Lisa Roet

For thirty years, Lisa Roet’s work has been about primates and the environment we share; about global politics, ignorance, hatred, and personal connection.

To begin with the jewellery is to begin with the personal, as the personal and the intimate illuminate Lisa Roet’s work.

The surface texture of the gilded abstract neck pieces, rings and bangles is the texture of Orang-utan or Gorilla skin, to be worn on human skin. A Gibbon hand becomes a cuff, or a choker. An ape’s hand around a neck adds the ambiguity of human/ape relationship to the politics of decoration. Women and apes were, and are, trophies: women decorated with jewellery, but this jewellery is not wildly expensive. One could buy earrings or cufflinks and comfortably wear them in solidarity with the primates that have been Roet’s focus for her life as an artist.

Roet ‘looks at relations between humans and primates’. I’d just put down an old invitation to a show of her work which included this phrase, I repeated it; but humans are primates: that’s the point, the slippage is so common that even an official body will fail to edit the mistake.

As we meet and I look at her drawings, videos, sculpture, jewellery, read catalogue essays and articles about her work, Extinction Rebellion is occupying headlines. This movement of mass activism is enabled and underpinned by people like Lisa Roet, devoting their lives and expertise to understanding and then communicating issues about how we live.

In Roet’s case the issue is apes: interaction within the classification of the primate sub-group known as the hominoids, to which you and I, reader, and Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Orang-utans and Gibbons belong.  While at school Roet was intrigued by learning of Jane Goodall’s work in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, showing that Chimpanzees use tools. The use of tools had previously been said to distinguish ‘humans’ from other primates; Goodall’s work required scientists to redefine the meaning of human. Goodall was accepted into a group of Chimpanzees and observed long-term affectionate bonds and behaviours indicating that emotions, as opposed merely to instinct, drove their actions. These observations deepened the understanding of the interdependence of species, and this linked with the growing environmental movement.

Upon graduating in painting from RMIT, Roet had a year in Sydney and then began to travel. Her           
first physical contact with a non-human ape was in Berlin, in the period following the 1989 re-connection of the East and West zones of the city and the collapse of the Soviet System. In a squat near what had been the eastern zone, in an area filling with Yugoslav refugees, she lived through a time of uncertainty, where without police or other systems, people had to fend for themselves.

She began going to the zoo to draw the Chimpanzees, and was invited ‘behind the scenes’ by the keepers. A baby Gorilla rejected by its mother was living with a keeper and his wife. It was dressed in children’s clothes and treated as a human infant. Roet took an impression of its tiny hand, and hands became crucial to the work. So she experienced the intimacy of holding its hand, and was confronted with the questions that arise from treating a Gorilla as human child, of later returning it to a cage, of captivity itself, in the anarchy of her living quarters and the politics of reunified Berlin. Perhaps it is this personal element in the midst of profound instability that gives Roet’s project its focus and intensity.

Before I met Lisa Roet I thought her jewellery was peripheral, nearer to craft than art, maybe not as serious as the beautiful drawings and prints, the eerie videos, the stark fingers that jut into space, the creatures suspended from buildings and leaping off plinths and the busts challenging the tradition of memorialising and commissioning permanent reminders of great men. I suggested to her I would not mention the jewellery, but she explained it is part of the astonishing project, everything is focused through the project.

Not only does the jewellery put skin texture on skin; it invites people in. Last year, in Beijing, Roet installed a huge inflated male Gibbon on the facade of the Opposite House Hotel for a month-long festival discussing global issues around bio-sustainability and Beijing Earth Hour. Nearby she established a pop-up where people looked at and discussed the jewellery, and there the connections: primates, extinctions, sustainability, could be considered.

The jewellery is itself confronting, its hands and fingers mimic the large sculptures of hands and feet, worryingly severed. The jewellery certainly works in the project, because the images always remind us of how close we are to other apes; what we have done to these creatures, chopping off their hands and feet as trophies; of what the hand means, gesture as communication, touching another, being touched.

Roet trained as a painter, but hasn’t used paint in the project. The drawings and prints come through that training. She uses photographs, videos, cameras and autoCAD to design the sculptures. An artist, most of all, is trained to see. Roet looks at the world unblinkingly; and shows us what she sees without temporising, without filters, through exhibitions and installations across the globe. The project is expanded by multi-media images of various primate heads lined up in rifle sights and stained-glass images of a Chimpanzee condemned to space; the latter choice of medium particularly effective by its associations of spirituality, Medieval Christianity and the Neo-Gothic.

Roet has a capacity to manage the politics of funding by official and philanthropic groups without bending her principles, and has done so without becoming a star.

She doesn’t want to be a star, an artist can stay behind the art. Well indeed. But many have argued that stardom helps their work; for Lisa Roet the project is sufficient, it is her life.

2020 is the sixtieth anniversary of Jane Goodall’s arrival in Gombe National Park. Goodall has asked Lisa Roet to make and exhibit work at the sites of celebration across Europe and America. The project proceeds.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019   

Brother’s Keeper: Lisa Roet
30 September – 24 October 2020
Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland

Eloquence: The Work of Lisa Roet
1–30 October 2020
Craft Victoria, online

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