The work of Australian artist Helen Pynor reflects her exploration of philosophical questions relating to the body and our experiences as human beings. She is interested in the experience of living and dying, of being in a body, and often uses wet tissue biology as a part of her work. She draws upon her background in cell and molecular biology, and the visual arts, and combines performance, sculpture, photography, installation and video to represent her examination of the interiority and cultural memory of the body. The visual representations of her findings are found in what have become characteristically aesthetically pleasing, ephemeral and gently disoriented atmospheres which embody at times more confronting and what the artist describes as 'gory' factors innate in the living experience.
The artist is currently showing Transforming Connections as a part of Deconstructing Patterns at the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre in London, which has an arts programme dedicated to marrying art and science in a way that is interesting and relevant to the Institute. This new science exhibition is led by three unique artist commissions, one of whom is by Pynor, which were developed through extensive conversations and close collaborations with Crick researchers.
SGAC interviewed Helen Pynor in her London studio to discuss her latest work and her career trajectory since we first made contact with the artist 15 years ago.
Press play below to hear the unabridged interview or download the transcription here.
I first met you 14-15 years ago and since you have achieved so much. Can you explain to us a little bit about your practice? I work a lot at the sort-of borderlands of science, art and medicine. I often collaborate with scientists in my practice and do in-depth residencies in science institutions or even sometimes clinical settings. For example, I did a four month residency at the heart and lung transplant unit at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney. I spent about 5 months at the Max Plank Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden a couple of years ago, in Germany. I have just recently done the residency at the Francis Crick Institute to develop up this new work. It’s not anything to do with communicating science or science visualisation. It’s very much (about) exploring philosophical questions that relate to the body and our experiences as human beings. Our experience of living and dying, being in a body, and using often wet tissue biology as part of work; so I will often work in a lab, doing
bench work. My very first training was in cell and molecular biology so I have a basic foundation of skills.
When did you start your artistic practice? What brought to art you from science? I was studying science but towards the end of my degree I started to get really interested in art. I had no formal connection with art as a child, apart from making lots of things like all kids do, but I had always want to be a scientist from the age of 7. I was on that track, to do a PhD in biology, and I just started really developing an interest in art. I went and backpacked around Europe for about 5 months or so, which is what Aussies did back in those days. We could afford to! And I went to loads of art museums. I got really interested in photography and when I came back I thought, no, a PHD is not right in biology. I enrolled in an art photography certificate, an evening course - one night a week for 2 years and at the end of that I had a folio and I applied to go to art school full-time and got accepted into the Sydney College of the Arts. So I then did the three year degree in Visual Art majoring in Photography and Sculpture.
Did going to art school change your ideas? When I met you, you were knitting human hair. Yes. When I started the degree I enrolled in Photography and halfway through my degree I got glandular fever and took a year out. In that year I went through a big evolution on multiple levels, and when I came back to art school I was hanging out to get my hands on tactile things and make things, so I changed to the School of Sculpture, Performance and Installation, and I started making 3D stuff and doing installations. By the time I graduated I had a background in both photography, a 3D materials based practice and installation, and that combination has been so useful for me.
How do you support your career? I’ve got multiple sources. Some of it comes in the form of grants, mainly from the Australia Council, who support the more experimental end of my work. I'm represented by a gallery in Sydney, (by) Dominik Mersch Gallery. He has been very good at selling the photographic work, the stuff that is relatively easy for collectors to buy and engage with.
So having gallery representation has been a positive experience for you? Yes. I’ve been lucky, I feel, to have had two parallel streams to my practice that are completely fluent with each other. One is this very experimental practice where I do installation based work in institutions, which is very hard for collectors to buy, but I get to explore the leading edge of the questions that I am interested in – (which are) very philosophical, sometimes quite gory - sometimes involving fresh blood and pig hearts and all this kind of thing. And then I’ve had another arm to my practice which has been embedded in the commercial gallery scene where I'll exhibit photographs - sometimes of organs, sometimes of quite confronting stuff and other times (it's) much less confronting, but that has gone into circulation in a circuit of collectors, and the two practices have run together and are increasingly overlapping. The last show I did with Dominic included extracts from one of those installation works.
