Decaying, Fluorescent Algae Is Surprisingly Beautiful
The artwork changes colors in luminous ways as plant life dies and microbes thrive.
Estuary. Images courtesy the artist
After years of recreating or mimicking large-scale natural phenomena in restricted and controlled environments, Dutch artist Xandra van der Eijk instead decided to work with actual living matter. For her most recent work, Estuary, now on view at MU Artspace in Eindhoven, van der Eijk harvested four types of invasive saltwater algae present in the Dutch estuary Oosterschelde, which is famous for its storm surge barrier. She then placed these algae in containers that change colors in luminous fluorescent ways as the algae decays and microbes begin to thrive.
Van der Eijk tells The Creators Project she first started using algae in the form of a gelatinous extract to thicken a fluid she used in her work Momentum. During the exhibition, which she toured around Europe, van der Eijk noticed that the algae extract showed inconsistent results due to the different sources and compounds of tap water found in different countries.
“I got fascinated by the characteristics of the material,” says van der Eijk. “In the next project, I researched the pigmentation in seaweed, which led me to the Oosterschelde estuary. Curious about the reason why this is such a good spot for finding algae, I found out it is has a special tidal zone, caused by the immense storm surge barrier the Dutch installed after the big flood of 1953.”
“My general interest in estuaries is that it is an immense clash of saline and fresh waters,” she adds. “The phenomenon creates a unique environment for spring of life. The fact that life flourishes in these waters and alongside its banks, is the reason for over sixty percent of mankind residing on estuarine lands. The number of people has had a huge influence on land and water—poor farming, overfishing, eutrophication—to name just a few.”
After researching algae, van der Eijk learned that all algae contain pigments, but the predominant color depends on the depth of the growth. In shallower waters, the algae grows more green. At greater depths, the carotenoid content is higher, yielding red, orange, and yellow pigments.
Working with textiles, van der Eijk built an entire archive of color shades, all derived from seaweed found in the Oosterschelde. For Estuary, she was mostly interested in species that weren’t native to the region—that is, algae transported by humans mainly by traveling the seas.
“These species happen to all be high in carotenoids and a specific protein,” says van der Eijk. “These carotenoids and proteins are released due to the fresh water and flourishing microbes in the Estuary installation, which is hostile to the salt water algae. The parameters are set by the artist, the response is a crazy fluorescent color play of living matter.”
“I think the beauty of this installation is its simplicity,” she adds. “I don’t prepare the algae, I do not use any fancy techniques or tools. I just set parameters, and nature reveals her colorful self.”
Though viewers will find what appeals to them in Estuary, van der Eijk is personally humbled to observe decay grow into new life. For her, the parameters that are set and the processes it triggers, with its immense consequences, underscore humanity’s limited control over the planet.
“I am fascinated by the contradiction of this abundance versus depletion,” van der Eijk says. “I don’t have an opinion about it per se—I observe the facts and try to see it as one big development of life, as a course of evolution.”
“To me, there is no distinction between man and nature, although I do think we are a rather invasive species,” she adds. “Much like the algae I used for Estuary.”
Van der Eijk is also exhibiting an installation at MU Artspace from her ongoing research project, Genesis. For this work, she sampled fluids from volcanic hot springs and high saline ponds during research trips to Iceland and France, isolating several strains of extremophiles—ancient microbes that thrive under extreme conditions—that produce pigments. Van der Eijk is currently in the process of trying to master and influence the pigment production, with the ultimate goal of inducing full color change in the microbes.