Artist in Residence – David Attenborough Building

Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances.  Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last.

Toni Morrison

I am very happy to have been offered a residency with the Arts, Science and Conservation Programme at CCI (Cambridge Conservation Initiative).

As an artist and printmaker, it is my aim to work with CCI conservationists, scientists, archivists, thinkers and practitioners in the David Attenborough Building.  There is no comprehensive IUCN Red List for insects.  Most species remain un-described and, as a vast array diverse taxa they are simply too numerous and too diverse to count. There are criteria and rules, there are some numbers, much patient research, much patient record keeping – both citizen and academic.  Butterfly Conservation have begun in recent years (2019 and 2021) to apply Red List criteria to statistically significant populations of just the moths and butterflies on these islands, but the bottom line is that, even with a few decades of reliable records from the Rothamsted traps, we know very little for certain.


Uncertainty, the unknowable, what can’t be seen…these are all the domain of art.  Most artists are long-practiced in ‘not knowing’ – in finding their way in the dark toward an appropriate response to the world. The Taoists say: the path you can know, is not your path.

Having devoted the last four years to making images of common British moths and the move now from commonplace and familiar presences, to the increasingly absent is not an easy one.  I will work with the collection of British Macro Moths in the University Zoology Museum to make an artwork, or series of artworks incorporating the concept of the ‘black page’ that speaks to both the grief and the unknowing around the collapse in moth numbers, working with IUCN Red List Unit, and using the IUCN Red List criteria as a framework for the selection of specific species. In all probablilty I will work with a selection of larger nocturnal moths, the darkness of night adding further resonance to an enquiry into what we cannot know and what it might mean to us to lose our unseen neighbours altogether.


The patient, dedicated  and vital work of scientists presents to the world in a language that is  tightly measured, laden with statistics and bound with caveats; There are many acronyms, manifold appendices, a thicket of diagrams and charts… Reading and researching over the last months in preparation for this  work, and now discussing the finer points that distinguish and define ‘extinction’ and ‘ecosystem collapse’ with academics and leaders in Cambridge, I find myself wondering if a retreat into rules and statistics might be a very human way of coping with the unknowableness and uncertainty of what seems to be a runaway, accelerating catastrophe.


The work of artists has always been to make visible the invisible.  My response to this ‘great thinning’, this loss, can only be a poetic one but I hope I might make work that awakens some sense of the sentience of moths, pushes back against the desensitisation that characterises much of modern life and plays its part in telling a story, a story that, while acknowledging our grief, also confesses to our ignorance, momentarily de-centers the human and awakens some collective memory of abundance and connection.


Sarah Gillespie

May 2022


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