Eyes on animals
As I go through life I always ask the question, “Where do I go to find animals?”
In the city I always take notice of the pigeons, the rats and the pampered pets. I go to the Natural History Museum, the zoo and the library to see how animals are portrayed. In a supermarket I look at the fish and meat products and the pictures of animals on packets and tins. I find animal documentaries on television fascinating. The way we understand animals, the words we have for them and our relationship with them is the focus of my work.
Since prehistoric times we have celebrated the lives of animals in art and daily-life. I see my artwork as a continuation this history. Human representation of animals is a very rich and complex subject of investigation. On one level it is the simple delight of recognition. It reflects a sense of awe and wonder we have for the diversity of other animal species. On another level the representation of animals reveals a complex relationship of political and environmental issues. As an artist with a concern for animal welfare I have employed a variety of approaches that consistently examine these relationships. It has been my journey for over 30 years.
Names for animals
Names we give to animals creates meaning for their lives. Formed in history, animal names originate from early hieroglyphics and pictograms or other linguistic, sensory observations of their behaviour; the sounds they make, their shape, size, colour or their usefulness or threat to humans. Animal totems, myths, folklore, literature, illustrations and taxonomies created by humans give meaning to animal lives. This generates an idea of an animal that has little connection to its actual existence. In reality it is about how humans perceive the world.
In the form of sculpture, performance and drawing my artwork takes a critical view of the social, political and cultural construction of the lives of animals. I am interested in the language we use to construct an understanding of an animal. My sculptures employ a variety of materials. They are illustrations of animals created through a poetic synthesis of material and language.
An example of this is the installation called The Fox and the Moons Reflection which was installed at the Australian National University, School of Art in Canberra in1995. The large floor work consisted of resin sculptures of foxes, rabbits and starlings which were covered with Band-Aids. The Band-Aids were spread out onto the gallery floor in a way that depicted the moon reflected on water. The installation was an illustration of a 12th Century fable written by Marie de France. True to all good fables the animals in the story were allegorical. The fox represented a greedy human and the Caucasian, flesh colour of the Band-Aids referred the European origin of the animals.
Animal sculptures and performances
Over the years I have created many sculptures of animals that explore both the language of the materials used to make the animal sculpture and the language that is projected onto animals. Some of these works include rabbits made from plastic shopping bags, ravens constructed from black plastic bin-liners, and more recently snakes sculptures cast in bronze.
In another series of performances I have created words from food that is designed to be eaten by animals. In these artworks animals become active in unwittingly erasing language. One example of this is pets/pests executed in 1994. The word pet was painted on the studio floor. Superimposed over this was the letter S which was made from meat. Ants living in a nest outside the studio gathered in numbers to tear the letter apart and carry it off in small pieces. In doing so they revealed the painted word pets. This invited the viewer to reconsider their definition of the ants as a pest. Puppets and poets were other pet texts that I created with superimposed meat letters for the ants to eat. A few years later I invited a snake to interact with a bronze sculpture called Snake picnic. The still life sculpture was placed on the farm where I live and a motion sensor camera recorded an Eastern Brown Snake as it moved across the bronze picnic blanket.
Life on the farm
In 1998 I completed a course in Natural History Illustration at the Royal College of Art in London. This was undertaken through the patronage of the Anne and Gordon Samstag Scholarship programme. When I returned to Australia a few years later I began living on a sheep farm in the Monaro district in rural NSW. As an artist interested in animals this life on the land provides an opportunity to experience a vast range of domesticated and wild animals. It also introduced me to the realities of a drought devastated landscape. During this time I responded to the hardships of farm life by producing a series of sculptures made from painted sheep skulls and a performance with my hand reared ‘poddy’ lamb. The work is called willow pattern, 2004. Full of pathos it is an attempt to find beauty in the despair of drought.
Memorial to Animals in War
In 2009 I completed a commission for the Australian War Memorial and the RSPCA to design a Memorial to Animals in War. Situated in the Sculpture Garden at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra this important memorial puts in place an official recognition of the sacrifices that animals have made in human warfare. The design features a bronze horse head, the last remaining fragment of Charles Web Gilberts’ original Desert Mounted Corps Memorial which stood at Port Said, Egypt and was destroyed during the Suez crises in 1956. A period of research conducted at the Australian War Memorial informed a greater understanding of the service animals and their relationships with Australians in times of war. It allowed the design of the memorial to evolve into a flowing tear shape.
