City Art Reader 16: Studio visit – Sandra Thomson

6th Jun 2019

Sandra Thomson is an accomplished Christchurch artist, printmaker and tutor at Ara School of Art and Design. In her upcoming exhibition Interference – 11 June to 1 July at City Art Depot – she focuses on the impacts and consequences of human intervention on threatened primates. Ahead of this, Cameron Ralston visited Thomson in her studio to discuss the artworks.

‘Monitored’, Sandra Thomson

Cameron: In these works you have apes melding with objects and recognisable human forms, can you tell me a bit about that?

Sandra: It began, like with many artists, responding to threatened species, extinction and what we’ve done to the planet. I started looking at how we’re trying to redress some of the things that are happening to the threatened species. Things like captive breeding – I don’t want to damn it, because sometimes it’s good and it works, but sometimes it’s not so successful. The animals that are bred in captivity are often tamer, less wild. That’s why in some works they’re morphing into things like onesies reflecting the coddling. They often don’t get released into the wild – the intention is to do so, but it often takes generations, because if they are released they often can’t respond in the ways that wild animals do.

Is there a reason you’ve focused on primates?

Because they’re so close to us genetically. And I like drawing them. It’s weird when I’m drawing them they start to look like faces of people I know.

It makes me think of the animal nursery TV shows and how they’re always trying to give human elements to the apes. I watched Orangutan Jungle School recently, and they have them in nappies as babies, eventually releasing them through stages of safe islands until they can finally make it. But not that many do. It’s a semi-wild environment.

Yes, that’s it. They often get put into something between the zoo-like places, where they’ve been bred or raised, and the wild. But they don’t always get beyond that because they can’t cope. For example, the work Monitored, with all the cords coming from the body, is showing how they’re monitored too. When they are first let loose they’re still controlled and the medical and behavioural analysis is still going on.

‘Lack of Diversity 2’, Sandra Thomson

So are you seeing this as a good thing, bad thing, necessary evil…?

I think we’ve stuffed it basically. It’s partly good because it’s trying to remedy the damage that humanity has done but it doesn’t work so well for the animals. I don’t know what the answer actually is. Work like Lack of Diversity 1 & 2 are addressing the lack of genetic diversity. As generations are born in captivity, they get bred so the genes that suit living in captivity become the dominant genes meaning they’re less able to survive in the wild. In the Shelter works I’m reflecting how they don’t have the survival skills, some animals don’t know how to forage or who their enemies and predators are– these are playing on not being able to recognise or build a good shelter.

Do these also represent an encroachment of human materials into the wild landscape as well?

I was more thinking about them having been brought up around humans they might scavenge for materials that they recognise. I’ve made these objects myself and drawn from them.

Sandra Thomson’s studio, working on ‘Shelter 2’

There’s a contrast in the way you use the edge of the paper in this work Shrinking Habitatwhere the lemurs feel quite crowded and other works which feel more like studies that you’d find in a book.

I wanted the almost loneliness of them on the white page, separated from where they should be.

I find the eyes a bit unsettling, they’re distant. Some are especially unnerving, such as having rope for feet.

They’re not quite themselves might be a good way of putting it. The rope is about the orangutan losing its ability to climb without its parents. Not having the skills that would be intrinsic to its nature.

‘Shrinking Habitat’, Sandra Thomson

Are you drawing the primates using any reference?

Yes, I keep buying various books that have got images in or hounding the libraries. Children’s sections in libraries are really good for animal images. Online isn’t so good as I need really clear images to draw from. I’ve probably gone through every primate book in Christchurch. You never quite see the feet though as they’re often in the grass or covered. There was an amazing image I saw in an Auckland newspaper of a gorilla, I think in the Congo in a park where they breed, and it had learnt to imitate the visitors that photograph them. So it had the same stance of all the tourists, it was a really nice indication of how much we’ve influenced their behaviour. The other thing with drawing animals is that you have the be wary of not getting too cutesy as we like to make them.

You definitely get more real, less edited – not counting the additions – looking apes.

I did go to Orana Wildlife Park to see the orangutans and gorillas there but that was a bad day. They were pissed off, they had their backs to us the whole time. I couldn’t even get a photo of them.

