When I was in my first year of secondary school the headmaster, a teacher of English and social studies, had to take our science class because the science teacher had resigned. One day we were doing a session with a microscope and he cried out, “Quickly, have a look at this, you might never see anything like it again”. When I peered into the microscope’s eyepiece I could see colourless circles, each bound by a strong, dark line, slowly moving across the field of view and eventually disappearing. The experience was spooky. These were apparently not living organisms, for they were too perfect and lacked any sort of ‘innards’. Had we stumbled upon a secret world of microscopic craft created by an alien intelligence? We never reported it to the authorities, which is just as well: I realised several years later that we had simply seen bubbles of air trapped under the microscope specimen glass that our teacher hadn’t been experienced enough to recognise.
That sense of unease, wonder, and suspension of everything we’d formerly taken for granted as we silently filed out of the science lab remains a strong memory. It must have been something like that for Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch microscope maker who discovered a previously unknown world of microscopic life in the 1670s. He was disbelieved at first. Who could have imagined that there were living things too small to see, and which we now know, constitute the most numerous forms of life on the planet? (Did you know that each of us carries up to 1.5kg of bacteria in and on our bodies and that bacteria have recently been discovered living inside rocks hundreds of metres below the surface of the earth?)
Leeuwenhoek had no inkling that there was a world of microbes when he first began peering into his microscope. As US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, there are things we don’t know we don’t know (as distinct from things we know we don’t know). I’d suggest that while science can deal with the latter, art is better equipped to deal with the former. It has an ability to enter realms where conventional logic no longer operates. What are Gavin Hipkins’ photographs about? I really don’t know, and maybe Hikpins doesn’t exactly either. They are more like speculative experiments made outside the usual scientific framework of testable hypotheses. Hipkins is skilled at asking the right questions, at assembling productive visual experiments. But for the answers, he leaves that to us.
— Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography
This is no. 4 in my series on UFOs, aliens and outer space related to photographs held in Te Papa’s collections. Other posts: Alien power source; Confusing circles; New Zealand’s Roswell; Satellites of love; Getting close to the moon; Rabbits on Mars; Aliens: Here Already?; Nostalgia for the Future.