Sandra Thomson is a Christchurch-based artist whose recent works focus on the ethical considerations surrounding human efforts to preserve and restore endangered species. Ahead of her exhibition ‘Banking’ she discussed the ideas behind her work with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston. Banking opens at City Art Depot at 5.30pm, Tuesday 15 March 2022 and runs through to 4 April.
Cameron Ralston: Is this exhibition a continuation of ideas you explored in your 2019 exhibition ‘Interference’?
Sandra Thomson: Yes, that exhibition was more focussed on captive breeding, so it’s again about the things we put in place to possibly help save species.
What is the focus of this exhibition? The title ‘Banking’ gives us me some idea.
There are things called ‘frozen arks’ or ‘frozen zoos’ where specimens of species are collected. Basically they are about banking, or freezing, tissue. It began with endangered species but it’s growing and now includes species that are threatened by habitat loss. I think there are three main ones: the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, Nottingham University’s Frozen Ark and one at the New York American Museum of Natural History. They have huge freezers with little two-inch vials, all barcoded and serial numbered, containing matter in liquid nitrogen stored at -195°C.
The Future, Sandra Thomson, watercolour & chalk on paper, 765x560mm, 2021/22
Is the idea that, if a species becomes extinct in the wild, they’ll be able to be resurrect it from this material?
At the moment these big depositories exist but there’s not a lot of planning as to what happens with the species. We know things are quite bad for a number of animals because of the actions of people so they’ve made a step towards saving it but there hasn’t been much thought around what actually happens. There’s a lot of ethical problems around this as gene technology becomes more sophisticated and different things can happen. With current technology it isn’t possible to de-extinct an animal but they can use these banks to boost the diversity of critically endangered species.
Has the technology been used to bring an animal back?
I was actually just watching a David Attenborough series called ‘The Mating Game’ where they were talking about the black-footed ferret. Inbreeding becomes a problem with species as they decline, so they had cloned a ferret from tissue which was over 30 years old to provide genetic variety. Then you get egotistical people who want to bring back the mammoth so even if the technology is there to do it, there needs to be guidelines and regulations.
Does the work you make have a stance on this?
It’s the same as last year – there’s a lot of things that aren’t right about it but then doing nothing is also not right. I think there’s been improvements in captive breeding and the realisation that captive animals don’t necessarily know how to survive in the wild. I think these frozen zoos with different tissue from animals have a reductive reasoning where they don’t see the animal as anything more than the DNA. There’s not enough focus on the culture, ecosystems and behaviours of the species. If the animal hasn’t existed for 30 years, there aren’t others it can learn from.
The Undead, Sandra Thomson, watercolour & chalk on paper, 765x560mm, 2021/22
Are the animals you’ve drawn for this exhibition all endangered, or have they been used as part of these frozen zoos?
Mostly. I was trying to pick animals that aren’t the obvious ones like the panda or polar bear. I was trying to go for the more unusual or neglected animals like the hyena which gets bad press.
There’s an interesting conflict in wanting the species to survive naturally but also doing what’s necessary if that natural survival is beyond repair.
This is seen as an added insurance – if everything goes wrong they have this animal DNA to use in some way. I think, because these are all scientific institutions, it’s not an instead of – they also try to work with the animals in the habitat or even preserve them in zoos.
So that’s where the animals being encased in, or sitting on, ice comes into your artworks?
Yes, if matter is stored in liquid nitrogen at those temperatures it’s neither dead or alive. So there’s a suspended state from which they can take what’s required to create new animals. That technology must continually advance.
I know a little bit about the project which is attempting to revive the mammoth through editing the genome of the Asian elephant to match that of the mammoth. It should be said that process is much more complicated than that and is nigh on impossible. Genome editing is different to DNA cloning because that requires living cells, which is also why dinosaurs can’t be brought back to life.
But then they don’t know where it’ll live and how it’ll survive. This is probably a political thing, but people seem to want to recreate the animals that are popular.
They’re an easier sell to public?
Yeah, much easier than one of those really hard-to-look-at deep sea fish.
Depository, Sandra Thomson, watercolour & chalk on paper, 420x297mm, 2021/22
Tell me about the works where you’ve drawn isolated pieces of animals.
That’s reflecting the collecting of specimens from a huge number of different organisms. They had to be pieces because there might be only just enough material to get DNA from in these frozen vials – tissue, sperm, eggs etc. I didn’t want to go down to that minute detail but it couldn’t be whole animals.
There’s something unsettling about seeing cut sections of an animal, such as the chin of an ape or just the eyes. A lot of the expressions also come across as unnerved or terrified – was that a deliberate choice?
