“The First Green”: Ancient Life Inspires Modern Art

By Jeffrey Marlow | April 15, 2017 1:33 pm
"The First Green" at the Marianne Boesky Gallery.

“The First Green” at the Marianne Boesky Gallery. (Image: Ana Pantelic)

Every morning at Hamelin Pool, in Western Australia, the first rays of sunshine illuminate knobby reef-like structures, submerged or peeking just above the gentle waves, depending on the tide. On the crudely rounded surfaces of these rocks, microorganisms stir and begin the daily task of photosynthesizing, fighting against occluding sand grains to harvest the sunlight.

This scene, or something like it, has likely been occurring every morning, somewhere on Earth, for the last 3.7 billion years. To artist Thiago Rocha Pitta, the timelessness of these structures, known as stromatolites, makes them an important mirror of the human impact on the natural world. “Human history is just a little part of the history of our planet,” he explains. “I have no problems realizing how insignificant we are.”

In his latest exhibition, The First Green, at New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery through April 29th, Rocha Pitta portrays a stromatolite sunrise in a video, allowing viewers to share in one of the planet’s most time-honored scenes. It’s deeply familiar, but jarringly off-kilter, an inverted look at a process that has helped make Earth the planet it is today.

As cyanobacteria on the rocks’ surfaces gain energy from sunlight, they produce oxygen, which is in turn used by animals such as ourselves to burn organic carbon and make energy. Small particles stick to the gooey layer of microbes, forcing the bacteria to move upward and establish another layer of biofilm. The striated rocks that result from this process are pervasive in the geological record, but surprisingly rare today: Hamelin Pool and the Bahamas are the only two known sites of modern stromatolites.

“We are here because of the cyanobacteria,” Rocha Pitta says reverently. “We should have temples for them.”

Rocha Pitta grew up in Brazil’s Minas Gerais, “hanging out at the farms, with the cows, going to the mountains to swim, in the waterfalls.” His affinity for nature – a word he prefers not to use, as it suggests a barrier between humans and the rest of the planet that he doesn’t acknowledge – developed early and has become a dominant aspect of his work. For The First Green, Rocha Pitta tackled a challenging new medium, searing green and blue patterns into frescoes.

Artist Thiago Rocha Pitta. (Image: Ana Pantelic)

Artist Thiago Rocha Pitta. (Image: Ana Pantelic)

The process echoes geological forces, from volcanic emission of carbon dioxide to stromatolitic construction. “The fresco cycle is the carbon cycle,” he explains, “it’s the same thing.” To create his algal, aqueous, impressionistic frescoes, Rocha Pitta first bakes a slab of calcium carbonate at 900 °C to drive off carbon and enable oxidation. Putting the surface underwater, “it’s very volcanic, very dangerous;” afterward, it sits for a month before the painting process. With plaster applied to the surface, you’ve got four to six hours to paint. While the water evaporates, the carbon enters the fresco, “and it releases oxygen,” Rocha Pitta says excitedly, “just like the cyanobacteria.”

For such a geology enthusiast, the journey to Hamelin Pool was nothing short of a pilgrimage. “I just got so excited, I almost had a heart attack,” he recalls. Rocha Pitta spent ten days in the company of the stromatolites, trying to find new ways to communicate the wonder of the scene unfolding before him. “There are many things that we have not developed language to describe,” he says, “some points you can’t get with analytical views. The things you can’t say, you can make, you can show.”

“If you have the patience, you will get rewarded.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environment, living world, top posts
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  • Erik Bosma

    Don’t have a clue what to say about the article, but I have always used the example of Cyanobacteria to try to give some sense of comparison to climate deniers who haven’t really given it much thought but are mostly just following the herd. If a teeny weeny simple little organism like the cyanobacteria can multiply and multiply exponentially for over a billion years and create an atmosphere that is 20% Oxygen which then gives all life the boost it needed to explode as it did; then I’m quite sure that the huge powerful and intelligent organisms at the other end of the life cycle (that would be us) can easily create an atmosphere that contains too much Carbon which will then take away this perfect atmosphere from other life without even trying too hard. Of course, then I also believe this life form can see the error of their ways and restore this gem of a planet with all its extremely well-balanced resources back to some sense of normalcy and we can ALL live happily ever after.

