Beautiful, ugly or offensive? This artist’s work polarises

Beautiful, ugly or offensive? This artist’s work polarises


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Lisa Roet’s massive creations such as the Golden Monkey and the Skywalker Gibbon are in high demand, touring the world and gracing landmark buildings from Shanghai to Edinburgh.

But the Melbourne-based artist says an even more beautiful primate struggles for attention: the chimpanzee. She believes it’s because they look so much like us.

“That’s really frightening to people… it’s loaded with too much connotation,” Roet says. “I spoke to [anthropologist] Jane Goodall about this; she and her organisation find it hard to raise funds for the chimpanzee because it’s confronting for people. Whereas if you have a cute orangutan, it’s an easier animal for people to feel sympathy for.”

Lisa Roet’s Skywalker Gibbon atop Kings Hall Cathedral as part of the Edinburgh Festival this year.

Roet has explored the connection between monkeys and apes and humans for nearly 30 years, making work, ranging from large-scale inflatables to smaller sculptures, drawings and jewellery, that divides people. “Some people find it beautiful, and other people find it really ugly and confronting and offensive,” she says.

Ape Right Hand, 2023, her latest commission is visible from St Kilda Rd in the grounds of Melbourne Grammar. It’s a four-metre high bronze ape’s hand outstretched and pointing towards the sky, as Jesus did towards God, she says. “It’s something about the spiritual and the science… our minds recognise the need for both things to be present.”

Roet’s David Greybeard at Workshop Airena in Seaworks in 2020, before being installed at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Funded by a group of donors within the school community, the piece was installed in April; Roet also worked with art students during a residency.

Now, a 300-page monograph of Roet’s work, called I Am Ape by journalist Ray Edgar, will be released. The cover image depicts her face beneath the face of a chimpanzee, blurring the lines between human and animal.

While Roet doesn’t see that belief in evolutionary science precludes religious belief, criticism has been levelled at her work. “But there’s nothing radical in what I’m talking about, it’s really coming from a very scientific perspective. It’s about our place within that world,” she says. “The belief in science is so important at the moment – if we don’t believe in science, we’ve had it.”

The crossover between science and spirituality is a motif of Roet’s, as with this new bronze, Ape Right Hand 2023, at Melbourne Grammar.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

Roet works with scientists, zoos, laboratories and museum archives around the world. Although it started as anthropological, her work also has an environmental focus, highlighting climate change and other devastation wrought by humans such as deforestation and species extinction – and hope for the future. Her name is not as familiar locally as might be expected, as she is acclaimed worldwide and has won many prestigious Australian art awards, including the $100,000 McClelland Sculpture and Survey Award.

Next year Roet plans to expand her simian-inspired jewellery range, with pieces including a cuff that looks like a chimpanzee finger.

By juxtaposing us with apes and other primates, the artist says she is attempting to work out what it is that makes us so extraordinary. “Because we are, compared to other animals. In the process of this 30 years they’ve come up with DNA and genome, they’ve been able to work out what does make us different to other animals, for example a chimpanzee, but it still doesn’t explain why we are extraordinarily different.”

Her work, called A Letter To Love and Territory, which premieres at RMIT on Monday pairs an opera singer with a recording of a gibbon. Roet says Gibbons and humans share the behavioural trait of singing, with the gibbon song most like human tone and pitch. Designed to highlight the plight of southern gibbons in Borneo who are threatened by deforestation, as well as the commonality between us and them, it premieres at RMIT on Monday.

So, why is it important to be reminded about how close we are to primates – or how different? Roet says it’s “to understand this connection to each other”.

“At the moment everything is so separated, every single element of human society has separated themselves from each other, from gender through to race through to even territories. I want to draw it back together, because ultimately we come from the same stock.”

“It’s about the connections and the similarities … it’s important as an animal that we understand who we are because obviously we’re creating a lot of problems for the planet and until we understand why that is, it’s not going to stop.”

Roet’s self-published I Am Ape is out now at selected bookshops and online. A Letter to Love and Territory is at RMIT on December 11 at 6pm.

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