On the 2nd of July 2004 the ABC radio programme The Comfort Zone read out four letters from listeners with their reflections on a very basic form of architecture that they had experienced as children, that of the cubby house. The Comfort Zone wanted to know what the listeners’ cubbys looked like, felt and smelt like and whether they still held a grip on their imagination as adults.
This was my letter, chosen by Christopher Lawrence to go to air.
THE DEVILS’ CLUB
It is what we made of it more than any architectural eccentricity that gave our cubby its distinctive edge. Constructed by my father from fibro and corrugated iron it was rather suburban in design, almost a child’s drawing of a house, with its very typical pitched roof, centrally placed door, and two windows. Our cubby began its life conventionally.
Perhaps my twin sister and I played in there with our troll dolls, drew and painted, or played with imaginary friends, but my first real memories of the cubby house begin with the devil’s club.
When dad built our cubby he left the inside of the walls unlined so that the exposed horizontal timbers could be used as shelving. Prior to the formation of the devil’s club the shelves may have housed any number of things but of these I have no memory.What I do remember is our dead pet collection.
Generations of dead pets were pickled in ethanol in old vegemite and peanut butter jars. I remember in particular the giant tadpole as big as a carrot. But we also had yabbies and axolotls, fish, spiders, terephins, and maybe even a snake. We loved our pets and wanted to continue our relationship with them even after they died. There was also perhaps a morbid fascination with death, but we never hastened the end of our pets and I never pickled any of my mice. All my mice received elaborate burials in a small cemetery under the banana trees at the side of the house. Interred in wool lined match boxes they were placed reverently beneath small crosses fashioned from twigs.
Over time the jars of preserved pets acquired a slightly grotesque character as the liquid yellowed and the animals faded and distorted. When my twin sister and I, along with our best friend Sue, formed the devil’s club these jars, placed in rows along the shelves of our cubby, were decidedly the most appropriate decor for our new headquarters. To compound the effect we painted hideously imagined devils in fiery red all over the walls. Armed with wicked prongs and all manner of devices designed for torture they gave the dead pet collection a sinister resonance. We became known as the terrible three.
Garden of Unearthly Delights 2010 – acrylic, transparencies, photographs
One year my twin sister made the whole family back scratchers for Christmas, embedding nails, sharp side out, into lumps of clay that she carefully dried onto the ends of bamboo sticks and decorated with devil’s faces. The back scratchers were only ever used once. Eventually their nails rusted and as none of us could quite bring ourselves to throw them out they hung about the house for years. One would come upon them unexpectedly where they lay abandoned on window ledges and in dusty corners, a solemn tribute to the devil’s club era.
From dolls to devils, and then our first cigarettes (made from hollowed out cassia sticks stuffed with anything that would burn and smoked behind closed curtains)—the cubby became the stage on which we played out the transitional scenes of our childhood years.
It has all been bull-dozed now—the back garden with its giant ironbarks, the house, and the cubby—all gone to make way for another style of living—seven apartments where there’d been just one house. And instead of a cubby perhaps a shopping mall bears witness to that first cigarette.
I don’t think about those days very often but when I do I sometimes wonder what happened to the lonely little mouse bodies I buried all those years ago with such ceremony and feeling beneath the banana trees.
Garden of Unearthly Delights 2010
IN THE BEGINNING
In the Beginning is a body of work that evolved out of my year long association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (and its Collections), during my Artist in Residency in 2009. Coinciding with the Bicentenary of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species it is a celebration of evolution, biodiversity, and the genetic lineage that runs back through time to the very beginnings of life on earth.
My exploration of the Gardens has led me wonderfully and inevitably to examine plants. However, my understanding of the world is anthropocentric. I am an animal and I cannot help but bring my bias towards the object of my study. Miraculously, the moment one attempts to draw together two seemingly disparate understandings they seem to converge, to intersect, to communicate, and so before you know it a dialogue has developed. It is this creative dialogue, a dialogue conducted within the realm of the imagination, that I wish to share with my viewing public. In this exhibition each work reflects in one way or another the relationship that exists between the plant and the animal worlds, acknowledging on a metaphorical level our common origins.
These observations are playful rather than scientific but none the less serious. As an artist I consider ‘play’ a serious endeavour. Play enables me to travel to unexpected destinations where a fresh understanding is often revealed or an old one reinvented.
Jenny Pollak 2010
Threshold – Winner of the Facade Project, a national competition for a major public artwork, La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre, Bendigo.
