Interview with Penelope Davis, LAB-14 Artist-in-Residence
14 December 2016
Creative Spaces offers two Artist-in-Residence programs in partnership with the Arts Grants Program of City of Melbourne, allowing access to a studio and an artist's fee to develop work. We took a moment to interview Penelope Davis about her work with jellyfish and her time at the Creative Spaces LAB-14 Studio, at the Carlton Connect Intitiative.
Your work at LAB-14 has involved the development of jellyfish, made by silicon-casting and combining manufactured objects with organic matter. You have said, “when jellyfish flourish it's an indication that other things are depleted or dead” and have called them the cockroaches of the ocean. Can you expand upon these comments, explaining your agenda with this body of work?
Jellyfish have a characteristic often termed as ‘weediness’, attributable to species that flourish in conditions most other organisms would experience as adverse or threatening to survival. Cockroaches have the same characteristic of ‘weediness’. They are highly adaptive and indeed flourish like certain weeds and and are long term survivors . Pollution, overfishing, high water acidity, low oxygen, warming ocean temperatures – all these factors threaten the survival of most marine species. Not so for jellyfish. Once jellyfish proliferate in a given body of water, they further add to the compounding conditions that make survival of other species difficult (competing for food, building up waste and so on). So – when jellyfish move in, they multiply, take over, degrading the marine habitat for the worse, and then - they’re the last ones standing.
Brainless and spineless, they have remained pretty much the same for millions of years, perfectly adapted to survival. When nothing else is left, they can even eat their own. Degradation of the marine environment is solely attributable to humans. We have created the situation that has led to an exponential growth in the numbers of jellyfish. Jellyfish are not the problem, merely a sign. In this body of work I want to directly link our environmentally degrading detritus with jellyfish. Using casts of these and some organic materials I create a form of hybrid jellyfish that visualises our complicity in this degradation. On a purely aesthetic level, jellyfish are beautiful, I’m attracted to their simple forms, translucency, bioluminescence, their laconic, slow pulsating movements - but what they have come to represent, in terms of our relationship with the natural environment, is nothing short of monstrous.
We appear to be at a very interesting moment of “climate art.” In the 70s and 80s there was, of course, Land Art championed by the likes of Robert Smithson, but this may have been more of an institutional critique than a comment on the state of the environment. Why do you think that climate art as a category is only gathering momentum now? It is not like we haven’t known about climate change for decades already.
The information may have been out there for decades, but it’s only this century that the general population (as opposed to the scientific) has started to witness the palpable manifestations of climate change and environmental degradation – bleaching of coral reefs, depleted fish stocks, increased extreme weather events, fire and flooding, rapidly dwindling species and all manner of other effects. It has become the major issue facing us. The scientific community is interested in climate art because they see art as a more successful way of communicating the difficult ideas and issues they’ve been aware of for much longer.
Big global issues are great themes for institutional support too. Museums and curators and cultural commentators jump on board and start to market it as a ‘category’. Artists have always been interested in the big and small issues of the time and are often not constrained by prevailing political attitudes, we’re not really beholden to anyone, so we are more than happy to explore difficult ideas and provocative issues.
Your work silicon casting and sewing is obviously time consuming and rather labour-intensive. What could we find you listening to while working in the space?
ABC Radio National. I arrive in the morning, open the blinds, put the kettle on and switch on the radio. Whatever’s on RN is usually interesting and a slow working process lends itself to hour-long program formats.
Can you talk a little about the dialogues with climate scientists that you have been able to develop through the Creative Spaces LAB-14 residency at Carlton Connect and its close ties with University of Melbourne?
I’ve had many lengthy discussions with Dr. Renee Beale, particularly about science and art and how these two disciplines both differ and how they might work together. Through Renee I attended a very interesting conference about Science and Art held at Melbounre Uni, keynote speaker Margaret Wertheim, addressing this specific topic. Renee has also been a fantastic conduit for informal discussions with other tenants at Lab-14. This led to many interesting insights and I now feel I have a basis for future discussions. Also of interest, I have discussed gender issues with Renee and how these are played out in both the science and art communities. There are many similarities.
What has the residency allowed you to explore in the three months that you have been at LAB-14, apart from the close proximity to scientists and researchers?
This studio is far larger than my normal studio so I’ve been able to explore working at a larger scale. It’s been easier to envision the body of work as a large-scale installation arranged in gallery space rather than a bunch of individual works. The grant attached to the residency has allowed me to take some time away from wage earning and devote more time to the studio, which is a rare treat for many artists. This aspect alone has been wonderful. Immersing myself almost full-time in the project has also involved researching more about jellyfish and degradation of marine environments which can only inform the making of the work. Importantly, the grant has also provided the necessary funds to work with a lighting designer over the period of the residency. A number of the jellyfish will be individually lit with LEDs so that digitally programmed lighting sequences can be applied across the installation.
You have said that because you are not a scientist your response to the jellyfish is emotional. Do you think that connecting audiences to environmental issues through art is a matter of affect?
Scientists undertake research using a rational, empirical approach that can be replicated and therefore validated. The results of this research are fundamentally important, however, not often well communicated to a general audience, and perhaps therefore not successful in galvanizing people’s opinions into action. My jellyfish aren’t rationally realised, their concern is not to present the empirical facts, but rather a broader meditation on these. My hope is that people will be drawn to them on a more emotional level and then start to think about the palpable and immediate problems facing the environment and our responsibility in creating this catastrophe.
You have been creating your jellyfish specifically for Climarte (19th of April – 14th of May, 2017). Can you give us a brief overview of the exhibition which will be the result of your residency at LAB-14?
The exhibition will be at MARS Gallery in Windsor, occupying the main gallery space. There will be approximately 50 of the jellyfish suspended from the ceiling in a swarm-like arrangement. Digitally programmed internal LED lighting will animate the installation with subtle lighting effects. It will be an immersive installation that transforms the space, evoking the experience of standing on the floor of some future ocean.
What, in your view are the key requirements of a creative space to draw out creativity and inspiration?
Peace and quiet, uninterrupted time to think and work, good light. A good creative space is a refuge from all the other responsibilities of day-to-day life where you can commit time and thought to nothing else. Of course, you need time to use it. Studio residencies are particularly fantastic - they provide a new working environment, new people to engage with, and new contexts, which can be challenging and ultimately inspiring.
Penelope Davis is a visual artist and photographer pursuing an interest in climate change and degradation. Penelope’s work is held in collections nationally and internationally, including by the National Gallery of Victoria; Artbank; ANZ Bank; DC Design, China; Victorian College of the Art; City of Port Phillip; BHP Billiton; and University of Melbourne. Major exhibitions include Ex-libris – the book in contemporary art, Geelong Gallery (2014); Perceptions of Space: Justin Collection, Glen Eira City Gallery (2014); Missing Presumed Dead travelling to regional galleries in Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia (2013); and a survey show, Phototropic, at the Academy Gallery in Launceston (2012). Work produced from her residency at LAB-14 will be exhibited at part of Climarte at MARS Gallery in 2017.
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