I find primates in captivity especially sad. I visited some zoos in America and it was quite distressing. They’re very unhappy looking creatures in what are essentially big fish tanks, either trying to hide or running around wild with stress.

Sandra Thomson’s studio

Yes, it’s so sad seeing them in that confined space. Some of the animals out at Orana have a bit more room but it’s nothing like the rainforest. And it was a stinking hot day so they were all inside with the perspex between them and us. So Shrinking Habitat is about the loss of habitat and having to live in closer and closer proximity adding stress to their lives, having to fight over food and shelter etc.

Do the green and blue colours mean anything?

Yes, in Madagascar, where there’s many species of lemurs, they sometimes have to mark them so they know which part of the island they’re from. That’s how close they’re getting.

Does your work usually have an ecologically conscious focus?

Not really. The last show I had a City Art Depot was to do with the apocalypse and the different movements that believe it’ll happen and the signs that they see. One was about rising temperatures and sea levels and another was about butterflies losing their habitat and having to shift. So other than those not so much. I was more looking at what people believe.

Do you do a lot of research prior to making the works?

I do, in books I come across – Scorpio Books is a good source – or online. There’s a few books that got me started going into this field: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Human Age by Diane Ackerman and Resurrection Science by M.R. O’Connor. So probably too much reading to start with to work out where I’m going to take it. Hopefully within that reading there will be a few more exhibitions too, there’s a lot of different directions I could go.

Research materials in Sandra Thomson’s studio

I think ecologically/environmentally conscious artworks is really big at the moment. So many of our exhibitions have this theme, such as Clare Logan’s exhibition ‘Undertow’ which has ideas of cataclysm and environmental change running throughout, and Francis van Hout’s exhibition which looked at how the city was transforming green spaces into grey spaces.

When you pick up the newspaper that’s a lot of what we’re reading now too. We really have stuffed it up, haven’t we? I think a lot of the works at the Venice Biennale are orientated that way too.

Do you find your students are drawn in that direction as well?

Some of them. I imagine in a few years’ time there’ll be even more, because it seems like the high school age group are more onto it, saying, ‘Look what you’ve done to our planet, we’ve got to try save it.’

I think in New Zealand there is a growing awareness of the impacts of climate change and the damage done locally.

We do get a shock to find out that we’re not as good as we think we have been. The New Zealand threatened species list is huge. And look at how contaminated some of the rivers have become. Aren’t you glad you’re not six?

Yes, well we’ve got to take some responsibility and do something now and quickly. Which is another reason it’s been interesting to see the way art responds to what’s happening and how people are using art to make others more aware of certain issues, which a body of work like this does. Do you see any of the humanising of animals happening to any of New Zealand’s critters?

I guess our birds, like the kākāpō, but they are more in their own environment.

‘Diminished 1’, Sandra Thomson

Birds like the kākāpō and takahē are monitored regularly, I saw a kākāpō even had brain surgery the other day. I suppose when you’re bringing an animal back from the brink of extinction getting the parenting right is difficult. I also learned recently that they had trouble raising takahē chicks because they rely on learning so much from their parents and when raised in captivity the chicks weren’t functioning well as adults.

Like with the apes, they’re not learning within a community of their own animal group. When golden lion tamarins were released they didn’t have the navigational skills any more and they fell out of trees because they lacked the climbing skills needed. They also have trouble mating animals in captivity because, like humans, they often don’t get along with who they get paired with. But then again, when something is on the verge of extinction you have to try don’t you?

Yes, it’s a real dilemma between what can be done and what should be done.

There’s also the potential to overstep the mark. Doing things like bringing back the mammoth and playing with genetics, but the environments are no longer there. There must be a lot of ethical rules and protocols that prevent the science from being enacted. The other dilemma is deciding which animals get saved. It’s often the more pleasant ones, whereas animals such as the brown hyena don’t get the same response. There’s a hierarchy.

Same with our native animals. Fishes, plants and insects don’t get the same attention the birds do. They’re more difficult animals to market and they’re the ones that you don’t notice.

Of course, some of them are so small, or rare, or in environments that you’d never got to. It’s so easy to never notice the damage being done, no matter the intentions.