The shifting ontology of Reindeer Lichen

Images made with Scanning Electron Microscopy
lichen-oriented assemblage of layers \ studying affect and intra-actions
April 24, 2019
Ecologies, (Re)constructions and illusions Exhibition Catalogue

This project is an assembly of layers. My role as an artist has been to identify, research and curate each layer. Different facets of the project were identified through discussions, meandering research, some reading, and a lot of YouTube videos.

The lichen in question, Cladonia Rangiferina, changes its ontology across realities. It exists as myth, in the minds of humans as the beard of a mighty forest spirit. It exists as food, for reindeer. It also exists as a detector of radiation since it doesn’t have any roots and absorbs all its nutrition from air, making it a ‘radioactive sponge’. After the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Cladonia Rangiferina was used to measure the radiation levels in surrounding areas. In fact, Chernobyl’s far-reaching effects all the way in the Nordic countries were understood through testing the lichen.

Interconnectedness of the lichen's existence

The Sámi:
The absorption of the major Chernobyl pollutant, cesium 137 (with a half-life of 30 years), has meant serious long-term contamination of many northern Scandinavian pasturelands and thus has had an intensely detrimental effect on the lifestyle and livelihoods of the Sámi people. Since lichen is the primary food source for Reindeer (Cladonia Rangiferina is colloquially known as Reindeer Moss for this reason), the toxicity traveled through the food chain to animals and eventually humans. Not only do studies show increased levels of radiation among the Sámi, many families were forced to abandon their herds due to increasing toxicity [1]. This simultaneously killed an important source of food, livelihood as well as practices relating to ancient herding traditions.

Tapio is the forest spirit from the Kalevala tales of Karelian folklore. Fitting the Green Man archetype, Tapio has a beard of lichen and eyebrows of moss. Found in many cultures from many ages around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities, representing the cycle of growth each spring.

Publication edited by Petri Ruikka and Marjolein van der Loo


An increasing fascination with glass jars and through some gardening tutorials, I learned how to make tiny terrariums. Aiming to keep the lichen alive, I made 7 experimental terrariums to test the ideal conditions suited for their survival. Terrariums usually consist of some gravel, a layer of activated carbon and some form of soil/substrate. After much adjusting of different factors like air, water and microbes, an almost ideal solution was to just leave the terrariums out in the snow, which preserved the lichen perfectly.

Ultra Violet Exposure:

UV rays range from a wavelength of 10 to 400 nanometres, shorter than visible light but longer than X-rays. Prolonged exposure can be harmful to humans in some cases, but UV is the closest I could get to some form of relatively safe radiation to experiment with. I used a 150W UV-B reptile basking light for the setup. The lights are usually used for pet reptiles since they need UV-B rays for metabolic activities. Another quick little terrarium was made with a handful of lichen and the UV exposure began in 12-hour cycles of light. Every day, I removed a small sample and kept it aside.

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM):
SEM is a type of electron microscope that produces images of a sample by scanning the surface with a focused beam of electrons. The electrons interact with the atoms in the sample, creating signals that describe the topography and create the image down to the resolution of a single nanometer. I wanted to create images of the lichen topography at every stage of UV exposure, with the aim of making a one-second time-lapse animation of morphing cellular structures. Inside the lichen, or on its surface, how exactly would UV-B rays affect its physical composition? 

These layers assimilate, one on top of the other, in an attempt to reveal some kind of ‘hidden reality’. What if we could literally see into the cellular structures of the lichen? The artifact presented is the current manifestation of these layers. Aesthetically tying back to some of my initial ideological inquiries about humans, shifting perspectives and control, the work offers a juxtaposition between an obsessive need for unattainable perfection and the wilderness that is bound to reign.

DIY exposure chamber for testing effects of UV-B radiation on Reindeer Lichen
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background Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash