Lisa Sammut: Studio Visit
Lisa and I met at a super social event that artist Jason Phu invited me to, an MCA Artbar. There I met a billion of Jason’s art friends. They’re one big joyous and amicable friend group of hip & beautiful people. Lisa invited me to the opening of an exhibition she was a part of, World Material, at the Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney. I jumped on the opportunity.
The focus of the show was on material - something far removed from my own project interests surrounding the intangible, performative, and facilitated happening type-art. I saw a lot of what I saw in Sao Paulo, “outside” and “found” and “nature” objects brought inside: barbed wire fences, branches, and buckets. But two things struck me that afternoon, for the first time I saw a large dog inside a gallery (even though there were highly delicate sculptural installations throughout the space) and Lisa’s work, form deforms you (2017). I kept revisiting it, drawn to its intricacies. Decidedly, I found her interest in our belonging within the cosmos related to my project topic surrounding identity*.
Because of its orientation on the ground, Lisa’s work breaks away from convention such as paintings hung at eye level or sculptures on pedestals. The work feels like a low table at which I should sit with a cup of tea. Sit and study, meditate upon it. It’s calming and by drawing you in, it takes you out. Into space.
I asked her why the particular work I saw at the gallery opening was laid on the ground. She said it was because it allowed the viewer to “study” it like a large diagram. We study to remember and understand. Lisa specifically draws from scientific diagrams from the past and brings them to our present. By collecting, documenting, researching and investigating the past and the ancient past, she feeds a silver thread through these different times when various cultures each analyzed the sky. It is nice to remind ourselves to simply look up and remember we are just one microscopic part of the universe. Her visual resources include historical illustrations of the sky because she finds them simpler than today’s complex and data heavy animations of astronomical physics. Her forms, minimal and daintily detailed, draw from shapes and symbols found from multiple cultures, simple and emblematic. Such symbols remind us of the modest human attempt to understand what surrounds us beyond our atmosphere. Far from a scientist type, she’s an observer. In fact, Lisa did a residency at the Sydney Observatory where she joined the thousands of night-sky observers throughout time.
What I find most interesting about Lisa’s practice is her translation of her astronomical and historical research to a contemporary art form. Many artists today work with “material” and “process” as their subject but Lisa engagement to these subjects become deeper through her distinct lense of our human and cosmological participation. Her work does not stop at the present understanding of a material or shape, but instead creates a circle of time in which her forms connect us to the past and future. Each of her shapes and textures work together like the moving gears of a machine. Her works remind us that we are moving parts of greater moving parts. Our galaxy, after all, is spiraling through space. We are in constant motion even when we sit still.
Lisa’s play will depth invites the viewer to peer in closer and analyze each object. Flat paper looks rolling, circular prisms look spherical. What appear to be concave lines from above, seeming closer and farther within their deep blue velvet backdrop, are actually cut wood with varying thicknesses. Curved shapes direct the eyes around the piece, inviting the viewer to dive deeper into the work. Lisa calls this heightened observation, the pausing to engage on a deeper level - “to marvel.” She tells me that at times, maybe rarely, we all pause and see with awe at the earth and space around us. She says her work is intended to have her audience pause and peer.
Photographs from studio visit, works in progress
Her interest in slowing the pace of observation was revealed to her when she experienced the Chile earthquake in 2010. As we sat down outside a small coffee shop on a particularly hot Sydney-day I remember her describing the scene around her. She told me how in the minutes of the earthquake she saw the earth beneath her roll. Becoming fluid, the ground undulated beneath her. What happens when we see unusual things on Earth itself? Lisa watched ground look like water. Her memory reminds me of when I watched a lightning storm take place miles away from me. At the time I lay in a hammock clear across the same valley. Although the storm and I were within the same Andes Mountains in Colombia, I watched from a comfortable distance. Everything around me was pitch black except that storm, illuminated every few minutes by powerful flashes of light. These memories stick to us because when we’re watching slowly, we remember more vividly.
Lisa’s intention is to make the abstract but ‘felt’ notions of surrounding time and the expanse of space more accessible. Connecting our human understanding of the world around us to the all encompassing cosmos, what Lisa achieves is to render the intangible, tangible.
*consider this sub-definition of identity here: ‘sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing : oneness'