With the photographic project Vital Mud, Hiske Altena (NL) explores the theory that life on Earth once began in clay. In the 1980s, her uncle, a now-retired geologist, found an unusual rattle stone. In this stone, he discovered organic-looking structures that he could not explain with existing geological theories. However, the alternative so-called “clay hypothesis”, according to which clay helped the evolution of early life forms, seems to offer a better explanation.
What will these first life forms have looked like? As large slimy tree-shaped structures or perhaps as giant floating zeppelin-like gas bubbles? Rattle stones, clay crystals, the life cycle of bacteria, and large oval shapes in the American landscape are all possible evidence for the hypothesis that life once originated in clay. Perhaps this even explains the similar shapes and descriptions that keep recurring in old fairy tales, myths, and religious stories.
Vital Mud takes this theory as its starting point. It is the foundation on which Altena builds a collection of images that changes our perspective, makes us look again, and wonder about what humans are capable of. She reminds us that science is a continuous search for the unknown, and that perspective shifts, just as it does in art.
The book’s dummy was shown at exhibitions and festivals around the world, was shortlisted for several awards, including the Paris Photo/Aperture PhotoBook Award, and was selected as one of the Best Dutch Book Designs of 2021.