Miek Zwamborn: The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook

Profile Books, 2020

Interview by Nina Hanz

Seaweed, our collective name for marine algae, seems to gather itself more than any other organism on the shoreline. Whereas other seafaring creatures drift apart, seaweed prefers to tangle, knot and assemble on the sand. Perhaps this is why they so naturally intrigued the artist and writer Miek Zwamborn.

In 2018, Zwamborn wrote ‘The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook’ in her native Dutch and revealed how the mysterious qualities of this sea grass have become surprisingly integrated in our lives. Recently it has been translated into English by Michele Hutchison, thus sharing Zwamborn’s practice-based research with a new audience. Even if only peripherally, the book’s chapters make us aware of just how wide the cultural and environmental influences of seaweed have been on animal husbandry, science, literature, food and art. Swiftly, this research falls into its own category of collection.

The first two chapters are dedicated to encounters, first Zwamborn’s own sensorial confrontation with seaweed and then those of ship captains and authors alike. In the third chapter, the references become more visual as a result of the increasing popularity of botanical illustrations in the 19th century. Europe saw a tremendous growth of enthusiasm for coastal environments between 1750 and 1840, which made the pastime of collecting plants, rocks, seaweed and seashells a common activity. However, other coastal regions were already hubs for documenting seaweed, as in Japan with the poems of Fujiwara no Hideyoshi and woodcuts of artists Kubo Shunman and Utagawa Hiroshige. Because of this, Zwamborn’s chapters rarely stay put in one place or time, favouring instead to float, drift and dive into the studies of seaweed within art, poetry, film, illustration and memory. I believe few other writers could have gotten away with how Zwamborn writes, as if her change in scenery was the most natural occurrence—liberated from explanation, from borders. Her style echoes the nature of seaweed.

Seemingly aware of this Zwamborn writes: “Many algae that wash ashore have broken free from far-off coasts. They do not respect national borders. Depending on the current, they float towards land. Sometimes they travel for weeks. You could try to calculate where they originated from with a river atlas, a map of the seabed and weather reports, but it would remain guesswork.”

There is a curtness to Zwamborn’s writing at times, and at others it is lovely and lingering, as if she is playing with the very structure of her sentences. Based on the Scottish Isle of Mull, Zwamborn often travels back to The Netherlands, London and elsewhere, to visit museums and archives. Through ‘The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook’ we get to see Zwamborn’s own ‘calculations’ as we become entangled in her research and the lives of those who came before her. From the sickbed of Henri Matisse to the nature reserve she attends in Scotland, the rearranging of chronology reflects a true collector’s journey of discovery: promising and unpredictable.

While it does not perfectly fall into the category of an artist’s book, the historical foundation demonstrates the research process of an artist, result in a composition of prose that feels cut and swept by the tides, as well as series of seaweed ‘portraits’ busting with vibrant colours and history. I find this writing is interesting to consider as a collection of words, translated phrases and ideas. Throughout the eleven chapters of the book, Zwamborn writes in a way that pulls information and experiences from all directions towards the reader, before abruptly letting go so her words sail through the pages. It is not a fast-paced book per-say, but one of many small parts, well-organised yet intersected by a personal narrative that fans the book onwards.

Surrendering her senses to the coast, Zwamborn writes: “If, as is often claimed, every seventh wave is higher and longer, I should be able to hear the rhythm of the sea in the drum.” Much like Loïe Fuller’s performance ‘Danse Serpentine’ (1897)—a colourful spectacle of sea-lettuce-like fabrics—Zwamborn appears and disappears within her own writing, not always seen but still present, directing the currents. This is particularly true of her last chapter, ‘Portraits’. Adding to the vivid colours of William Killburn’s designs and the shapes captured in Anna Atkins’ ocean-blue cyanotypes, Zwamborn illustrates different kinds of seaweed in her final chapter and pairs them with an encyclopaedic entry. Directly following a chapter on seaweed recipes, Zwamborn’s writing quickly adapts to its surroundings in the next section, while also providing the reader with the resources to become a collector themselves.

Like the plant itself, Zwamborn’s writing is pointed yet soft; it envelopes us and the landscape. But it is also a social and environmentally poised book. In their millions of years of existence, seaweed has been a passive witness to the changes of our coasts, watching on as their sea-meadows decrease in size like the forests on land. This motivates not only the writing of ‘The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook’, but its readers, making it a truly engrossing book.

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