IMAGE COURTESY OF MARA G. HASELTINELast Saturday evening (March 9) at a gallery space in SoHo, New York, the aria “Che gelida manina” (“What a cold little hand”) from Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème reverberated around a room packed with people. Puccini’s poet Rodolfo sang passionately, this time not to beautiful Mimì, the seamstress sick with consumption, but to a pair of giant planktonic creatures ensnarled in a thick plastic ribbon. It was the opening of “La Bohème: A Portrait of Our Oceans in Peril,” a solo exhibition by artist and environmentalist Mara G. Haseltine.
In Puccini’s opera, Rodolfo sings to Mimì under the moonlight. Soon they are in love but a shadow hangs over them; Mimi's gelida manina foreshadows her demise. To Haseltine, Mimì represents our ailing oceans, poisoned by human activity.
Wherever she goes, Haseltine collects water samples, which she later inspects for plankton under the microscopes of Genspace, a nonprofit that promotes citizen science. Haseltine noticed that all her samples were contaminated with fine particles of sunlight-degraded plastic. “I have collected plankton from really remote places such as an oasis in the Sahara,” says Haseltine. When she found plastic even there, she was dismayed. “It was a horrifying realization.” That’s when she arrived at the concept of falling in love with something that you know is dying, “which is the ocean, but our planet too,” she says.
The exhibition’s central piece, Rodolfo’s muse, is a six-foot-high metallic armature coated with orange plastic that cradles two vase-shaped, aquatic protists called tintinnids made of uranium-infused glass, glowing under the ultraviolet light. Haseltine likens tintinnids to “champagne glasses for mermaids.” Here they are devouring photosynthetic plankton with dramatic purple flagella. Several glass spheres—dinoflagellate parasites—rest inside the tintinnids, together with glass squares representing digested phytoplankton.
Other sculptures are coated in pink, blue, white, and purple plastic, trapping bright unicellular photosynthetic algae. Hanging from the ceiling, dozens of smaller tintinnids glow in the dark.
Haseltine gathered the samples that inspired this exhibition in 2011, off the coast of Chile, while on board the French scientific research schooner Tara. For the past nine years, a team of more than 100 scientists, have toured the globe aboard Tara, investigating the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. Thanks to Haseltine, Tara carries a plastic collector provided by Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a non-profit that studies plastic marine pollution. In 2011, Algalita scientists proposed a scientific protocol to be used aboard Tara to measure the quantity of plastic in ocean waters. Using the technique, researchers detected the presence of degraded plastic in the Antarctic Ocean, previously thought to be pristine. The next expedition will circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean via the Northeast and Northwest passages, in collaboration with laboratories from several countries.
“Oceans in Peril” is not Haseltine’s first nature-inspired project. Her earlier sculptures depicted life at the molecular level: protein synthesis, the SARS Protease Inhibitor, the Follicle Stimulating Hormone, and the estrogen hormone. Later, she started producing art more directly connected with environmental issues, such as Transcriptease and Gill Reef, both of which provide an active substrate for oyster attachment and growth.
Her latest project is the Geotherapy Institute, an educational initiative that merges art and science. Haseltine plans to team scientists with artists, ethicists, anthropologists, and others, who will visit sites affected by pollution to take “art action.” By building structures such as artificial reefs, using materials that can be absorbed back into the planet without distress, Haseltine intends to create awareness of environmental problems while helping to fix them. “We need to be stewards of the planet and step up to the plate,” she says.
See a slideshow of the sculptures in “La Bohème: A Portrait of Our Oceans in Peril”