Eloquence - The Work of Lisa Roet celebrates this significant artist and her exploration of the interconnectedness between human and non-human primates. In a career which blends art and science, Roet’s practice has taken her from Melbourne to the forests of Borneo, the skyscrapers of contemporary Beijing and research centres around the world.
Eloquence brings together the artist’s work across jewellery, sculpture and video, placing these physical manifestations of her practice in context with her biodiversity projects and research into human-animal communication. The exhibition presents Roet’s work from three perspectives: sustainability, communication and signification.
Presented on Craft Victoria’s website, this online exhibition provides wonderful insights into Roet’s career including her work with the Jane Goodall Institute Australia. The exhibition coincides with the planned launch of Roet’s most recent work, David Greybeard - a large scale inflatable chimpanzee. David Greybeard will be installed on the roof of Hamer Hall Arts Centre, Melbourne before beginning a global tour to arts, sustainability and conservation congresses around the world.
David Greybeard, Conversation and contemporary art combine to create a new vehicle for change.
Presented by Lisa Roet in association with the Jane Goodall Institute Australia.
Based on the image of Jane’s gentle muse, David Greybeard, the sculpture was created by Roet, to raise awareness around humans relationship with nature and our closest animal relative, while drawing attention to the conservation efforts of the Jane Goodall Institute. Roet acknowledges UNESCOS call for the preservation of the Great Ape, seen as the umbrella species for the rainforest systems with deforestation the greatest threat to our environment through global warming.
David Greybeard was recently named in Time Magazine as the most important animal of the 20th Century for his role in Dr Jane Goodall’s ground breaking scientific research into chimpanzees at Gombe National Park, Tanzania.
Lisa Roet’s diverse practice inherently conflates the prescient topic of sustainability. Early in her career Roet spent time in Berlin during the significant historical moment of the fall of the wall. As curators Maja and Reuben Fowkes indicate, the origins of sustainable art are connected to the rise in concept of sustainability at the end of the Cold War in 1989 at this time and the emergence of a new awareness of global ecological and social problems. Roet acknowledges that this movement had a profound effect on her work, specifically concerning engaged social responsibility. This critical position is not outwardly emphasised, rather it is a soft unveiling of ideas.
Bearing witness to the destruction of environments that lead to the extinction of various animal species, Roet understands the impact humans are having on nature; a consequence of our ravenous consumption of natural resources. Tapping into a disassociation with nature, her film Weeping forest (2009) documents the pristine forest of the Danum Valley in Sabah, Borneo; a natural habitat to a large orangutan population. As a deluge of rain peacefully hits the treetops the natural call of the forest can be heard alongside logging trucks, almost as though the forest is weeping. This film connects viewers with distant natural environments far removed from our urban experiences, while speaking to indigenous connections to the land.
Topics concerning biodiversity loss and conservation are at the forefront of Roet’s work, prompting viewers to reflect upon environmental stewardship. Former notions of progress are presented as unfeasible and the inhabitants of these environments come into focus. Individually cast primate figures appear staged representing species under threat. Memorialised in bronze Roet presents us with her immaculately cast sculptures: Silvery Langur (Borneo), Silvery Gibbon, Spider Monkey, Japanese Snow Monkey (bust). From marble and concrete, the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey is immortalised in The Sneezing Snub Nose, Yunan. This critically threatened species was uncovered due to deforestation in previously inaccessible areas. Its name is derived from a unique trait of sneezing due to its short, upturned nasal flesh. In 2016, the monkey served as inspiration for Roet’s monumental inflatable piece Golden Monkey. Clinging to the facade of Beijing’s Opposite House Hotel, the 10-metre sculpture radiated within the dense urban setting coupled with a soundtrack of sneezing in stark juxtaposition to its natural environment.
Communication is a key element in Roet’s visual repertoire. For her exhibition, aptly entitled Eloquence, Roet discusses the image of the finger as being central to the show:
“The finger symbol started in my practice after working at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA in two residencies in 1997 and 1998 where language faculties of non-human primates had been pioneered since the 1960s. Here I watched the Yerkish Language taught to the apes as a form of communication. I observed how the hand and fingers were integral to scientist’s methodologies in interacting.”
These experiences were formative in her now characteristic motifs of clasped chimp and ape hands universally associated with touch, intimacy and connection. We see this expressed in various bronze sculptures such as: Primate Fingers, Chimpanzee hands and Chimp hands clasped.
Yerkish is an artificial language developed for primates that employs a keyboard containing lexigrams — symbols representing a word or phrase in English when arranged in the correct grammatical sequence. In tandem with spoken communication and sign language, the apes learned to comprehend spoken and symbolic language through repetition and reward systems. Additional experiences that have informed the artist’s work include a residency at Zoo Atlanta, Georgia, USA, ape research at Zoo Atlanta and the Berlin Zoo, the study of apes living in the forests of Borneo, and the observation of Snow Macaques found in the hot springs in Japan and the Golden Monkeys of Yunnan.
Beyond her ambitious large-scale works, Roet’s investigations into intimate objects are also presented in the form of jewellery — wearable art objects. Viewed as part of her practice, Roet explains: “My large-scale bronze chimpanzee hands and orangutan foot were all designed for people to sit in and experience on a physical level. This is related to my jewellery also, where the hand of the gibbon wraps around the wearer’s wrist or neck. This creates a physical interaction that represents the biological link between humans and other primates. I see all of these works as both a conceptual project and a performance piece. By wearing the pieces, each person is buying into a philosophy or understanding of what it means to be human”. By employing jewellery designed to adorn the body, Roet imbues these objects with potent content.
Discussions concerning the critical reception of jewellery as an art form are long and so too, is the lineage of artists who have worked with jewellery in order to extend its boundaries. Roet’s distinct jewellery series’ aims to represent different elements of human culture. For the pieces in this show, the hand is representative of evolutionary history as conveyed in Gold Finger, Chimp. Index Finger Coat Hook. These pieces are juxtaposed with the artist’s Skin series — cast from gorilla and orangutan specimen skin rubbings — emulating a “skin on skin” transferral. This physical interplay is heightened with cut-outs that reveal the skin of the wearer below. Cast in precious silver, gold and brass: Caste Orangutan Skin Cuff and Gorilla skin imprint cuff are just two examples. In Roet’s POPE rings, the relationship with spirituality, evolutionary theory and the human ability to distinguish oneself via symbolism is engaged with. These weighty rings often seen adorning the hands of cardinals embody Christian meaning. Here, Roet’s renditions replace the design with the head of an ape as an emblematic gesture to signify what separates us from other apes.