Art Inspried by the Single Most Important Event in the History of Life on Earth

Another week, another art opening. Yesterday it was a great pleasure to MC the opening of an exhibition by our 2009 Artist in Residence, Jenny Pollak.

In the Beginning (Red Box Gallery until 26 March 2010, weekdays) and 21%O2 (Palm House until 22 February 2010, everyday) are now open for viewing. Jenny will talk about her art and lead a tour of the exhibitoins at 10 am on 17 February - see website for booking information.

Jenny Pollack is the Botanic Garden Trust's fifth Artist in Residence. The list is very impressive, and diverse: Chris Gentle – 2005, Gaye Chapman – 2006, Ana Wojak – 2007, Emma Robertson – 2008, Jenny Pollak - 2009.

As I said in my opening remarks, each artist has responded to the botanic gardens quite differently and in a variety of media. Each has produced beautiful and inspiring art.

Jenny Pollak has parents who are scientists which probably explains why she is an artist...but with a scientific slant. She began as an artist working in etching, printmaking and lithography in London in 1976, then became more interested in photography and sculpture.

This is her second Artist in Residence position. Her first was in the Electron Microscope unit at the University of Sydney in 2005/2006 – her artwork then was inspired by photographing microscopic organisms.

Jenny also a love of South American music and is inspired by the beauty of the bush and the sea at her home. Here in the Botanic Gardens, it seems she was inspired by algae, and who can blame her!

Evolution was always going to be a strong them in the year of Charles Darwin’s bicentenary. (In fact the opening yesterday was on what would have been his 201st birthday.) 2010 is the Year of Biodiversity – celebrating species, their genes and their ecosystems - so very timely for the exhibitions.

Jenny said she drew inspiration from a book on Algae (by Linda Graham and Lee Wilcox), and in particular the quote “The rise to dominance of cyanobacteria — the earliest known oxygenic photosynthesisers — has been described as the single most important event in the history of life on earth”. Jenny says "It contained all the elements of a great drama".

As I noted last night, the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old earth. For the first billion years very little happened in terms of life but then 3.8 billion years ago the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) dominated the earth and started to produce oxygen.

Just a few hundred thousand years ago humans evolved. In between, its really all about a few other living things.

In the Red Box Gallery you'll see Jenny respond to the ancient lineage that connects humans indelibly to all living things. I’ve watched the exhibition evolve over the last few weeks, fascinated by each new piece. The result is fascinating and fun.

Jenny won an Arts Council of Australia grant for the installation in Palm House and it's a different experience again. Jenny describes it as a “visual metaphor for the alchemical process that gave rise to the first oxygen-dependent life on earth”. You'll need to hurry along in the next week or so to enjoy this one (before the possums do, but that's another story, and one that Jenny told at the opening).

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Guest Speaker last night was Stephen Dernocoure, a fellow artist. Stephen started as an illustrator for magazines but has been exhibiting work for over 30 years. Most importantly, he is highly regarded teacher in a range of settings. Currently he works a lot in palliative and psychiatric medicine, drawing on science, philosophy and culture. Healing and helping people.

He spoke about how important the viewer of the art was to the art itself and how well Jenny had placed us 'behind the art'. He spoke poetically and movingly about how important art was to lives. When we met beforehand he spoke equally passionately about the role of plants and gardens in healing.

Jenny thanked everyone at the Botanic Gardens Trust and other helpers. I should record here my thanks to the Artist in Residence team (Lesley Elkan, Dale Dixon, Emma Robertson and Relle Mott), Alan Millar for providing seaweed (algae), Miguel Garcia and Judy Blood from the library, Dawson Ougham and other horticulturalists, and Lesley Elkin and Sophie Daniel for help with the hanging and display of the art. Staff in the Botanical Information Service and Events also assisted in bringing these two exhibitions to life.

Clarence Slockee, as always, brought us to life with his acknowledgement of country, paying particular tribute to the Gadigal, the traditional custodians of the land. Although not as elaborate as usual (it had been a hot tiring day out in the Gardens!) he returned later to lead the procession of people from the Red Box Gallery to the Palm House, and yet more summer rain in Sydney.

Image: One of Jenny Pollack's artworks featuring algae, on display in the Red Box Gallery - picture from the Botanic Gardens Trust website