Art With Heart

Phillippa Carnemolla is a Sydney based industrial designer, jeweller and PhD scholar and spent 2013 as the Artist in Residence at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. What a  gig! During her time there she created a range of sculpture and jewellery celebrating the universal geometries linking all life forms. The pinnacle of her time at the Royal Botanic Gardens was the creation of The Breathing Conifer, a pulsating, kinetic sculpture consisting of a beating heart within a pine cone. This is its story; a beautiful combination of myth, history and humanity.

Georgina: Can you please tell me a little about the inspiration behind the work?

Phillippa: The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney stewards a collection of over 1.2 million preserved plant specimens in the National Herbarium of New South Wales. The data associated with them represents a botanical resource that is the foundation for important research on native and introduced plants. They are not usually made available to the public, and this was one of the exciting opportunities afforded as the official Artist in Residence.

As someone  who dreams of the world of plants, to be surrounded by those specimens meant absorbing, inspecting and magnifying the intricate geometric details of a world-class collection of beautiful beings.

It was in the Spirit Room that I made important connections between my making and the botanic residency. The Spirit Room is a special plant specimen collection, a way of preserving the very fleshy or delicate structures including small algae, fungi, orchid flowers or tubers.

Entering this room, smelling rather musty and full of yellowing jars, I was immediately struck by similarities to a medical specimen collection. The tubers and orchids, bleached over decades in the ethanol preserving fluid, had become identical to human organs, livers and spleens, brains and vessels. Taken from bodies and preserved in jars. That is where I first made plant and animal one.

I lived in the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens for a while, reading old and beautiful books, viewing exquisite botanical drawings. Feeling and aligning with a history of inspiration by plants. One day on a low and inaccessible shelf, I discovered some rare and long discarded specimens in there, ones no one was interested in for one reason or another. One in particular was a discoloured jar with a growth inside – many might say rather un-beautiful – brown and bloated and twisted – but also intricate, vascular, organic. It was a Cordyceps gunnii. This Australian fungus that invades underground moth larva like witchetty grubs and uses the host from which to sprout from the earth….

It was the ultimate merging of plant and animal – a parasitic connection where the aggressor was the plant and the host was the unwitting insect.

From that day I knew then what my journey as the Artist in Residence would be. It would be in acknowledging and celebrating the knowing of the plant kingdom and by mapping human qualities onto a plant I could celebrate their wisdom and intuition.

Photograph by Phillippa Carnemolla
Photograph by Phillippa Carnemolla

Georgina: Can you please describe the Breathing Conifer artwork?

Phillippa: The Breathing Conifer is a large kinetic sculpture. It’s approximately one cubic metre in volume and is clad in over 120 copper scales. Each of these copper scales were sandblasted, and then chemically etched, hand dipped in Liver of Sulphur to oxidise them. They were then ready to hand colour by pencil.

I hosted workshops and invited participants from Eastern Respite and Recreation, The Come In Youth Centre, and the Transitions Class at PLC Sydney. Together we hand-coloured the many copper scales. In the finished work one can see that each of the scales is coloured by a different person – slightly different strokes, pressure and depth of colour. This adds to the collective energy in the piece.

The copper scales were clad to a polycarbonate frame. Inside is an electrically driven motor that controls the gentle expansion and contraction of the breathing. This is designed to be in time with human breath.

Photograph by Fiona Morris

Georgina: Can you please talk a little about plants & mythology and how myth informed the work?

Phillippa: Many global myths about plants, particularly trees, attribute a spiritual guardian – such as the Slavic Leshy, the Scottish Gillie Dhu and the Greek Dryads. These nymphs and spirits are protectors of their tree, which is a sacred yet voiceless botanical being. In Japanese mythology these spirits are called Kodama and their voice is the echo from mountains and valleys, Vamabiko.

As I meditated in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens the unspoken knowingness of the trees and plants around me took my breath away. These living botanicals were indeed sacred – not voiceless at all, but unheard. I was determined to hear.

Mythology played a part in my “plant as animal” journey as I discovered The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  This is both a true animal and a living plant referred to in Jewish and Central Asian cultures. The lamb is suspended on a plant stem, permanently connected to the landscape – a botanical animal. What does it say to me? It speaks of the equal intelligence of plant and animal, of the universality of life, the interconnectedness and the shared.

Then in a quiet moment in the gardens appeared a vision of the tree of beating hearts, the conifer that as I gazed upon it seemed laden with fruit that represented pulsating life and as they dropped to the ground, a message of love and universal knowledge. So the plants were revealing themselves as knowing in the way we are knowing, and giving these beautiful plants animal qualities became a metaphor for this.

Ultimately, the Breathing Conifer is not just about mixing up plant and animal, it is about recognition of us in the miraculous and intelligent kingdom of plants. It is intended to be a reflection of ourselves in the botanical world.

I hope that those who experience the sculpture feel a quiet moment where we all breathe in time, and learn about ourselves by supplanting our humanness in the botanical world.


EDITORS NOTE: The Breathing Conifer was a finalist in the community projects section of the 2013 NSW Premiers Public Service Awards. It is being exhibited throughout Autumn 2014 at the Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens.