Paying Homage To Ham's Humanity
Saturday August 28, 2004
The movie Planet of the Apes inspired artist Lisa Roet's fascination with the simian world, writes Louise Bellamy.Artist Lisa Roet's latest show, Astro-Chimp, pays homage to the African chimpanzee, Ham, America's first live being to enter space. Ham's 1961 journey lasted 16 minutes. It represented a turning point in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. And like Roet's decade of art preceding it, it explores the junctions and disjunctions between humans and monkeys. Roet, 37, the recipient of last year's prestigious National Sculpture Prize for Political Ape, has been collaborating with zoos and primate research institutes worldwide since graduating from RMIT in 1987.Her fascination in the area began as a child after seeing Planet of the Apes, which, through its depiction of a topsy-turvy world of tyrannical primates and oppressed humans, challenged the status quo. Wanting to study zoology, but realising her limitations in the sciences, she studied art and has, for 17 years, looked at the "satirical, scary cynicism about the superiority of human beings over animals" through sculpture, photographs, video installations and drawing.In Political Ape, Roet made seven busts of chimpanzees in traditional bronze "to give them a stately appearance as well as draw them back to a human-like appearance without making them human"; they were exhibited in tandem with a sound show of chimpanzee voices she recorded at London Zoo. The work was based on Dutch primatologist Frans DeWaal's research into the social order, and language similarities with humans, among a bonobo chimpanzee colony.Astro-Chimp, her 19th solo show, began as a series of drawings she started in 1998, based on the 1961 Life Magazine featuring Ham on the cover. Six years on, she is still impassioned as she details Ham's life."He was plucked from the African forest, he was made to wear a full space suit, put into a rocket - the Western world's pinnacle of achievement - and trained to respond to rewards," she says. "When he failed to follow orders, he was pinched by electrodes."After the journey, he was put in a Washington zoo and, when he died at 26 - half the lifespan of a chimpanzee - he was buried at the International Space Hall of Fame, New Mexico."The show comprises drawings, bronzes, stained-glass images and minute ceramic works. Roet lives and works at St Andrew's Beach on the Mornington Peninsula. Her four charcoal drawings of Ham's fist "show his power and likeness to humanity". They are on hand-made silk paper which frays when rubbed, creating a fur-like effect.The four bronze busts of Ham began in the studio, too, where Roet applied layers of clay to metal armature detailing Ham's facial expressions, based on photographs in the magazine. She then took clay castings of the death mask of a chimpanzee she had worked with at the Antwerp Zoo and incorporated them into the clay bust by placing the "impressions", like a skin, on to the modelled chimp faces.From this mould she made a wax, which she reworked extensively to create different facial expressions, something she describes as "a basic animation technique to place movement and life back into Ham".The originals were then taken to Coates & Wood Foundry in Collingwood, where they were painted with liquid rubber and cut into sections. Once dry, they were pulled away from the original clay and painted with petrochemical wax to capture the fine detail.They were then reassembled with nuts and bolts and molten wax and poured into the moulds until they reached about six millimetres - the final thickness of the bronze. The wax impressions were later covered in ceramic and put in the kiln until the wax melted, ran out and another hollow was created for the bronze liquid to be poured into. The ceramic shell was then chiselled off and the bronze reworked to its final stage.An imposing 1.6-metre bronze depiction of Ham's forefinger takes centre stage in the exhibition. Roet says she used bronze "because fingers are direct, political, used for touch, used to make buildings, computers, send rockets into space".Roet also uses stained glass because it's a traditional medium, like bronze. It has an association with monumental buildings in which prominent historical characters are revered, and also because it lent itself to the manipulated comic images of scientists and apes she had chosen to give Ham's life "a comic, surreal and ludicrous element". Roet's range of intellectual, emotional and humorous responses to the simian-human interface is thorough, a legacy of the years she has spent working and researching the area. After graduating from RMIT, she headed for Europe for four years where she settled in Berlin, living "a lonely, focused and exciting life" drawing elephants at the Berlin Zoo.Her daily observations of the animals spawned her interest in the trunk, which, like the apes' fingers and hands she has subsequently centred on, symbolised touch and sensitivity, as well as communication.At a Brussels market she found pornographic slides of a man in a gorilla suit cavorting with naked blondes, which led to Beauty and the Beast, a show comprising photographs of chimpanzees looking at the backdrops of the slides; she also swapped the blondes for Charlton Heston (who was the astronaut unable to communicate with the apes in Planet of the Apes).In the late '90s, Roet spent two, 10-week stints at the Language Research Centre at Georgia University, Atlanta, where she worked with a researcher and started communicating with chimpanzees through a computer. The researcher, who wore a Bunnyman costume, bribed the animals with chocolate and drinks supplied by the companies sponsoring the experiments. "They loved the Bunnyman," she says. "They became hysterical when he appeared. It was like Santa Claus coming to town, a scientific farce."What culminated was Ape and the Bunnyman, exhibited in New York. It featured photographs of the researcher and the chimp. Roet says it was "to show how ridiculous the scientists were in the process".Astro-Chimp is at Karen Woodbury Gallery, Richmond, until September 4.