Emily Parsons-Lord

Emily Parsons-Lord is a Sydney-based artist who engages a host of media outside of traditional art-making methods. Science combines with Romantic ideas to create explosions, experiments and ephemeral installations that examine Nature under all its guises. Underpinning her work are the complexities of human identity and the politics of how we respond to issues facing society today.

Emily and I sat down to chat about her practice, which turned into a long discussion about creating art in Sydney, stargazing and the personal life that entwines with her art making.

Your practice often bridges the line between scientific experiment, personal reflection and transient interaction – such as the work You will always be wanted by me (2015), which combines stars with emotions. How do you bring such expansive ideas into a personal moment?

I think I always look for that moment, like that double edge that brings it from vast, lofty thinking, into mediation on reality, or that cuts you. That feeling when you’re stargazing, you’re almost there, you can almost comprehend infinity. But, then life interrupts – it brings you back. With You will always be wanted by me, in particular, I feel like I have a lot of compassion for human desire to connect to something bigger. When you buy a star on the international star registry, you really want to communicate with big, universe-sized, ideas. However, the way to go about it is: you go on the internet; you initiate an online transaction; you pay $90, and you get a certificate. It crashes you back down to earth and disrupts the romance.

The first time I saw your work was Our Fetid Rank (Margaret Thatcher’s bottom lip and Bill Clinton’s tongue) at Firstdraft in 2015, and after a while, I noticed I was breathing in time with the politicians on the screen. I began to feel quite anxious.
That’s what I wanted! The consideration that we are changing the air as we speak, through our carbon dioxide-enriched exhale. So when politicians are talking about carbon emissions, think – how much breath are we wasting just talking about it when we could be doing something?

You explore this idea in your TED talk ‘Picturing the Air Around Us’, which made me aware that we’re all breathing the same air, sharing something we think is so private. Once you become conscious of that breath, it goes beyond something that feels natural – it’s an active gesture to live!
Air is touched by human intervention and the unconscious repercussions of human actions, so much so that it is like a built environment. There is obviously carbon and methane emissions and the ozone hole, as well as material echoes of atomic bombs, radiation, the noise of radio waves, digital signals, the jet streams of objects like planes, the change to air flow from wind farms, cities; as well as the bigger elements associated with climate change, such as temperature, and the decline in global winds. But every time we breathe, we are also changing the air dramatically.

Art can bring notice to this, and with yours, the titles seem to have their own stories.
I think so much about the titles; I’m always writing down things people say or little phases I read. Our Fetid Rank (Margaret Thatcher’s bottom lip and Bill Clinton’s tongue) was first called ‘Blowing Hot Air’, but then I thought it’s too flippant as a one-liner. I needed to take it more seriously if I wanted the audience to start actively thinking about the politics of the breath. The title nods to the fact that these people are our elected officials, and hold their rank in that space, but also, the weird sharing of bodily actions that is rank. And then, the second part of the title; I spent so much time with these videos, cropping, cutting and editing – I got obsessed! Thatcher, for example, is always licking her bottom lip between words. Bill Clinton was the most repulsive; he slowly and quietly moves his tongue over his lips, round his mouth. I got to know them and their habits.

You have some incredible collaborations under your belt, such as with Korean artist Lee Kun-Yong for the exhibition ‘Equal Area’ at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art this year.
Collaboration is a generous word; I feel like I’m benefitting more than the person with whom I’m sharing information. I tend to work in a thought experiment after doing extensive reading. I’ll sit down with expert and pick their brain, getting them to open pockets of knowledge for me.

For the 4A show, it was lovely to chat to Mr. Lee. Drawing lines on the floor to meter and temper the movement of the body and gesture was challenging to the Korean society in post-war-recovery. Something so simple and elegant, yet there was chaos in breaking with convention. He was beaten up, tailed and followed, detained. I really admire his tenacity. It was pioneering performance work in a highly charged political situation. When 4A got in touch about the project, they had invited a work of mine that recreates the Sun’s gaseous composition (75% hydrogen, 25% helium) in a clear bag with a brick on top, Under Pressure Gas Becomes Light and Heat. With this in mind, I developed the performance work A raging event of continual noise (the Sun) (2018) that used explosions and smoke to explore fusion in the Sun.

When did you become interested in science?
After finishing my Fine Arts degree, I went travelling. I was in New York, and I’d applied to be an intern researching for Trevor Paglen and Last Pictures. He is an incredible artist, and I got to help send a gold disk into space. The idea was that the gold disk would be attached to a satellite and would sit in the Clarke Belt – the perfect geosynchronous orbit from the Earth – so that it would never fall to Earth or slip out of orbit. On the gold disc is a selection of images that exemplify when human progress is harmful to the very beings that made it; where humans construct their own means for destruction. It will never fall down; it is our pyramids, existing long after humans are dead. This disc is our Rosetta Stone to an unknown future.

This experience changed how I thought about art. As a young artist I needed more content for making, I needed to learn a lot more about everything! I needed to learn that art can take you anywhere, that it has to be honest – any work that is self-conscious or posturing doesn’t work. The research with Trevor opened up a new process and approach in my practice, and I kept going with this. Like the air, when you really start to think about it, it’s upside down and unfamiliar.

This recurring theme of air was also explored in Things Fall Apart (2017), an installation where audience engagement was central.
This work was commissioned for the 2017 Liveworks Festival at Carriageworks. I was considering the other things that comprise the air, further to just the chemical composition. The work was an 8m dark pool, with a wooden intrusion into the centre. You were invited out on to the platform to stand in the middle of a 12m column of mist. Mixed into the mist was some methyl jasmonate, a plant distress pheromone. The audience would enjoy a solitary moment in the centre while simultaneously breathing in a distress call, a cry for help from plants.

You’ve also incorporated pig pheromones into a work …
In To join us you must lose yourself (a beastly itching) (2017), there is a small pump that the audience is invited to pump and release some HogMate, which is a human synthesised pig pheromone used in pig breeding. It makes the pigs uncontrollably horny. This work is about losing control of your senses because of your biology.

I started looking at this pheromone because my body started to tell me I wanted a baby. My rational mind did not want a baby, but I lost control of my sexual desires to include men – which is not my sexual preference. I related to the pigs being out of control. It all happened at the same time Trump was elected. Another sense of having no control of beastly things! The pink on the walls is Trump’s skin colour and the brush is to stop the pigs from eating each other when they are trapped – which also feeds into the idea of scratching your itch; satisfying your wants.

What’s in the works for future projects?
The one that has me deep breathing into a brown paper bag is my work for the Climate Century festival in Adelaide (8 – 25 November). I’m building on the sky canvas, Then Let Us Run (the sky is falling), from ‘Sense’ at Cement Fondu earlier in the year. I wanted to continue to work with some research I’m doing on Geoengineering. We can release substances into the higher atmosphere that will reflect the sunrays, lower the temperature and remove the blue sky on a global scale. Yet this single-minded urge to cool the planet would have unfathomable ramifications, such as altering photosynthesis. And we’d be left with a permanently milky-grey sky. The work at Climate Century will be a massive diaphanous cloud that people walk into and are surrounded by mist, flooded with the colour that the sky would be if this geoengineering technique goes ahead. A voluptuous tangible encounter with a possible future sky.

Climate Century
8 – 25 November 2018
Waterside, Hart’s Mill and surrounds, Port Adelaide

Dream Theory #2
14 November – 16 December 2018
Galerie Pompom, Sydney

Ideas Platform | All The Parts I Like About You
15 November – 15 December 2018
Artspace, Sydney

Emma-Kate Wilson is an emerging arts writer based in Sydney. A collection of her writing is available here.


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