    • OWilson

      A worthy dream, but naive in the extreme.

      The reality is that most of the world is living in survival mode, where the weather is the least of their concerns.

      I am consider a “denier” (I don’t believe that NOAA’s 0.19 degree anomaly over the entire 38 years satellite record is the “Greatest Threat to Humankind”. Science tells me that C02 is greening the deserts and world agricultural production is setting records, as it must to feed a hungry world).

      I find it amusing that the folks who lecture the world with the loudest voices, are the ones, like Gore, DiCaprio, Madonna, the Pope, Obama, Lady Ga Ga, Harrison Ford, and the rest of the Hollywood crowd, with the all their mansions, jet planes, yachts, limos, living a life of abject consumerism, while I, who plant trees, and sort out my own garbage am called a criminal and worse on these blogs, by the true believers. :)

      If your dream is to come true and folks “see the error of their ways”, they have to figure out how to stop killing each other on battlefields and in your local neighborhoods, before they can fix the weather and “live happily ever after”.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        I am considered a ‘denier” I boast of being a
        “deplorable.” I believe that knowledge and capability owe no debt to ignorance and parasitism. Heat limestone (hint) above 825 °C and CaCO3(s) → CaO(s) + CO2(g).

        CaO(s) + H2O(l) → Ca(OH)2(s)
        ΔH =271.5 cal/g CaO
        Cp = 0.1787 cal/gm-K (298 K)

      • Erik Bosma

        Mr. Wilson. I should probably identify myself first… I rarely ID with an …ism or as an …ist. I am totally aware that there are many forces at play here. Several were already identified by the ancient Sumerians (as opposed to the ultra- modern Sumerians). We often walk a razor’s edge. So, just as I am also not inclined to dangle from the top of a construction crane for that once in a lifetime selfie, neither will I begin to take up trophy killing or pouring trash in the depths of our oceans or so many more of modern humans’ bad habits just because a Sky God gave us permission all those years ago when the world wasn’t even close to being the world yet. No, I am definitely no Chicken Little but I also try to keep my head out of the sand. And, having read many of your posts I’m sure you agree here and there, once in awhile or when the logic and reason makes a little more sense. I am thankful for your opinions by the way.

        • OWilson

          We are worlds apart is defining human priorities, and I think that having survived some major wars, and crisis has something to do with that.

          Today’s generation, who have never really known sacrifice, deprivation, or heard the sounds of bombs dropping all around them, are living with freedom bought for them with young lives and treasure, and are living well on money they are stealing (borrowing) from future generations.

          They don’t like to see factories with smokestacks, or listen to hard fought for free speech on campus, or support what’s left of the military, because that makes them feel “uncomfortable”.

          They are against any new pipeline, highway, dam, or transmission line, to add the the millions of miles that already brings all the services they demand as a right, to their very door!

          But they are not so uncomfortable about kicking their unpaid debts down the road to the generations yet unborn. :)

      • Erik Bosma

        PS The fairy tale ending was what it was… A fairy tale ending. It was meant to reveal to the rich and brainless the extent of their denial.

        • John C

          Eschatology has always had a big draw throughout history. Global Warming Religionism is the latest such mass movement. A sleepy back water of science – Weather – hijacked and infused with apocalyptic hysteria by left wing extremists looking for a new vehicle to push the same old political agenda.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.”

        • OWilson

          I remember when “common sense” cut through both extremes.

          I had lots of friends in those days! :)

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    “it’s very volcanic” You are slaking quicklime.
    There are many things that we have not developed language to describe” I’ll take a whack at that: “bloviating ignorance.” No, wait! “Social intent” is more inclusive,

    How long will it be until even Domain Archaea and Thermoplasma acidophilum caldarchaeol isoprenoids are dragged through the silt? Protect the anammoxosome and keep its ladderane membranes wholly.

  • John C

    Interesting concept.

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The Extremo Files

The Extremo Files traces the science that is pushing the boundaries of biology, from the deep sea to outer space to the brave new world of synthetic biology.

About Jeffrey Marlow

Jeffrey Marlow is a geobiologist exploring the limits of life, from the role of microbes in global elemental cycles to the possibility of life beyond Earth and the brave new world of synthetic biology. He received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology and is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at Harvard University, where he studies the inner workings of methane-metabolizing organisms.

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