Vanitas for a Changing World


Installation of multiple wet-plate collodion aluminotypes and mirror (framed individually to be hung in installation) dimensions variable, 2020-21.


The Installation Vanitas for a Changing World was inspired by Ross’s determination to start a conversation about the global climate crisis, using wet-plate collodion aluminotypes as media.

It is said that art holds a mirror to the world, and here this idiom is tested with both general and specific intent.  We (humankind) are complicit in what is now termed the ‘super-wicked’ problem that climate change is.  Simply put, this descriptor recognizes problems for which there are multiple causes; no simple solution; political complications, and a sting in the tail - being a lack of time to sort out the mess.   The inclusion of a single mirror in the group allows the image of the viewer to be reflected as part of the overall work – because each and every one of us is complicit in this time of climate crisis.

Referencing the art historic memento mori and vanitas genres as symbolic reminders about the inevitability of death, in this 21st century version of the concept, Ross includes plastic artifacts that hint at the ubiquitous presence of this pliable medium.

Recognizable tropes from vanitas imagery of past eras (including the human skull, hour-glass, cut flowers and snuffed-out candles) are joined with plastic vessels, bubble wrap and succulents.  These inclusions may be seen as playful – but there is another way of reading their presence, that being to allude to a conversation we don’t really want to have.  The irony here is that scientists inform us that modern plastics have a life expectancy estimated at five times that of the average human lifetime.  So, whilst the memento mori genre is by artistic intention and choice being employed in Vanitas as a contemporary way of discussing transience of our lives, such is not the reality for plastics. They will endure.  But will we? If the covid-19 pandemic demonstrated anything to the world’s population, it is that nation state-based restrictions, inter-governmental co-operation and legislative regulation, can collectively go a long way in curtailing or modifying human behaviour.

Our oceans are full of plastic, with geologists suggesting that it is a man-made material that contributes to the evidence for the epoch descriptor ‘Anthropocene’ – a term introduced to describe human impact on climate and eco-systems.

The choice of media for this installation remembers photographic processes that are relatively slow in the making, and which are systematically planned for.  In studio, there is a sense of slowing down, especially when compared to the faster, present-day digital photographic pace of making and image production.  Each aluminotype is fought for, there being many potential interrupters in the fabrication of these wet-plate, chemical photographic plates.  Light, temperature and the purity of chemistry (collodion, silver nitrate, developer and fixative), may singularly or collectively impact on the success (or not) of aluminotype images.  Each plate is unique.