What’s going on, Cladonia Rangiferina? [artistic research and exhibition]
Cladonia Rangiferina, more commonly known as Reindeer Lichen is a very interesting species of lichen. I spent about seven months researching and artistically engaging with the lichen Cladonia Rangiferina. There was a collaborative research phase - with students from Parsons University, New York - that lasted about three months and was followed by individual artistic production. The research months consisted of discussions, reading, watching and thinking about ecology, the role of artists, ideas about control, and ecological relationships inhabited by humans and non-humans.
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.
These inquiries led me to fixate upon the lichen in question, Cladonia Rangiferina which changes its ontology across realities. It exists as a 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 the 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 this lichen. 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 travelled through the food chain to animals and eventually to humans. Not only do studies show an increased level of radiation among the Sámi, but many families were also forced to abandon their herds due to increased toxicity. This simultaneously killed an important source of food, livelihood as well as practices relating to ancient herding traditions.
SCANNING ELECTRON MICROSCOPY -
Excerpt from the exhibition catalogue produced and designed by Marjolein van der Loo:
Images by Sheung Yiu :