Artist profile: Lisa Roet

Written by: Fiona Gruber
‘We see ourselves as separate from all other animals,’ observes the artist Lisa Roet, ‘but we are apes, we are all part of the hominid family and we’re only just beginning to understand ourselves.’
We’re discussing the study of humans, their ancestors and the other species to which we’re related. This subject and the fragile environments humans have created for so many species, is at the core of Roet’s practice, which includes works on paper, large-scale installations, sculpture and jewellery.
A reminder of that hominid lineage, a nine-metre tall inflatable sculpture of a chimpanzee called David Greybeard, has recently been installed on top of the Arts Centre overlooking the Yarra River in Melbourne.
It’s the latest iteration of Roet’s 30-year artistic study of chimpanzees, gorillas, gibbons and monkeys and is in honour of another woman’s 60-year career doing the same thing.
She’s primatologist and ethologist Jane Goodall, one of Lisa Roet’s heroes as a child.
Goodall’s pioneering work observing chimpanzees in Tanzania –including David Greybeard, the first chimp to let her into his troop –fired Roet’s imagination and she determined to become a zoologist. But her maths wasn’t great, she gained a place in the art school at RMIT and life seemed to be taking a different course.
Except for the fact that for most of her artistic career, Roet’s art has been pretty much exclusively about primates.
She’s flirted with other subjects she says although they have all had an environmental bent and her passionate advocacy for endangered species remains undimmed.
Of this project, she says her two meetings with Goodall were illuminating, not least because of her precise memories of the chimpanzee under discussion.
‘She gave me pointers; “he’s bigger in the chest” or “he’s stockier in the biceps”. Of all the chimps, David Greybeard meant most to her.”
Roet’s latest inflatable is made of a lightweight metallic mesh and is silvery grey. Another of Roet’s recent public sculptures, the Golden Monkey, is, as the name suggests, shinily auriferous.
This species, scientifically known as the Sneezing Snub-nosed monkey was recently discovered in Myanmar.
And her sculptures of this endangered primate (there are two, of different sizes) climb, or cling to the side of a building. They have made appearances around the world including Beijing and Edinburgh and David Greybeard will also tour.
He packs down into a 1.8 x 1.5 m box, and Roet is careful to point out that the packaging is sustainable.
This is important she says; the environmental impact of transport and touring in the art world is, she emphasises, the ‘elephant in the room’.
David Greybeard and the Golden Monkey join Baboe, a gorilla and Skywalker, a gibbon in Roet’s menagerie of public sculptures depicting endangered primates.
She hopes that, alongside the spectacle of seeing these works scaling skyscrapers or squatting on parapets, people will think about deforestation and the destruction of habitat.
‘They’re incongruous and that makes people ask “why?” She says. ‘Art pushes people to understand the universe in a new way.’