Enter through the red door of a former pressed steel ceiling factory in Newtown, and you are in the world of artist Elizabeth Thomson, currently exhibiting at Aratoi. First, pass rows of packing crates and boxes that transport diverse objects to galleries around New Zealand and overseas – from fragile, attenuated glass tubes to hundreds of hand-sculpted leaves and moths. Once inside, under the soaring match-lined matai roof, you get a sense of the true scale of Elizabeth’s creative industry. By Anne Taylor.

Along one wall swim hundreds of cast bronze fish, each secured on a numbered wire prong. Propped up alongside is a huge stencil with locating holes that will be rolled out on a wall to show Aratoi staff the exact position of each character fish. This makes up the striking installation called The Fearless Five Hundred. Dating from 1989, this is one of the earliest works in her forthcoming Aratoi show called Cellular Memory, which will span 30 years of her practice.

Elizabeth’s son William comes in. He’s been up at Massey University where his own projection installation is screening as part of Exposure, the visual arts students’ end of year show. Elizabeth says he’s grown up in the studio and one of his jobs has been gluing thousands of tiny glass spheres, imported from Germany, onto her photographic substrates. The glass bead surface gives a tantalising quality to images of botanic microscopy and geologic forms.

After about 12 years of glass beading, William says “I’m over that now!” But friends and fellow students have stepped in to do the highly skilled task. “It requires dexterity, concentration and stamina,” says Elizabeth.

Her work is highly labour intensive, and the materials used read like excerpts from an engineering manual. Many are sourced from overseas, meaning hours on the phone or emailing specialist suppliers: “I like following all those threads, and the links you make with people,” she says. “I get excited about finding the right tools and drill bits, or the right brand of optically clear glue.”

As an art student in 1983, she started working at a bronze-casting foundry and continued there for six years part-time until she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts (Honours) in printmaking from Elam. In the three decades since, she has moved seamlessly across printmaking, sculpture, bronze work, collage and photography. Equally, her research ranges from music and philosophy, to physics and biology.

Slime mould – the sort of thing that might grow in your shower after a couple of months – is one of many organisms she has researched. “Slime mould has a primitive intelligence capable of decisions. It has no organs, no brain – the intelligence is within the vein structure inside it. It migrates, leaving tracks, to  find an ideal place to settle, then it sends up a beautiful, slender plant like stem topped with a fruiting body that releases spores. I love the idea of an innate intelligence. That’s why the exhibition is called ‘cellular memory’.”

This study gave rise to a delicately calligraphic installation called Waking up slowly, at the New Gallery, Auckland Art Gallery in 1996. A reworked version will be shown at Aratoi. “I find it exciting that there are things like this in existence in the natural world already and it just takes a small shift to re-present them in a heightened way.”

She shows me a series of photographs she took of silica deposits in a geothermal area in South America, pointing out the exquisite patterning, and ambiguity of shapes – how convex forms can appear concave when the photo is rotated, for example, and how tiny lines can suggest vast landscapes.

She often starts with photos, subtly changed in Photoshop, then chooses the ‘right’ technical process to communicate the optical puzzle, ambiguity, or “uncomfortable beauty” that strikes her.

Elizabeth travelled with eight other artists to the Kermadecs in 2011, and the trip resulted in a touring exhibition called Kermadec: Lines in the Ocean, shown at Aratoi last year. She worked with a Newtown upholsterer on the ‘Inner Raoul’ series exploring the secrets of survival in that bounteous but hostile environment. She created resin moulds from the cushioned upholstery, then overlayed them with micrographs of cells and organisms. “They are about vulnerability and safety, but also celebrate colour and form, and life on this volatile and energised island”.

Rather than holding the answers, she sees herself as a constant explorer, perhaps following her own subconscious ‘cellular memory’: “There’s what you know at one end and what you don’t know at the other. What is in between is the creative space.” Cellular Memory will be at Aratoi from 9 December to 2 April.