Sitting down with multidisciplinary artist Emily Parsons-Lord is to feel elevated. Her live-work space occupies the top floor of a warehouse in Wellington St, Chippendale and looks out at the rapidly rising behemoths of the latest central park development. It is from this vantage point that Parsons-Lord has been steadily putting her imprint on experimental art in Australia and abroad.
Across a series of installations since 2014, Parsons-Lord has been interrogating the gaseous compound that we call air. Rather than settling on one interpretation, Parsons-Lord’s work seeks to deconstruct the many different forms of this compound.
“So it goes up to this giant scale and then back down to the scale of the breath. Air, it's so many things, it’s a habitat, it has all these material properties but at the same time we talk about the air you don't necessarily think about what’s touching you everywhere.”
Often, our understanding of a fundamental element such as the air gets obscured by the technical or scientific language that is used to describe and compartmentalize everyday phenomena. What Parsons-Lord seeks to inject into this discussion, by interpreting the air through art, is the cultural and human nature of what surrounds us. In her 2016 work, The Airrarium, Parsons-Lord invited participants to taste the airs of different eras, like one would taste different wines.
“I think it's necessary for it to become art because it gets wrapped up in this science and technical language in this paradigm where it's easy to dismiss as well, ‘oh yeah of course’ but actually it is cultural and it's poetic as well.”
Recognising the cultural and poetic nature of scientific ideas or theories also brings the focus back to human actions that have altered or changed the natural world. Part of Parsons-Lord’s work has been to allow audiences to taste airs from different eras, and what our air could taste like in the future if man-made climate change continues to disrupt the atmosphere. Understanding these changes on a sensory level makes these scientific discussions all the more immediate and much less abstract.
As Parsons-Lord notes, “so much of what we understand about reality we have to imagine” hence the impetus for a project such as The Confounding Leaving which requires tactile engagement with reality, “I can tell you that ok it's got 10% in carbon dioxide nearly half the oxygen that we're used to a bit more nitrogen. I can tell you all that and you're like, ‘oh cool I can imagine that’ but necessarily you have to come in and breathe it and feel it.”
These questions come out of Parsons-Lord’s engagement with academic scientific literature and debate. Describing her process, Parsons-Lord recalls, “I do a lot of reading and I'll come up with a thought based on what I've read and how I understand something and then I'll often seek out an expert or someone working in that field and then I'll say have a coffee with me or exchange emails with me and I'll say so I think this because of these things, is that correct or incorrect?”
While Parsons-Lord’s research-based hunches are often correct, often this dialogue with an expert results in a new way of approaching the issue. In research for an upcoming show, Parsons-Lord sought to question whether with increased particulate matter in the atmosphere as a result of pollution will change the colour of the sky. The blue sky that we know now is determined by a process known as Rayleigh Scattering, where light waves are scattered by particles in the air at different rates, with blue being scattered slightly more efficiently. While future estimated pollution levels will probably not be enough to change this natural phenomenon, the expert that Parsons-Lord did speak to, highlighted that currently there are suggestions that particulate matter could be released into the atmosphere which would limit the sun’s impact on Earth, slowing down global warming and changing the sunlight that we as human experience.
These kinds of proposals and ideas speak to what Parsons-Lord describes as one of her fundamental drivers to make art, “this bizarre experience of being a human on a rock at this time and place.”
While this discussion of sunlight was engaging, ultimately Parsons-Lord turned to a different phenomenon for her upcoming show at Cement Fondu. An occurrence of blood rain, which occurred over Southern India in 2001 and mention of which can be found in the chronicles of 15th and 16th century Europe, will be the focus of Parsons-Lord’s engagement with historical musical instruments which will be a part of the Cement Fondu show.
One explanation for this phenomenon was the break-up of an asteroid in the stratosphere, which led Parsons-Lord to note that “we're still looking to the heavens so there's that kind of sense of wonder and magical thinking still today. So thinking about historical odd weather phenomenon we're also now at the point where we can start making it and so we can change the colour of the sky.”
This dialogue between art and performance is a tension that has animated Parsons-Lord’s practice in other ways. Focusing on the materials as performers characterised her collaboration with Lee Kun-Yong at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, where Parsons-Lord choreographed explosions to resemble different stars. This performance, entitled a raging event of continual noise (the Sun) in turn opened up discussions over how differently performance art is received in various art contexts.
“4A was a great example. Everyone came in, everyone had their beers, everyone was kind of still chatting and watching. Total visual art crew. Then I did it for Maeve [Parker] for Desire Lines at PACT and people came in and they sat down and were quiet and watched and were the audience.”
Reflecting on these different methods of showing and creating art has also been a discussion Parsons-Lord has recently had, as she conducts her PhD at UNSW Art and Design. While academia is becoming a space where artists can find a steady income, it also has consequences for the kind of art that can be produced, something that Parsons-Lord is wary of in her own practice.
“Sometimes it means that the practice becomes really overly academic and I'm like ‘Nah you've ruined it.’ I think there's intelligence in a practice when you don't necessarily have to reference Baudrillard or Guattari.”
Parsons-Lord’s upcoming show at Cement Fondu opens on May 12 at 6pm and continues until June 10. You can find a catalogue of her work here http://www.emilyparsons-lord.com/.