Helen Pynor

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.

 Helen Pynor  Breathing Shadows,  Harrison Galleries, Paddington, Sydney, 2008.
IMG_6030.jpeg
  Untitled  (work in progress), 2016 acrylic on stretched raw cotton canvas 230 x 130 cm Refer to first blog post image for finished work

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.

 The Body is a Big Place  Collaboration with Peta Clancy  2011 New media installation and pig hearts performances 5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device, single video screen, soundscape Performance Space, Sydney, Nov 2011   View exhibition of The Body is a Big Place on Leonardo Electronic Almanac   Sound: Gail Priest Collaborating Cardiac Physiologists: Professor John Headrick and Dr Jason Peart, Heart Foundation Research Centre, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia Curation: Bec Dean  Underwater footage Director of Photography: Rob Hunter Videographer: Pete West Editor: Peter Barton Colourist: Trish Cahill Stills: Chris Hamilton  Pig hearts performance documentation Videographer: Sam James Editor: Sam James Stills: Geordie Cargill  Installation photographs: Geordie Cargill, Peta Clancy, Helen Pynor

The Body is a Big Place

Collaboration with Peta Clancy

2011
New media installation and pig hearts performances
5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device, single video screen, soundscape
Performance Space, Sydney, Nov 2011

View exhibition of The Body is a Big Place on Leonardo Electronic Almanac

Sound: Gail Priest
Collaborating Cardiac Physiologists: Professor John Headrick and Dr Jason Peart,
Heart Foundation Research Centre, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia
Curation: Bec Dean

Underwater footage
Director of Photography: Rob Hunter
Videographer: Pete West
Editor: Peter Barton
Colourist: Trish Cahill
Stills: Chris Hamilton

Pig hearts performance documentation
Videographer: Sam James
Editor: Sam James
Stills: Geordie Cargill

Installation photographs: Geordie Cargill, Peta Clancy, Helen Pynor

  The Body is a Big Place Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana, Slovenia    Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy   May 2013  3-channel video projection, single channel video on monitor,  pig hearts performance, soundscape  Perfusion performance devised by Helen Pynor and Gorazd Drevensek  Scientific Consultants: Professor Gorazd Drevensek, University of Ljubljana Professor Michael Shattock, Cardiovascular Division, King’s College London  Clinical Consultants: Dr Kumud Dhital, Dr Arjun Iyer and Jonathan Cropper St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, St Vincent’s Clinical School - University of New South Wales, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Sydney  Performance Photographs: Miha Fras  Pig hearts were obtained from an abattoir during its normal operations. No animals were harmed for the direct purposes of this performance.  This work was supported by the Australian Network for Art and Technology, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, St Vincent’s Clinical School –  University of New South Wales, and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in association with the Australian Government through the Australia Council  for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.  This work was supported by the  New South Wales Government through Arts NSW  Performance produced by Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana

The Body is a Big Place
Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy

May 2013

3-channel video projection, single channel video on monitor, 
pig hearts performance, soundscape

Perfusion performance devised by Helen Pynor and Gorazd Drevensek

Scientific Consultants: Professor Gorazd Drevensek, University of Ljubljana
Professor Michael Shattock, Cardiovascular Division, King’s College London

Clinical Consultants: Dr Kumud Dhital, Dr Arjun Iyer and Jonathan Cropper
St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, St Vincent’s Clinical School - University of New South Wales, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Sydney

Performance Photographs: Miha Fras

Pig hearts were obtained from an abattoir during its normal operations.
No animals were harmed for the direct purposes of this performance.

This work was supported by the Australian Network for Art and Technology,
St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, St Vincent’s Clinical School – 
University of New South Wales, and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute
in association with the Australian Government through the Australia Council
for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.

This work was supported by the
New South Wales Government through Arts NSW

Performance produced by Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana

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.
— Helen Pynor
 Helen Pynor,  The Accidental Primate 4,  2014, pigment print, face-mounted on acrylic with shadow frame. Image and copyright courtesy the Artist and Dominik Mersch Gallery.

Helen Pynor, The Accidental Primate 4, 2014, pigment print, face-mounted on acrylic with shadow frame. Image and copyright courtesy the Artist and Dominik Mersch Gallery.

 Top Left:  Untitled , 2016 oil-stick and acrylic on stretched raw cotton canvas, available: €220x£190 43 x 33 cm  (H x W cm) 17 x 13 inches   Available for purchase   Right:  Untitled , 2017 oil-stick and gesso on stretched raw cotton canvas 150 x 110 cm  (H x W cm) 59 x 43.3 inches  Available for purchase   Right:  Untitled , 2017 oil-stick , acrylic and gesso on stretched raw cotton canvas 150 x 110 cm  (H x W cm) 59 x 43.3 inches SOLD   

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.

Helen Pynor.jpg
You go to their openings. You are around the social milieu. You might end up chatting to the gallerist at these social functions. You get to know other artists who are showing with the gallery. It’s often other artists who introduce new artists to their gallerist.
— Helen Pynor
IMG_6039.JPG
IMG_6038.jpg

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.

It starts to get so much easier. It just happens out of the social contact. You are not chasing things. Things just come to you or come out of that natural conversing at these events.
— Helen Pynor

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.

The transcription of the unabridged version of this interview can be downloaded here.

Photos copyright and courtesy of Helen Pynor and SGAC.

-> BIOGRAPHY
-> STATEMENT ON HELEN'S WORK

Like this interview? Subscribe to our Blog and the next one goes straight to your in-box.

Are you an artist? Join our FREE FB Group for #PractisingArtists for more industry insights and professional practice advice.