Plankton and art

Those who have seen a plankton sample cannot deny its inherent beauty. From the perfect symmetry of diatoms to the complexity of some radiolarians, we can find an infinite range of shapes and colors that have been a source of inspiration for many artists, ancient and modern. Perhaps we find the maximum expression of the representation of plankton in painting. Particularly, toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a series of artists exceptionally illustrated the plankton. Among these, I would undoubtedly highlight Erns Haeckel (1834-1919), who drew marine creatures, and in particular plankton, with a detail and beauty that had never seen before (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Drawing of Radiolaria by Erns Haeckel

If we talk about artists and plankton, I cannot fail to mention Miquel Alcaraz, my former advisor and friend, who recently disappeared, leaving us without a great scientist and painter of plankton (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Centropages typicus developmental stages painted by Miquel Alcaraz

Plankton have also inspired artistic creations, which are not purely descriptive. There is a long tradition of naturalists and researchers who devoted their time, around the 19th century, to create true masterpieces of art and monuments to patience, slowly placing under the microscope different species of diatoms in the correct position to create compositions that, often, remind church rose windows (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Compositions with diatoms. Left J.D. Möller, right Eduard Thum

Many sculptors also find an endless source of inspiration in planktonic creatures. For example, Mara Haseltine’s glass figures represent tintinnids, radiolarians, and other plankton organisms in a very creative way. Louise Hibbert also represents plankton, among other creatures, in her sculptures. If we move from art to artistic merchandizing, it is not difficult to find pendants inspired in plankton, usually made with 3D printing and coated with more or less precious metals. I leave you in Figure 4 a collection of all these creations (without putting commercial names or sales websites, which would not be appropriate).

Figure 4. Different sculptures and works of art inspired by plankton. Above, glass works by Mara Haseltine; middle, sculptures by Louise Hibbert; below, commercial pendants.

Cinema is closely related to painting and sculpture and is another of the world-renowned arts. We already met the Phronima in a previous post (https://wordpress.com/view/planktonocean.wordpress.com), which surely inspired the creature in the movie Alien, by Ridley Scott. However, it does not end there, from the misnamed character Plankton (it is actually a copepod) of SpongeBob animation to the short cartoon series Plankton Invasion, or the Golisopod from Pokemon (inspired by an isopod) we have representatives of plankton everywhere (Figure 5). Returning to the descriptive art, within the audiovisual medium, I would highlight the videos of Plankton Chronicles (www.planktonchronicles.org) or those of the YouTube channel from our research group (www.youtube.com/c/ZooplanktonEcologyGroupICM).

Figure 5. Plankton in cartoons.

The literary works on plankton are also extensive, and there is something to suit all tastes, more or less scientific. However, if we are talking purely about fictional literature, we should not be surprised that plankton has also inspired some other books. As an example, we could cite the book Medusa by Sergio Rossi, where some marine biologists want to prevent a voracious species of jellyfish from ending the world’s fisheries, or the Fifth day by Frank Schatzing, where lobsters full of toxic dinoflagellates explode in the faces of humans who wanted to eat them. Maybe a little far-fetched, don’t you think?

Although it sounds unbelievable, there are also architectural structures based on plankton. The diatom-house designed in Germany is an example. The Korean building that simulate the cycle of elements in the planktonic food web is another (Figure 6). There is also a team of architects called the Plankton Group; however, I do notsee much of a connection between this latter building and these creatures.

Figure 6. Left diatom house. Right building inspired by the cycle of the elements

I do not know much about the relationship between plankton and music or dance. Even so, there is a music group called Insect surfers, which released the song Plankton Dance in 2014. However, the truth is that it becomes difficult to find a relationship between that song and plankton.

Finally, even though it is not one of the seven arts yet, we cannot deny that knowing how to cook is quite an art. Well, there are a few dishes with plankton, and they are becoming fashionable as an haute cuisine ingredient. From the traditional Chinese marinated jellyfish to the sophistication of dishes with marine phytoplankton (freeze-dried algae cultures sold at exorbitant prices) promoted by the Spanish chef Angel León, we have a variety of dishes using plankton as ingredients that we can enjoy. I had myself a Calanussoup at a meeting in Germany. I admit, however, it was rather tasteless. 

Plankton are also being used in the supplements, such as Omega 3, Spirulina, etc. 

In summary, either because we enjoy art, movies, or simply cooking with plankton, it is undeniable these creatures have entered into our lives.

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