Yeah, but then I also tried to not do that as well – especially with eyes, it’s a natural thing to want to pull people into something. So then I tried to do smaller details like on the naked mole rat and some fur works so you’re not being confronted so much by the animal. With the way it’ll be hung in a grid, it’ll be like a bank of drawings, mirroring the cataloguing and storing of specimens. Keeping the negative white space in the paper is like the space in the freezer around.
When you think of an animal, especially endangered animals, most people’s visual knowledge comes from film and photographs of them in the wild. It’s interesting seeing the repositioning of them in this clinical space. There were a few books you were reading for the last exhibition, I remember one – ‘Resurrection Science’. Is there anything you picked up from those?
A lot of that was finding that there really is a lack of any ethical guidelines around it. There’s a book (and an organisation) called Revive and Restore, which goes quite deep into genetic editing and bioengineering – whoever wrote that book wasn’t very happy with these processes. I think one of the problems is that interference in the evolution of an animal – it stops and starts again but there are gaps which don’t allow for the nuances in changes to the habitat and living within a group. So the living and the culture aren’t there. This seems even more removed from the original existence of the animal.
There’s obviously still some sort of value to it though.
A lot of the books also talk about eco-guilt. Humanity caused the problem so there’s that need to try establish something again. But even, then we’re still playing top dog. We’re still making decisions about what’s going to be saved and how you might edit a gene – deciding where evolution goes when it’s picked up again.
Suspended, Sandra Thomson, watercolour, ink & chalk on paper, 765x560mm, 2021/22
There’s no easy answer is there?
In that David Attenborough documentary they were having trouble getting pandas to mate, then they slowly realised that they like to choose their own mates. The female likes to climb up a tree, be very alone and study the male pandas. So there are some scientists that are developing a better understanding.
At some point in the future, will cloning from these freezers become an established practice?
If it becomes something that is more than just an insurance we don’t really know what’ll happen. Drawing those pieces of animals I realised it was a reductive way to work. It was a little like what the scientists have been accused of – not understanding the environmental and cultural mix of the animal. When you take a bit of an animal it’s actually quite hard to draw because it’s divorced from the overall structure of the animal. It’s kind of a metaphor for the overall problem. If you’re drawing part of head, you have to visualise the rest of the head because it still has to make sense. It could be quite challenging at times.
Was it difficult to get the proportions right?
Yeah, things could just go a bit off track. You need to understand the structure of what you’re drawing.
Some of them can be quite difficult to tell exactly what it is.
Again, that’s part of showing them losing their identity. I started with the primates because I know them so well but then had to stop because there are a lot more animals. I was hoping to do many more but time is a finite thing, so I limited myself to mammals which narrowed things down a bit.
Depository, Sandra Thomson, watercolour & chalk on paper, 420x297mm, 2021/22
Are you drawing mainly from photographs? Do you put your own spin on them?
There are really good and clear images now, although it’s still very difficult to find good images with feet in them. I do put my own spin on them. When you start drawing a new animal you never quite know exactly how you’re going to do it. There might be six drawings before I think, ‘Okay, I’ve got this now’. So things naturally distort and get exaggerated.
There’s an interesting comparison that can be made between the drawing of an animal and the cloning or producing of one scientifically.
I guess deciding to exaggerate or play down certain traits is a parallel. I think scientists can also edit the genetic code of an animal to enable them to not be wiped out by certain diseases. The other thing about the small drawings was I restricted my colours to blues and turquoises because they reflect the freezing, and cooler colours have more lifeless associations.
With a lot of blue being used they feel more sketch-like, almost like blueprints for the animal.
Interestingly the scientists call genetic code a blueprint of the animal, but that wasn’t why I was using the blue – that is because I was looking at the cold aspect of it.
There are a lot of beautiful natural elements to the work but they’re also quite confronting. Do you hope the viewers of the work will be challenged by the subject matter?
There’s conflict in drawing you in but also presenting unsettling subjects. You never know if someone will look more into something but I hope they do.
I don’t think that this is very widely known about.
Yes, I haven’t found many who do. A lot of hope is put into these collections because that will allow the animals to exist later on. There are many biblical references throughout these projects. One project, the Frozen Ark, is taken from Noah’s ark – saving the animals. There are even comparisons to raising Lazarus from the dead.
Is there another angle on this that you’d like to pursue in the future?
I think there’s still a lot I’m trying to get my head around. At the end, I just became focussed on completing more drawings – it was actually nice because concept-wise it was done. I have to get my brain working again.