The series of images titled ‘Threshold’ evolved out of a body of work I began as Artist in Residence at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. Coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin my artistic endeavours over that year became an exploration of evolution and biodiversity. Fascinated with the idea of a genetic lineage that connects us to the very first beginnings of life on earth I was interested in finding a visual metaphor to express the evolutionary journey from single cell to Homo sapiens.
The seven images used for the Façade Project are a poetic representation of transition and of the moment of moving from one state to another. They are a calligraphic shorthand, a sort of visual haiku or hieroglyph for what has been a 3.8 billion year journey. For me the images hold a sense of anticipation, of yearning and desire, of what is withheld and what is revealed, of what is about to become, of frontiers and borderlands, of being on the margins and at the peripheries. I have called this work Threshold because for me this word encompasses in a very unrestrictive way the place that exists between one state of being and another.
Placed at the entrance to La Trobe University’s Visual Arts Centre in Bendigo, a space created to showcase excellence in the contemporary arts, and a place where the audience is asked to open itself to new understandings of the world, they might just create a sense that here you are crossing a threshold on a journey that continues on into unknown territory.
Jenny Pollak 2011
Threshold – night view, Visual arts Centre, Bendigo.
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION
If we think of the evolutionary history of all animals as a vast lineage which has undergone incremental changes, generation upon generation, over billions of years we can see that in the bigger picture each of our family trees have common roots – common with all the other animal species.
I have called this body of work One Degree of Separation because I want to share this understanding of our commonality with all life on earth, and, by implication, with corals. Not only are we inextricably linked to corals by this inconceivably vast succession of individual lives lived and the ‘morphing’ of one species into another over vast expanses of time, but by our fortunes as well. The delicate biological balance that has been arrived at on the planet over several billion years has not been immune to external forces—it has been created by them.
This work, a series of ceramic skulls that from behind appear to be bleached brain corals, is a visual metaphor for the idea that the fortune of humans is inextricably connected to the health and well-being of other animal (and plant) species and that the bleaching and death of corals that can arise from even a one degree rise in sea temperature is a warning to humanity of our ultimate dependence on a stable and healthy planet.
Jenny Pollak December 2011
One Degree of Separation #4 ceramic
This work was exhibited in the exhibition CORAL: ART SCIENCE LIFE
at the Macleay Museum,Sydney University, Macleay building, gosper Lane
(off science road) http://sydney.edu.au/museums/
Open from 13 February till 1 September 2012
Monday to Friday, 10.00–16.30
Closed Weekends and public holidays
Special opening hours 12.00–16.00 on the first Saturday of every month.
Article from the EMU Newsletter march/April 2006 (extract)
Throughout the ages artists have always found inspiration in the sciences and have been drawn to scientific institutions in order to nurture and inform their work. Conversely many scientists have been drawn towards the arts and practised both disciplines. In the 1600′s the German scientist Ernst Haeckel made wonderful drawings of many of the biological specimens that he researched and his drawings of radiolaria (Art Forms in Nature) are a marvelous example.
As Artist in Residence at the EMU (Electron Microscope Unit) at Sydney University during 2005, and continuing this year in 2006, I have been given the wonderful opportunity to develop my arts practice in the area of electron microscopy. I have been able to create large photographic images of biological specimens (mainly foraminifera and radiolaria) which I use as a base for creative manipulation on a computer. The result has been a body of work in which I explore the notion that there is an inherent beauty in symmetry.
Jenny Pollak, Manning Regional Gallery 2005 photo: Julie Slavin
Article from the EMU Newsletter september/october 2006
a short essay in defence of the imagination.
Imagination is the realm of the artist. It is the world we walk in, the air we breathe and I consider it as fundamental to human endeavour in the Sciences as much as in the Arts.
Good science and good art both require imagination. I believe that the scientist and the artist are fundamentally motivated by similar impulses and that both require freedom to explore ideas without being driven by purely practical or commercial considerations such as our society increasingly demands. These considerations, while they can propel certain avenues of research, can also stifle imagination and I believe it would be a mistake were they to become the only driving forces behind scientific investigation.
If we look back to the1600’s and the scientific discoveries made possible by the development of the microscope—discoveries that continue over four centuries later as we achieve higher levels of resolution—we see how this invention was instrumental in taking science forward into new, exciting, and important areas of knowledge that went far beyond any ideas that were current at the time.
