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Rachel Sussman's photographs at the Tremaine Gallery

by Carola Lott
Mon Feb 15th, 2016

Welwitschia Mirabilis from the Namib Naukluft Desert in Namibia by Rachel Sussman

Few of us think of plants as sentient beings. “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” Rachel Sussman’s exhibition of her photographs at the Hotchkiss School’s Tremaine Gallery, suggests we reconsider that assumption.

Susmann’s beautifully composed images document plants that have survived for at least 2,000 years – some for far longer. One for example – a clonal colony of quaking aspen photographed at Fishlake, Utah -  has lived for 80, 000 years. 

What is remarkable about these plants and what they have in common is that they have devised ingenious ways to survive for millennia in some of the most inhospitable places on this planet - in deserts, in permafrost, on the tops of mountains and at the bottom of the ocean. 

For thousands of years plants have managed to co-exist with humans. More recently, however, some of them are falling victim to destruction by man. A 5,000 year old Bristlecone pine, the Methuselah tree, was chopped down in the mid 1960's simply to retrieve a lost drill bit. 

Most of these ancient beings live in environments that are as fragile as they are hostile. 
Global climate change is now threatening these ecosystems, especially those at the poles. “The thing I am most concerned with,” Sussmn says, “is that even in these tucked away corners of the world, we are seeing signs of climate change. That’s the scary part.” 

Being old is not the same as being immortal. One of the oldest organisms Sussman has photographed is a bacteria sample from the Siberian permafrost that has survived for 400,000 to 600,000 years. As the climate changes and the permafrost thaws, “the world’s longest known survivor may also be the most vulnerable.”

For most of its life a 9,550-year-old spruce tree lived as a ground-hugging shrub on a high mountain plateau in Sweden. Suddenly 50 years ago, a thin trunk arose from the matt-like tangle of branches. What lies ahead for this and other ancient plants as the climate continues to warm?  And when threatened none of these ancient plants can simply get up and move away. 

Sussman says she began “to see my subjects as individuals, and as such I wanted to make portraits of them rather than landscapes…Perhaps by visualizing such impacts, by anthropomorphizing these ancient lives and activating the science that tells their stories through an artistic lens, we might engage more readily in the long-term thinking required to extend their lives, and by proxy, our own.”

One of Sussman’s more extraordinary subjects is the 2,000 year old Welwitschia Mirabilis she photographed in the Nankluft Desert in Namibia. The national plant of Namibia, sometime referred to as a living fossil, the Welwitschia’s tangle of rather limp foliage is actually only two single leaves. Almost as extraordinary is the Llareta plant that grows at 15,000 feet in Chile’s Atacama Desert. A cousin of parsley, the Llareta resembles nothing so much as a pile of round moss covered stones. It is hard to believe that the entire thing is actually a flowering shrub comprised of clusters of tiny green leaves.

We need plants far more than they need us. Plants can survive very nicely without us. However, neither we nor any of the other creatures on the planet can survive without plants. “We tend to forget that humanity is only one component of a vast and delicate ecosystem,” Sussman writes. “I hope that my work can serve as a touchstone for thinking outside ourselves.” 

The exhibition can be seen at the Tremaine Gallery until March 6.