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Written by:
Paul Holland
26 Apr 2023

A new artwork containing plants and soil from the River Cam has taken pride of place within the Dining Hall of Trinity Hall, replacing one of the more traditional portraits that usually grace the walls.

The Willow will Submerge in Time (above) is a “wall-based” artwork, a multi-layered panel in a mounted lightbox that creates a work described as being “somewhere between a sculpture and a painting”.

The work was unveiled during a special dinner at Trinity Hall by the Master of the College, Mary Hockaday.

The artist who created the piece, Sophie Mei Birkin, a History of Art alumna of the College, said: “Beyond the formal aspects of the work, the use of colour, form and light, the piece conceptually draws on ecological themes through the use of biomatter that I source and how it interacts with other materials in the work.

“I have also made this piece site-specific by collecting materials from the local area (plants, soils and other organic matter from the River Cam) to incorporate into the artwork as a reference to this significant body of water that runs by the College, and its biological life.

“Through illuminating the microorganisms and biomatter from the locality I hope to highlight the beauty within the natural environment and reframe our relationship to the micro-world that is unseen or often overlooked.”

Seeing the piece in the Dining Hall was affecting, she added: “It was a great honour to be asked to create this work and there is a real sense of returning to this place, albeit at a very different stage in my life.

“It was also rewarding to be doing something so site-specific, about a river I’ve always been drawn to.”

Sophie Mei is British-Chinese and the work notably resonates with Xu Zhimo’s most famous poem “Second Farewell to Cambridge”. In it the Chinese poet, who was a student at Cambridge, describes a “golden willow on the bank of the Cam.”

Willow root, lichen, algae, pampas grass and soil from the riverbed are encased within the work, which is made of a bio-resin.

Trinity Hall’s Professor Alexander Marr, who commissioned the piece on behalf of the College’s Art Festival, said: “It is very different to the traditional Cambridge college portrait and challenges that stereotype. We’re lucky at the College to have a few works in the Dining Hall that offer a more expansive perspective, such as a magnificent tapestry by Cornelia Parker overlooking the room and Benjamin Sullivan’s portrait of the first two women Fellows, Dr Kareen Thorne and Dr Sandra Raban. Sophie Mei’s work is an outstanding addition that contributes to our efforts to make the College’s artworks more diverse and reflective of our community.

“It is a work that probes the ancient relationship between nature and art and explores other connections, such as the microcosm versus the macrocosm, and stasis and decay. It also speaks importantly to ecology and the climate crisis.”

He added: “I was fortunate enough to know Sophie Mei as a student and to see her art here today is very special.”

The Willow will Submerge in Time will remain on display in the College throughout the summer as part of the Trinity Hall Arts Festival, replacing the College’s portrait of former Master George Oxenden.

About Trinity Hall Arts Festival: Trinity Hall’s first Arts Festival celebrates creativity and the arts through a series of events, exhibitions, performances, screenings, and opportunities for artistic practice and production. The Festival is an opportunity for the arts to thrive in College and to showcase our diverse artistic talent. The festival runs throughout the 2022/23 academic year.

About Sophie Mei Birkin: Sophie Mei Birkin is a London-based artist with a multimedia practice- material exploration is central to her work particularly how materials interact to create a psychophysical response. She investigates the generative potential in the transformation of matter through a variety of material processes such as growing salt crystals and exploring amorphous and decomposing substances. Sophie Mei graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2021, where she was awarded the Euan Uglow Scholarship for MA Sculpture and an Emerging Artist Award by Sarabande Foundation;  she has recently exhibited work at Collective Ending HQ, Barbican Cinema, The Artist Room Gallery, Projektraum Claas Reiss and Saatchi Gallery. Sophie Mei studied History of Art at Cambridge University, where she was a Trinity Hall Bateman Scholar, and was awarded the Hamish Maxwell Prize for Art History and the University’s Winifried Georgina Holgate Pollard Prize for outstanding academic performance.