1. Making the invisible visible

It’s October 2018. I’m sitting in a darkened hall with my scientifically minded friend Gail. The walls are lined with natural history posters, publications, microscopes and some rather disturbing specimens of large insects. 

I have been invited to be part of the audience for a lecture by internationally renowned Wim van Egmond, naturalist, photographer and microscopist. What I see and hear in the following two hours will irrevocably change my perceptions of life on earth.

Last year, as a final year BA Fine Art student at the University of Northampton’s School of Art, I undertook a long term project, exploring the course of the tenth-longest UK river from its source in rural Northamptonshire to its last tidal point north of Whittlesea, from where it crosses the Fens to empty into the North Sea at the Wash. My research, field notes and visual recordings taken along the course of the Nene Valley formed the basis for a body of artwork, including installation, prints and video.

Characterised by climate change, global warming and rising sea levels, the impending Anthropocenic Age is set to impact irreversibly on the natural world, as a result of human activity. Concern for effects of climate change is shared by many contemporary environmental artists, not least Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison (Greenhouse Britain: losing ground, gaining wisdom, 2011) who have highlighted the effect of potentially catastrophic flooding of the East Midlands in the event of rising sea levels.

For my part, I too have been attempting to raise awareness of the importance and fragility of the ancient and beautiful River Nene and its surrounding floodplain.

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In the hall, Wim van Egmond shows stunning time lapse video and photographs of the microscopic organisms, diatoms and other phytoplankton living in fresh water, rivers and the sea, moving, growing, feeding, giving birth…. invisible to the naked eye.

‘The most important living form on the planet is actually microscopic.Most people do not realise how critical it is for everything here to survive and make our world a living planet. That life form is a simple single-celled algae. These tiny plant life forms create oxygen… without them everything would die.’ (Wim van Egmond, 2018)

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I decide to investigate further - to explore the world beneath the surface of the Nene, a world which exists largely unnoticed but which is so crucial to the air we breathe. I plan to view droplets of water gathered from different locations, and use my findings to publicise the existence and importance of these life forms, since ‘no one will protect what they do not care about, and no one will care about what they have not experienced’ (David Attenborough, 2016).

The decision is made. Over the next few months, I will attempt to research, observe, photograph and video the minute life forms and their environment, and then to use my findings to inform a series of large mono prints…. in the hope of ‘making the invisible, visible’.