Lenses in one form or another had been around for thousands of years and technology for the microscope had existed for some time before anyone could imagine to what purpose it could be put—it is thought that the microscope was an invention made indirectly while trying to improve on the telescope, a device for which there were more obvious practical and commercial applications at that time. As important as the technological advances were in enabling the microscope to be developed, the imagination of people who could put these advances to use was crucial. Technology is impotent without will and imagination to direct it and science can be limited as well as advanced by the scope of our imagination: until there was someone to imagine to what purpose a microscope could be put there was no reason to invent it.
People of imagination are therefore invaluable to a society if that society is conscious and supportive of the contribution that they have to offer. Leonardo da Vinci, arguably one of the most inventive minds in history, was so far ahead of his time that many of his ideas and inventions would not be realised until current thinking changed enough to support them.
New science could not exist without the weight of pre-existing scientific research and the incremental accumulation of knowledge, all of which were the result of observation, experimentation, and imagination, and while imagination is as important as it ever was in the development of science, increasing pressure on scientific institutions to find and justify ongoing sources of funding could compromise purely creative thought in an economic climate where commercial success has become a driving force.
For this reason I believe we must consciously nurture the imagination, not forget how important the imagination, and the freedom to imagine, is in the practice and advancement of science.
As an artist I consider my most valuable asset to be my freedom. I have consciously chosen to separate myself, as far as I can, from commercial influences and this freedom allows me to follow the creative process without compromise–to create art work that has no other agenda than the creative process itself. Without freedom the imagination cannot be fully realised and while I understand that scientific institutions must compete within a commercial arena I believe we must be very conscious of fostering and securing the place of the imagination within our institutions.
Jenny Pollak 2006.
This next essay was the text for the exhibition Rational Order
in 2007 that I was invited to participate in at the Macleay Museum
at Sydney University. The exhibition marked the tercentenary of the
scientist Carl Linnaeus and on reading the scientific texts that
accompanied the exhibition I was motivated to write this essay
– out of which came a new body of work.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST
One of the first things a member of the species Homo sapiens does when bringing a child into the world is to name it. Why do we do this? What significance is there in a name?
From the moment a child first learns to speak it begins a process of repeating what it hears, of naming things. Linnaeus said “If you do not know the name of things, the knowledge of them is lost”. Without naming things it is difficult to speak about them.
Names are the building blocks of knowledge, the handle on which we hang our understanding of the world. If I tell you that the tree in my garden has red flowers, I can be confident that you will know what a tree is, know roughly what I mean by the colour red, and have an approximate idea of a flower. If I want to tell you more precisely what kind of tree, what kind of red, and what type of flower, I can tell you that too. Names are our tools for communicating. Names allow us to think.
Behind names are ideas and as such names are powerful tools. What one country calls a freedom fighter another calls a terrorist—our understanding of the world is gathered up behind the names we give things. Just as language and the naming of things are devices for communicating ideas, so is Linnaeus’s system of classification a device. Conceived by someone else the system would have had different rules and a different agenda. Linnaeus was a scientist and his system of classification was, and is, a way to describe the animal and plant kingdom within a scientific tradition. The Indigenous peoples of Australia have described the local ‘flora’ and ‘fauna’ (to use Linnaeus’s terminology) in a way that makes sense of how they experience and understand the world. As an individual I too have constructed my own ‘language’ for describing how I experience the world.
What I am trying to say is that there are innumerable ways to describe the world, many different rationales. There is no one way, no single rational order. It is even conceivable that each different system of order has as much, if not more, to say about the people who created it than about the world that it describes.
I was struck by the thought while reading the text for Rational Order that Carl Linnaeus would have favoured our current foray into the genetic modification of plants and animals. Beginning to speculate I allow myself to go on a surreal and imaginary journey: should genetically modified organisms ever become new species in their own right (genetically different enough to require reclassification) how would they be named? Would a tomato with fish genes identify as a tomato, or as a fish? Would an organism that was part plant, part animal have a crisis of identity? Would a rice plant with daffodil genes dream in yellow?
Linne’s Hat – digitally manipulated photograph
These playful musings are seeds for images which grow in my mind, incubating for a time before materialising in a physical form. Using cropped photographic images (my stem cells) made from a portrait of Linnaeus, I create my own modified organisms. A whole new world order evolves from this material and it becomes clear to me that it is only in the names that I give the images that lies the key to the history of their evolution. Without the names, the knowledge of that evolution, for what it is worth, is indeed lost.
Jenny Pollak 2007
GM – A CRISIS OF IDENTITY
This work from the series I am not a daffodil
references a European project where, between 1992 and
2000, a team of scientists genetically modified rice in order
to enrich it with beta carotene (vitamin A).
This was achieved by inserting two daffodil genes and one
bacteria gene, to create the variety named Golden Rice.