There is so much honour in animal intelligence and faithfulness. It is a force that humans feel deeply and find hard to explain. Just beyond our own reality the existence of an animal life imparts a greater understanding on all life and death, states of being intensified in times of war.
I use drawing in several ways. As a direct form of expression drawing is important in the development of ideas and fundamental to the process of making sculpture. A great way to learn more about animals is to trace their movement with a single line and to sketch their anatomy. The pace of drawing allows me to capture the “life” of an animal or person. As my professional practices as an artist and a teacher evolve I maintain a passion for life drawing. I love the challenge of recording as much information in the limited time of a pose.
Drawings also become a vehicle for making a statement as in the 2006 series called insinuous. These drawings are of shape-shifters, part snakes-part humans. Startling, comical and sexy they attempt to address the anthropomorphizing language used to describe an insalubrious person and a snake.
In 2005 I began a working on series of bronze Serpent sculptures. This interest in bronze and snakes led to a PhD research at the ANU School of Art, Hot Metal Casting Research Facility which was completed in 2015. The focus of my study was on the elapid snakes of the Canberra district and snakes as real and imaginary creatures.
Of all the animals in the animal kingdom I believe that the snake has the most language and cultural values projected upon it. In the study of snake as a symbol it is fascinating to learn how it has come to stand for a vast range of human attributes and as a consequence how actual snakes are misunderstood. In our culture, through the story of Genesis, people associate the snake with the concept of evil. Across the world however, the snake features in other creation mythologies many of which ascribe it with life affirming and regenerative attributes. According to ancient beliefs the snake could prong life, restore life to the sick, revive the dead, ensure fertility and counteract poisons. In this way the snake became a symbol of medicine and healing.
A snake is an amazing sculptural form and as an artist I take delight in observing and recording their endlessly evolving contours. In 2010 I installed a bronze sculpture called the staff of Asclepius at Calvary Hospital in Canberra. As the “doctors symbol” it shows a Serpent entwined around a staff or a rod which originated from the ancient Greek god of medicine, Asclepius. To emphasize a sense of rejuvenation and exaltation in this contemporary interpretation of the symbol I made the rod into a germinating seed. It is fitting that the sculpture is located at the entrance to the ANU Medical School where medical practitioners receive their training at Calvary Public Hospital.
Other Serpent bronzes include Sito made in 2008 and Lamia’s slippers. Sito is named after the Egyptian primeval Serpent featured on the Papyrus of Ani. Ancient Egyptians worshiped Sito as a creative spirit. It was believed Sito created everything. By entwining his spiritual essence around the world Sito guarded the cosmic and subterranean world. In my sculpture the head and the tail of Sito exist as two separate parts. Each section of the snake morphs into a human foot.
The relationship between human feet and the snake is acutely experienced when walking in the bush in summer. It is an illustration of an uneasy connection. In another creation myth staged in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, Chapter 3, God puts enmity between the Serpent and humans, declaring; “…he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” The sculptural installation called Live created in 2006 explores this passage of the Bible. The installation consisted of a Biblical Serpent sculpture made from wire and plaster and 47 pairs of papier-mâché feet.
Lamia’s slippers is both the name of a bronze sculpture cast in 2006 and an installation created for the Fremantle Arts Centre in 1999. These artworks are inspired by and take their title from Lamia the poem written by John Keats in 1819. The Romantic poem is about the transformation from snake to woman and back again. It explores many themes including beauty, temptation, and mortality and a mythological understanding of the natural world.
The collective nature of art making as a way of exploring connections with other artists has always held enormous appeal and rewards. As an artist it has been a way of consolidating my strengths whilst remaining open to a diversity of approaches and skills. Collaborations are an intimate period of talking and making with other respected practitioners. Wonderful memories and unexpected outcomes have been the result of such creative partnerships. I sincerely thank the artists for working with me on a series of initiatives over the years. These include Andrew Hayim and Juliet Lea in 1989, Aadje Bruce in 1991, Alison Clouston in 2003, Bernie Slater in 2005 and Charlie Sofo in 2006.
Thanks for your interest in my work.
This project was supported by a grant from the NSW Government - Arts NSW, through a program administered by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA).
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