Emma Lindsay is a fine artist based in Brisbane, Australia, and is currently undertaking a PhD studio project on Australian endangered and extinct native bird species through RMIT, Melbourne. Jordan Ogg spoke to her about a project which has taken her around the world over several years and ended on an unexpected island theme. You can click on any image to see it full size.
What is your earliest memory of the subject of extinction?
My first memories of extinction came from visiting the British Museum when I was seven years old, a huge wondrous place of encounter for real natural and ancient treasures for a girl from a country Australian town. These were things I’d only ever seen in books. Seeing such ancient objects, bodies and evidence of past civilisations long gone, the tiny body of a wizened mummy king glimpsed through the gap of a darkened box from Egypt, ornately bandaged mummified cats, the reconstructed bones of enormous dinosaurs, left a lasting impression.
You worked on this project for several years. How did your experience and knowledge of extinction change and develop during this time?
In the beginning I was looking for representative examples of bird species for paintings to see what they looked like and to paint them as portraits. This led to an interest in finding Australian native species that were extinct or endangered. Over time, my empathy and knowledge of extinction issues gleaned from scientific texts and visiting zoological collection archives started to develop into my studio Extinction project which reflects on my ambivalent experiences of wonder and loss in the natural history museum. I was seeing the extent of hidden species loss in Australia since European colonization, and how many gaps there still are in what we know about the natural world. What available scientific texts present as knowledge is limited by human opportunity for encounter, past and present, and human encounter with other species tends to be through collecting, hunting, scientific observation, human encroachment into untouched environments for resource extraction or development, or simply by accident.
The most difficult thing I’ve come to understand is the extent of human complicity in the demise of other species. Even when humans try to conserve other species and their habitats, they often end up causing harm. Scientists are predicting mass species extinctions in Australia during my lifetime – and all of the Earth’s remaining wild environments are now currently under threat from global warming and human activities. As these places disappear, small remnant pockets of habitat remain, island refuges, where certain rare species cling to uncertain existence. These experiences and knowledge inform a lot of my studio thinking and representations about extinction and the natural history museum archive.
Is there a particular aspect of extinction that you wanted to explore?
The problem of species extinction is global – there are so many species, so many different types of life disappearing – it was too big an issue to address all extinct species in my practice at the one time. My current series of work focuses specifically on extinct Australian bird species found in global natural history museums.
For me, the bird is the most common form of wild species I encounter on a daily basis at my home that I care about, and the permanent loss of these visitors and their song would be unbearable. It made sense to use birds as my series focus, and in my current paintings they function as a metaphor for all biota under the threat of extinction.
In the studio the question then also involves how to paint birds in a way that reveals my own emotional response to what is essentially a very artificial encounter with the natural world: the experience of life and death in a taxidermy specimen, the beauty of a bird and its plumage when explored up close in my hands, the strong ambivalence that comes from learning the global environmental cost of human activities on non-human species. It’s a sobering thought when you consider how many dead specimens are stored in global museum research archives and the ways they have accumulated there. The paintings are a way to explore all of these issues and my anxiety regarding scientific predictions of mass-species extinctions.
You did some significant travelling to do your research. Why was it important for you to do this?
My Extinction project documents my own direct encounters with extinct bird specimens found in the natural history museum. One important project criteria was that I needed to see and document each specimen personally in-situ in the contemporary archive or natural history museum in which it is now found. My paintings rely on my own photographic documentation, notes, and memory of these explorations. There is no one museum in Australia that contains every example of our lost bird species – remaining specimens are scattered throughout the world in various museum research collections. To document all the bird specimens thus required visiting museums in Australia, Europe, and the USA.
There's an island theme going on here. Did this occur by design or accident?
An island connection has definitely emerged out of my research, an accidental theme rather than by design, but an important reflection of how higher rates of species extinction have been seen in island native species populations at times of European colonization or with the introduction of feral animal and plant species. Extinct birds of the islands of Hawaii and New Zealand are very well documented in this respect, so my project aims to create a more complete visual documentation of species loss in Australia. Most of the extinct birds I’m painting were formerly located on smaller Australian islands, for example: the dwarf Kangaroo Island emu.
Emma Lindsay graduated from the Queensland College of Art in 2009. She has been the recipient of an Australia Council Artstart Grant, the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts and Arts Queensland Fresh Ground Grant and Residency, a BAER Art Centre Artist Residency in Höfðaströnd Iceland, and the Hill End Residency award at Murray’s Cottage through the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery. She has has been a finalist in the Churchie National Emerging Art Exhibition (2011), and the 2012 Redlands Westpac Emerging Art Prize.
Lindsay's paintings are held in the public collections of the Baer Art Center (Iceland), Moreton Bay Regional Council and the University of Queensland Art Museum, and in private collections in Australia, Canada, Iceland, Switzerland, UK, and USA. She is represented by Heiser Gallery, Brisbane.