Electron microscopy brings seeds to life as part of new touring exhibition

Stunning images of seeds magnified through the lens of an electron microscope are set to be part of a new national exhibition focusing upon global efforts to safeguard plant species from extinction. 

Seedscapes: Future-Proofing Nature features the work of five artists who have used photography, moving images and sculpture to reflect upon how biologists and ecologists are responding to the environmental crisis. 

Curated by Liz Wells, Emeritus Professor in Photographic Culture at the University, Seedscapes opens to the public at Impressions Gallery in Bradford next month before embarking on a national tour that will culminate in Scotland next year.

“Seedscapes brings together art, biodiversity and eco-activism,” 

says Liz, who has previously curated several exhibitions relating to land, landscape and environment. 

“My hope is that viewers will gain a deeper understanding of the fragility of our natural world and the efforts that we need to make to protect it.”

That is a theme brought to life in vivid detail by the artists, including Heidi Morstang, whose film and photography showcase the work, landscape and prized collection at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Located deep inside a former coal mine in the permafrost at Longyearbyen, the vault is the largest secure storage facility of its kind in the world, safeguarding one third of the globe’s food crop seeds.

Heidi, Associate Professor of Photography at Plymouth, first travelled there in 2013 to film the yearly delivery of food crop seeds to the vault, creating the film Prosperous Mountain, which will be shown at the exhibition.

And then last year, a terrestrial biologist sent her seeds from an expedition in Svalbard to a valley boasting a unique microclimate. 

Heidi took the seeds to colleagues at the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC), where together they examined both the seeds' exteriors and cross sections of their interiors at magnifications of between 80 and 1,000 times.

“I was inspired to see whether I could 'find' landscapes within the seeds that resembled the territorial landscape of Svalbard,” 

Heidi said.

“So it is an 'intuitive intervention' by my own interpretation of the visual image emerging on the screen.”

The exhibition had been due to open in April but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It makes the opening even more poignant, says Heidi.

“The seed vault represents hope for the future, but there is a fragility to it as the permafrost is melting,” 

she added. 

“That fragility of life, of nature, has many aspects, and we have seen that all too clearly this year.”

In addition to Heidi, Seedscapes: Future-Proofing Nature will feature the work of Dornith Doherty, Sant Khalsa, Chrystel Lebas, and Liz Orton. It will be at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, from 2 September to 12 December 2020. It will then be at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter, from 6 February to 2 May 2021, and The Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, from 11 September to 11 December 2021.

(Seedscapes: Future-Proofing Nature is curated by Liz Wells, with creative producer Pippa Oldfield. An Impressions Gallery touring exhibition in association with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council and The Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire).

Heidi Morstang

Heidi Morstang’s research combines interests in documentary film and photography, landscape, history, seed collections, ecology and scientific interventions. Her recent film ‘Pseudotachylyte’ portrays how geo-scientists explore the Arctic landscape of the Lofoten Islands. The film contributes to an understanding of how field scientists work and why physical field work is crucial to understanding the significance of visual interpretation.

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