living organisms at least 2,000 years old. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Sussman says, “but it felt exciting and right.”
To say Sussman has devoted her life to this project is an understatement: researching and preparing to visit each subject can involve what she calls a “mind-boggling array of preparations” ranging from chartering a plane to learning to SCUBA dive. Her latest — and last — expedition in February 2012 to Antarctica in search of 5,000-year-old moss was almost two years in the making. She had to locate the published research, track down the scientists who conducted it and “figure out just how to get myself down there,” Sussman says. In the end, she forged a relationship with a research group that invited her on their own voyage.
Despite having spent some $100,000 — about half from grants — and continuing to face substantial debt, Sussman is devoted to the next phase of the project: a book and traveling exhibition. She would like to see her portraits in art installations, and UNESCO World Heritage protection for all of her subjects, many of which are the last of their kind. “In a way, I think of these organisms as a barometer of how well we’re doing [preserving the environment],” Sussman says.
Take the Siberian Actinobacteria, the oldest organism on the planet, which lives in permafrost. If that melts, it dies, she explains. So far, it continues to live.
“When standing in front of these organisms, I feel a connection to the moments, small as molecules, that shape a constantly unfolding narrative,” Sussman muses. What she has learned, and what these organisms and their stories prove, she says, is that “any given moment matters.”
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