Rachel Sussman on ‘deep time’ & the oldest living things in the world
In 2004, artist Rachel Sussman began a decade-long project to find and photograph the oldest living organisms on earth – among them a 9,550-year old spruce growing in Fulufjället, Sweden.
Sussman’s project ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ spans disciplines, continents and millennia. While testifying to the resilience and beauty of nature, the project also exposes the precarious circumstances that all life forms endure in the face of the climate crisis.
Here, Sussman talks about the concept of ‘deep time’, and the importance of seeing beyond our limited human lifespans.
‘As humans, we weren’t initially programmed – if you will – to comprehend long timescales. The earliest humans were lucky to reach their early 20s. What need did they have to understand a thousand years, 10 thousand years, a billion years into the future? The abstraction is so big, and irrelevant to the basic needs of food, shelter, water.
‘The idea with ‘deep time’ is to start to connect with timescales that are outside of our human, physiological experience of time. That’s one of the things that I try to do with my artwork – with ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’, but also with subsequent projects, such as ‘A (Selected) History of the Spacetime Continuum’, a timeline that starts before the big bang and goes 10 to the 100 billion years into the future. So, a long time!
‘The idea with these projects is to start to create markers, or waypoints, in time so that we can begin to create a personal relationship with these timescales that are outside of our own. It is imperative to the health of the planet, to the longevity of humans as a species, that we connect with timescales that are longer than our own. Some Native American cultures look at the idea of seven generations back and seven generations forward. To me, that offers a much more robust way of understanding our impact as individuals on the planet, and in relation to one another.’
“It is imperative to the health of the planet, to the longevity of humans as a species, that we connect with timescales that are longer than our own”
‘My hope is that making a personal connection to ‘deep time’ will in turn spark long-term thinking. We can look at ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ as a beacon of hope, as a reminder that these organisms have persevered for at least 2,000, and sometimes tens, even hundreds of thousands of years. We can also take lessons from them – not only from their perseverance and longevity, but also as a way of understanding our own responsibility as stewards to them, to this planet.’
One of the pieces to emerge from ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ is Sussman’s photograph of a 9,550-year-old spruce tree in Sweden. Here the artist offers an insight on the image, which featured as part of Hayward Gallery’s 2020 group exhibition, Among the Trees.
‘This spruce has come to symbolise, for me, the relationship between these ancient organisms and climate change. What I came to understand is that this organism is essentially a portrait of climate change.
‘For the first 9,500 years of its life, it had a very particular growth strategy. Its branches had always stayed approximately at the snow level. What happened in the late-1940s is that the climate started warming. This is a really remote area – rugged, beautiful countryside – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not affected by what’s happening in the collective ecosystem of our planet.
‘So as the climate started to warm, the tree essentially changed its adaptive strategy, and that new spindly trunk started growing. And growing quite fast, as you can see, in comparison to the branches at its base.’
“What I came to understand is that this organism is essentially a portrait of climate change”
‘And you might ask, well, what’s the big deal, it’s changed. And the answer is we don’t entirely know. All we know is that for 9,500 years it was doing really well, and since human influence has reached it, it’s doing something entirely different. And this generally is not a good sign – the evolutionary process in nature tends to be much slower than the mechanised process of human progress.
‘To me, it’s important that we realise we are having an effect – a very direct effect – on every living creature, every ecosystem on this planet. And unless we have understanding and respect in our relationship to these things, there’s no telling what kind of further damage we’re going to do – that we are doing, every day.’
Rachel Sussman is a Guggenheim, NYFA, and MacDowell Colony Fellow, and two-time TED speaker.
Through her various projects, she collaborates with scientists and organisations such as SpaceX, NASA, and CERN.