Has moving internationally given you more opportunity as an artist? Absolutely. I didn’t want to move here when I did. In 2009 my career was really gaining momentum in Australia and I was worried that when I left Australia it would all fall flat, and I would arrive in London with no networks, no nothing, and I would be starting from scratch and nothing would happen and everything would finish. I moved her for family reasons because my husband got work over here, but in fact it has been the complete opposite. The scene that I work in the art/science/medicine area is very well developed in the UK. In London there are some quite significant institutions, like the Wellcome Collection; at the time a gallery called GV Art, which was specialised in art/science. Science Gallery London has arrived on the scene (that) is an offshoot of Science Gallery Dublin which have pioneered this practice, and Arts Catalyst who have been going a long time commissioning artists working with scientific material.
How did you get your opportunities to start happening while you were here? Probably one of the significant things was I was introduced to Robert Devcic, who was the Director of GV Art, still is the Director of GV Art, by Oron Catts who is the Director of SymbioticA in Perth, big pioneers of bio-art practice.
SG: So your Australian network introduced you to a London gallerist. Those connections have brought opportunities.. Well yes. GV Art are very, very good and when they were operating as a physical gallery, which they did for quite a number of years, they hosted many events where the whole art/science community would gather, and I met a lot of people through that. So I met people from the Wellcome Collection and curators and other key people in the sector. So that opened up a whole network of opportunities. Since then I’ve exhibited with the Wellcome Collection. I’ve exhibited up at FACT – Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool UK.
Are you happy where you are going as an artist? Do you feel like you have succeeded?Yes. I feel like I’ve found a place within that niche, because I am very much working in a niche. And I am very aware that, having arrived in a huge city like London where the art world is massive, not having gone through the art schools here, not have a gallery when I arrived, not having a gallery here, it was actually very, very useful to be working in a niche because it meant that I could meet the community more easily.
The community was quite well defined. I could meet people quickly and easily. That was never planned but that’s just how it happened, and it was easier to get around and make my name because of that. And the other thing that was very important was Peta Clancy, a collaborator of mine and I did a work at Performance Space in 2011, and that was selected for Ars Electronica in Linz in Austria. It won an honorary mention, so it got showcased at Ars Electronica that way it, or my work got exposed, or our work got exposed to a lot of European connections and East Asian connections. It got invited, (rather) it got picked up by Science Gallery Dublin and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, and a contemporary art museum in Russia, and a lot of other… so that kind of put that work on the map in this field.
How did you first meet Dominik? This is the hard part for a lot of people when they first want to get into a gallery of particular influence. How do you penetrate into that world? Well, you were very useful in that process. I remember we were originally looking at how to network with galleries in Melbourne because I was showing at Linden. And I cold called at that point, and got offers from two different galleries. I don’t necessary think that it’s the best approach but it happened to work. Commercial galleries: Diane Tanzer Gallery and Helen Gory – both very suitable places for my work. In Sydney, I got invited to show at the Contemporary Collection Benefactors (CCB). They did this once a year auction event, I donated a work to that, which raises funds for them to buy work. Through that I met a whole network of Sydney collectors. I got invited to their functions for a couple of years afterwards. Dominik Mersch was at one of those functions and he was fairly new to Sydney at the time so he was building his stable. Somebody introduced me to him. He came to my studio and had a look at my work. Nothing happened at that time but I kept him in the loop, I invited him to shows and the next year I had a show at MOP Projects in Sydney with these glass mounted works with organs. Dominik saw the work there, and then got in touch. He said that “I really liked your show. Shall we do a show together?”
I had done a lot of research to find out who the suitable galleries were. It wasn’t a scatter-gun approach. I think cold calling is actually often not successful. I wouldn’t even really recommend it. It happened to work for me. It was in an earlier era when it was perhaps a bit easier.I think the better way with commercial galleries is to get yourself into the networks where you are going to meet them anyway.
Because it is a community. It is! We were talking about this earlier but once you get to a certain point in your career where your community is quite, reasonably well-defined, you start to run into the same people at successive events.
That takes the heat off you to have to focus all the time (on) marketing and the professional side and you can focus on your practice. You have got a really good balance. Do you feel that is what you have achieved? Yes. There is more of what I should be doing. I don’t always keep my website as up to date as I need to because sometimes I am so busy working I don’t have time but I do that in the quieter times. But I don’t have to do a lot of conscious marketing these days.
You have put yourself in a position where you have people doing that for you, in terms of the commercial side – you’ve got your gallery. And then just through your projects, you are meeting people who then present you with more opportunities. So that’s just working for you naturally now. That is the ideal position. Yes. And I go to events that draw my community to them. I go because I am interested in seeing the work but the side benefit is that I run into the curators, other artists, gallery directors and those who are working in my field.