The Last Ones Standing

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Many artists have begun making work related to the climate crisis in recent years. But Australian visual artist Penelope Davis decided to address the subject eight years ago. Originally trained as a photographer with a portfolio including mainly camera-less photographs, she turned to sculpture and the looming environmental disaster after observing her first jellyfish blooms along the Melbourne coastline. Although alarmed by what appeared to be an unnatural and terrifying phenomenon, she was also attracted aesthetically to the jellyfish’s semi-transparency and how they reflected light. 

A jellyfish bloom consists of a vast number of jellyfish, often spread over miles of water. To Davis: 

Jellyfish are a great metaphor for everything going wrong today. They’re beautiful and beguiling and so work on an aesthetic level for me but they’re harbingers of doom, a completely malevolent presence… They proliferate in large numbers in places where other species can’t survive – in warmer, highly acidic, and polluted waters. They create their own ecosystems by altering the nutrients in their environment, which makes it hard for other organisms to survive. In effect, they represent the last ones standing after everything else is gone.

Jellyfish bloom

After her initial encounter with the blooms, she began to think about other environmental issues impacting her local coastline, including flooding and plastic pollution. Focusing less on photography, at least for the time being, she started to investigate materials and processes that she might use to create sculptural pieces referencing the proliferation of jellyfish, plastic pollution, and our culture of overconsumption.

Davis spent two years learning how to work in three dimensions, which was challenging but liberating at the same time. In 2016, she was awarded a three-month studio residency at Carlton Connect’s initiative, LAB-14, in Carlton, Australia, a large co-working space built to connect scientists, industry leaders, researchers, and artists. It was there that much of her work on the project was accomplished. With the City of Melbourne’s $10,000 fellowship that accompanied the residency, she was able to reduce her outside work schedule and concentrate on the developing installation, which she later called, Sea-Change. During the residency, she engaged with climate researchers and scientists from the University of Melbourne who provided input on the climate issues she was addressing and encouraged her progress. Unlike the artists with whom she normally spends her time, whose focus is primarily on the local art world, the people she met at LAB-14 were dealing with complex global problems. The importance of their work motivated her to “step up” with her own.  

Penelope Davis’ studio at Carlton Connect, LAB-14 with Sea Change in progress, 2016. Photo by Penelope Davis.

To make Sea Change, Davis combed secondhand shops and dollar stores for used materials, including bottle tops, electrical plugs, mobile phone chargers, and other discarded items that are part of our throwaway culture. She then painted all of the components with silicon, creating molds that she pulled off once they were cured. In addition to using the found objects, she made molds of organic materials such as kale leaves and seaweed. Davis was especially pleased with the semi-transparent/semi-opaque, floppy qualities of silicon, which successfully modeled the movements and appearance of jellyfish. In order to create the dome-like form of the jellyfish, she sewed all the individual molds together and attached them to armatures constructed from clear plastic colanders (for the bigger ones) and clear plastic discs normally used in laundry bags for drying bras (for the smaller ones). 

In 2017, Sea Change was installed at the MARS gallery in Melbourne before traveling to other sites around Australia and to Hong Kong. It consisted of 53 sculptures hung from the ceiling with strands of monofilament. Overall, the works appeared as if they were floating on water currents. Although beautiful and ethereal from a distance, they seemed menacing, other worldly, and industrial upon closer inspection. Constructed with the detritus of human consumption, Sea Change calls attention to the human behaviors that have led to the climate crisis in the first place. 

Sea Change, detail. Silicon, nylon thread and plastic, 2017. Photo credit by Simon Strong.
Sea Change, detail. Silicon, nylon thread and plastic, 2017. Photo by Simon Strong.

Plastic, Davis’ current body of work, is a continuation of her exploration of environmental degradation. Made from 2019 – 2021 during the pandemic lockdowns (Davis is now experiencing her sixth lockdown in Australia), Plastic is a parody of the natural world. Each of the individual sculptures is made from silicon, steel, and nylon thread using the same methods that she developed for Sea Change. Each is what she refers to as “hyper-colored” in bright, primary colors and black. She states:

The works synthesize the waste of human overconsumption into florid forms and mutated morphologies in an attempt to reveal and reflect on our symbiotic relationship with the natural world – and the havoc and loss we are wreaking upon it. They are at once monstrous and beautiful, vigorous yet emblematic of loss. Great care and attention to detail is invested in the slow, haptic process of piecing and sewing these works together – in direct contrast to the automated mass production of the plastic used as the source…This new body of work was developed within the context of a looming environmental disaster, enormous socio-political unrest, and a global pandemic threatening billions of lives and livelihoods. Questions of nature and the natural world are no longer coherent, predictable, or stable. Nature is plastic.

Plastic will be exhibited at the MARS gallery in October 2021. With this new body of work and with Sea Change, Penelope Davis has added her name to the long list of artists all over the world who are using the power of art to bear witness to environmental disaster and to provide the opportunity for others to process their grief about what we have lost.  

Blister, silicon, steel and nylon thread, 115 x 115 x 55 cm, 2021.

(Top image: Sea-Change Installation at MARS gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2017. Photo by Matthew Stanton.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual re-creation of the world, a 40-panel re-imagining of the natural world without humanity’s harmful impact upon it. This fall, she will be participating in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she will be comparing changes over time to bodies of water throughout the world. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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