An Artist Under The Marine Microscope

Lucy Gellman | January 14th, 2020

An Artist Under The Marine Microscope

Environment  |  Arts & Culture  |  Artspace New Haven  |  Visual Arts


Equipment from the Menden-Deuer Lab at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and an augmented reality iPad surrounded by Rubin's large-scale works on fabric. Lucy Gellman Photos; all art by Cynthia Beth Rubin. 

The shapes are hard to make out, filling the fabric like oversized, impressionistic dinner plates. They could be eyeballs, or wild topographies taken far above the earth. Color explodes around them: greens and yellows, marbled blues and reds. A fuzzy band of purple pops out from the one closest to the bottom.

These are the microscopic marine creatures in Cynthia Beth Rubin’s Do Plankton Have Feelings?, running at Artspace New Haven through Feb. 29. As it marries visual art, environmental science, and a surprising dose of human feeling, the exhibition becomes an unexpected pendant to Strange Loops, also at Artspace through the end of February.

The exhibition is supported by the Menden-Deuer Lab at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. For several years now, the artist has been working with scientists at the lab, who supply her with raw image data from which she creates magnified, bright, spirited portraits of plankton. As in past projects, she has also added an augmented reality component, for which she ran two plankton drawing workshops at the New Haven Free Public Library last fall.


On the surface perhaps, it seems like a largely environmental examination. Plankton can be split into two main groups with smaller subgroups: microscopic organisms called phytoplankton and tiny marine animals called zooplankton, which eat phytoplankton and move with the tide because they cannot swim on their own. Both are incredibly important to the marine ecosystem: phytoplankton contribute oxygen to the earth’s atmosphere through photosynthesis, while zooplankton build the foundation of the ocean’s food chain.

As climate change progresses and ocean waters warm, scientists are seeing zooplankton shift hundreds of miles towards the South Pole—meaning that a vital food source is disappearing. These are the microscopic, flagellated canaries in the marine coal mine: a changing world for plankton means a changing world for carbon consumption and oxygen output. It means a marine food source that is no longer reliable. And with it, significant loss of marine life.

But the magic of the show is the life with which Rubin has filled her plankton. As they beckon from all walls, printed brightly on lengths of fabric, the plankton are compelling art objects. Rubin has a sort of flexibility here, nodding in the same brushstroke to American abstraction and very urgent data from North Atlantic, Antarctica, the Pacific Northwest, and Narragansett Bay.

A composite wallpaper in the exhibition features work from Rubin's plankton drawing workshops at the New Haven Free Public Library. Viewers can see individual plankton drawn in the workshop by holding up an iPad to the wallpaper.  

In using fabric as her primary substrate, she’s lent texture and heaviness to the works. Each has a distinctly humanoid quality, as if they are ready to hop out of their frames and start a life-sized conversation.

And here, of course, is where they dovetail with what’s happening in the rest of Artspace’s Orange Street incubator. Strange Loops, curated by Johannes DeYoung and Federico Solmi, is an exploration of self-actualization and self-realization amidst a rising tide of new technology. It shows, over and over again, that humans are more sympathetic to an image in which they can recognize themselves.

So the question becomes, do viewers have feelings for plankton? Or rather, can they summon within themselves a concern for these tiny creatures, on which so much is riding? Rubin’s suggestion is yes: that “plankton may not have human-like emotions, but we can certainly have feelings for them.”