Sonia Payes

Hovering over the soft white sand, she shimmers in the sun like a mirage in the desert. There is something benevolent yet prophetic about her appearance: a burnished mask of maternal concern, whose mercurial faces apprehensively survey multiple horizons. Debuting at Sculpture by the Sea in Cottesloe last March, 'Woman in Bronze' (2019) is the latest piece from Melbourne based artist Sonia Payes, exploring thematic preoccupations of creation, destruction, and transformation through a contemporary lens of growing environmental angst.

Hybridity is an integral part of her artistic practice, and over a sixteen-year professional career she has combined her foundational photographic work with digital imagery, 3D technologies, animated film and sculpture. She also continues to blur categorical distinctions. The ambiguity of Woman in Bronze – both humanoid and god, warrior and nurturer – has been in evidence since her first solo show. Body of Work (2003) comprised analogue images taken in her studio, of her African American gym instructor photographed in black and white against a pitch-black background. Using soft lighting to elucidate his well-defined musculature, his body became an uncanny landscape – limbs illuminated like undulating islands, then vanishing when foreground and background reunited in darkness. Underscoring this theme of mutability, Payes has emphatically stated that “The body is in constant interaction with the environment. The two cannot be separated.”

This boundary effacing sense of flux was advanced with Time Warp (2016). Starting life as a canvas print, the originally titled ReGeneration (2007-2014) presented a cyborgian composite of her eldest daughter’s face with that of her digital avatar. Ilana’s dark-brown hair, brown eyes and light complexion cede to her surrogate’s celestial, smoothly rendered but inhuman appearance. Payes updated the image in 2016 with lenticular print technology to heighten the work’s impression of fluid change, with Time Warp variously merging human and ‘other’ and past and future, as the viewer passes in front of the image. It also established the posthuman motif of Ilana, which would become a defining element of Payes’ oeuvre.

After Time Warp, Ilana’s avatar evolved into a multi-faceted, three-dimensional emblem of creation, fecundity and adaptability. In the animated film Corn and Quarries (2013), this image recurs ad infinitum to overwhelm the landscape: its monochrome head stacked in swaying columns like a crop waiting to be harvested. ReGeneration (2014), the artist’s first series of sculptures, made this virtual symbol physical. Displaying faith in an unbroken chain of life, death and rebirth, her three fiberglass forms arise to various heights from out the earth, each with four twisting faces and 360-degree vision. By integrating Ilana’s image among both representational and real landscapes, Payes challenges ostensible differences between the human and nature; collapsing individual histories with universal, generative principles.

Motherhood, life, death, and humanity’s reciprocity with their environment may intersect in the works previously detailed, but they fuse in a molten whole with Woman in Bronze. It’s a fraught embodiment of our impact on the planet and of a mother’s trepidation over her children’s future. The latter motif is evident both in Payes’ sculptural idolatry of her daughter, and the allusion to Gaia, female goddess and mother of Earth in Greek mythology. Astutely evoked are idealised qualities of motherhood: vigilance to danger in its searching faces and wary gazes; an indomitable nature in its robust, metallic constitution; and a protective inclination in the curvature of its hollow carapace. It’s a heartfelt testament to Payes’ two daughters and their own children; an ode to the loving sacrifice of mothers.

The impression of subdued distress in Woman in Bronze contrasts with the beatific harmony of ReGeneration’s emergent figures. There is a marked shift from Payes’ pragmatic optimism in natural cycles, to a rising anxiety about our impact on the environment. Her latest piece explores ‘themes of regeneration in an Anthropocene world where humanity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment’. The term “Anthropocene” was popularised by the Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’ (2009), and conveys the belief that Earth has entered a new geological epoch in which industrialisation, overpopulation, and pollution are “affecting the planet on a Geological Scale […] typically reserved for ‘meteorite strikes, extraordinary volcanic outbursts, colliding continents, and disappearing oceans’”.

Payes’ cognizance of this interdependent relationship was demonstrated as far back as Corn and Quarries and reiterated in the bulbous, humanoid growths of Venus Scape’s mountaintops (2016). This is even more apparent with Woman in Bronze. Interpenetrating culture and nature at Cottesloe beach, its broad, fluid features echoed the sand’s undulations; intense sunlight glistened off its golden foreheads, while the turquoise Indian Ocean filled its perforations. Less auspicious was the jagged blue absence between its globular foreheads: it’s tapering, irregular edges giving the impression of a vanished continent.

The reciprocity between mankind’s collective actions and their detrimental environmental effects is clear in Woman in Bronze’s cracking, hollow shell. Whereas ReGeneration’s sculptures celebrated an unproblematic notion of natural cycles – transcending mortality in their depiction of eternal rebirth – Woman in Bronze is heroically fatalistic. The impermeable casts and omnipresent expressions of the former cede to the exposed and overburdened demeanour of the latter. Death seems inevitable here. Gaia’s dark inversion manifests itself in Woman’s jet-black underside: conjuring the Chthonic deities of Ancient Greece and their association with ritual-sacrifice and the subterranean.

More than ever before, Payes conflates the spheres of humanity and nature into a mutable totality, with her recent work illustrating Bill McKibben’s theories, stated in The End of Nature (1989), that mankind’s exponential growth and industrial activity has radically altered our environment. We can no longer consider ourselves separate from nature, given that our actions – the unchecked burning of fossil fuels, for example – have disrupted what was once a self-regulating biosphere. In McKibben’s formulation, ‘We have built a greenhouse, ‘a human creation’ where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden.’ Woman in Bronze, a distillation of humanity, Earth, and personified creation, impotently anticipates its own dissolution. But Payes remains hopeful. The sneaking crack that threatens to tear these conjoined unities apart, to divide one into two, also presents a reproductive multiplication. Bearing the visual DNA of the artist’s family – her daughters Ilana and Janine, and their own children – it conveys a fervent belief in life’s potential for regeneration.

Sonia Payes
12–15 September 2019
Sydney Contemporary, Carriageworks, Scott Livesey Galleries Booth G02

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