July 27, 2006
Written by Nyanda Smith
A giant bust of a chimpanzee by Lisa Roet won the McClelland Award — the biggest cash prize for sculpture in the country. Local artist Perdita Phillips builds termite mounds and Patricia Piccinini’s hybrid beasts touched down for exhibition in New York City. Lately it seems that animals are everywhere in Australian contemporary art.
“Perhaps it’s because of the environment that we find ourselves in at the moment,” muses Beverley Veasey. “Increasingly, we live in a man-made world where we have little or no contact with the natural world.”
The Sydney photographer’s studies of animals place your regular storybook species — a lion, a flamingo or a spotted deer that looks remarkably like Bambi — on podiums.
The plinths themselves are artificial, as are the bleached environments in which the animals find themselves. Veasey explains that she shoots in real film but then manipulates the images in Photoshop afterwards.
“Removing the natural environments and using black and white was a way of taking them out of the context,” she says.
“I’m fascinated by the way that we relate to animals, particularly when we visit institutions. It’s such a weird artificial experience and I wanted to heighten that with the work.”
The series is the culmination of the past two years, during which Veasey has visited numerous zoos and museums around the country, as well as the odd royal show. She says that these days it’s become her regular travel routine — for each new city she visits (this year she’s checked out Brisbane, Canberra and Adelaide) she heads straight to see what’s on offer at museums.
“I’ve been to the Perth museum today and I’m off to the zoo tomorrow. It’s become my working tradition,” she says with a chuckle.
Veasey’s idea for the project began when she photographed a killer whale exhibit in London, which went on to be exhibited in Cuba.
“It was suspended in a cage and it was just such a surreal vision that I really started thinking about why I was drawn to it,” she said.
Although the resulting studies might look like they have been created in a studio, they are, in fact, all shot on location, with the resulting artist-subject relationship typically one full of variables.
Veasey jokes that she sometimes wishes she could just direct them.
Photographing the lion, she spent hours lying on the ground at the Adelaide zoo with the camera lens poking through the enclosure fence.
“I didn’t want a classic image and it took me a long time to get what I was looking for. I definitely got quite a few strange looks from people,” she says.