The Perils of Plankton

An artist magnifies an overlooked environmental problem in sculptures that are larger than life.

"Series Un." All of the glass in Haseltine's sculptures fluoresces, evoking the way plankton samples appear to glow under the microscope. Photo by Stavros Basis, 2012
“Series Un.” All of the glass in Haseltine’s sculptures fluoresces, evoking the way plankton samples appear to glow under the microscope. Photo by Stavros Basis, 2012

Mara G. Haseltine has seen her share of plankton. As an artist and environmental advocate, she’s collected these tiny organisms from various bodies of water around the globe to inspire her artwork. But she wasn’t prepared for what she saw as an artist in residence on the Tara Oceans research vessel, which completed a three-year survey of the world’s plankton just last year. Peering through a microscope in the ship’s laboratory at a sample she gathered off the coast of Chile in March 2011, Haseltine was astonished to find bits of plastic clinging to the diminutive specimens. They looked like hybrid animals.

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Plankton are aquatic, and typically microscopic, organisms that live in the water column and are incapable of swimming against the currents—including viruses, bacteria, photosynthetic organisms, and animals. While researchers don’t yet know the larger effects of plastic debris on marine and freshwater ecosystems, they’ve speculated that, among other problems, toxins in or adsorbed to little bits of plastic—such as BPA, PCBs, and DDT—could accumulate in plankton that ingest the particles, potentially altering cellular processes within the organisms or intoxicating larger creatures that feed on the plankton.

Haseltine knew that discarded plastic is a threat to ocean life, but she hadn’t pictured the effects on a microscopic level. “My heart was breaking looking at this, because I didn’t realize to what degree plastic was interacting with plankton,” she says.

"Series Deux." Photo by Shannon Taggart 2013
“Series Deux.” Photo by Shannon Taggart 2013

Her observation in the ship’s lab inspired an idea. When she returned to New York, Hasteltine fabricated pieces of plastic to appear as if they had degraded upon exposure to sunlight. Using uranium-infused glass—a type of material that was once made into tableware and that glows under ultraviolet light—she also created organic shapes based on various microscopic images of plankton that, over time, she had collected and studied on slides (often working in New York City’s community biolab, Genspace). The glass’s fluorescence reminded her of the way plankton seems to glow under the microscope. Piecing together the plastic with the glass, Hasteline created a series of sculptures representing the miniature chimeras that she had seen—only, these are larger-than-life, and they’re downright Seussian in form.

Together, the sculptures were part of an exhibit called La Bohème: A Portrait of Our Oceans in Peril, held last month at agnès b., a boutique and gallery in lower Manhattan (the proprietor also owns the Tara Oceans vessel). Divided into two series, the sculptures tell the story of plankton’s perilous relationship with plastic.

"Series Deux." Photo by Shannon Taggart 2013
“Series Deux.” Photo by Shannon Taggart 2013

Series Un centers on the morphology of a type of plankton called tintinnid, which resembles the bowl of a champagne glass. Standing more than six feet tall, the focal piece features one tintinnid writhing to escape the clutches of a human-like form made of orange plastic.

Series deux consists of glowing glass balls—representing unicellular plankton—ensnared by the frayed edges of blue, white, and pink plastic hunks. The “debris” is emblazoned with the mark of humans: a recycling symbol tattoos one piece, while a stamp that might appear on store packaging brands another. These marks, Haseltine says, should remind viewers that the plastic in our oceans is manmade. “The planet needs CPR, and I wanted to show how our cultural evolution affects our biological evolution,” she says.

These “awareness pieces,” as Haseltine calls them, help magnify an overlooked environmental problem, according to Charlotte Vick, partnership director for the Sylvia Earle Foundation’s Mission Blue, a global initiative that focuses on ocean conservation. “[Haseltine] has taken something that most people will never pay attention to at all and does something very extraordinary,” says Vick, who was present when La Bohème was first unveiled at the Explorer’s Club in New York City. “I was just knocked over by the presentation,” she says.

La Bohème is slated to raise awareness again this October 12-18, at New York City’s Imagine Science Film Festival, both on exhibit and as part of a film.

Meet the Writer

About Amy Kraft

Amy Kraft is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Popular Science, and New Scientist.