At first glance it’s a little hard to fathom. A beautifully intricate drawing comes to life under the careful hand of a talented artist. The simplicity of graphite emphasising glorious features of the natural world. Hours are spent detailing individual scales, shaping unique feathers and crafting beautiful fins. Once complete, the drawing is then erased – gone in an instant, with barely a trace remaining.
Nevertheless, Lucienne Rickard’s first foray into performance art makes absolute sense. It’s an insightful commentary regarding extinction. Tragically, it perfectly mimics the fate of hundreds of species that have faded into the abyss. And a future that precariously swings in the balance for thousands more.
A stupendous human failure. A theft from future generations. A woeful measure of the importance we place on biodiversity. However you view it, extinction is an undeniably sad reflection on contemporary human society. It is often hard to understand why we aren’t prioritising nature when it provides health, inspiration, resources and life itself.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains what it terms a Red List. The Red List is the go to global extinction resource. It’s a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity, providing valuable information about range, population size, habitat, ecology, trade, threats, and actions that will help inform necessary conservation decisions. What it reveals is nothing short of heartbreaking. Currently, 27% of all species have been assessed revealing that a staggering 32 000 that are in real danger of extinction.
It’s a reality close to Lucienne’s heart. Her 16 month durational performance, Extinction Studies, is an evolving testimony to the critical issue of species extinction. It’s essentially delivering on two levels – drawing stark attention to the ease with which a lifeform is extinguished from the planet, and promoting important conversations about what can be done to prevent it.
Warm, intelligent and engaging, Lucienne explains the project with a natural ease. “To start with I planned to draw a different extinct species each day, erasing each one as I went,” she begins. “The process of erasing is symbolic of them disappearing from the earth. It’s quite simple really. This is my way of addressing one of the biggest issues of our time and it’s far more political than anything I’ve ever done in the past.”
Lucienne quickly found that her goal of one drawing a day was unrealistic. “I felt like I wasn’t doing justice to some of my subjects,” she begins. “There is so much detail to capture and I really didn’t want to rush them. The project has morphed a little over time, and it’s turned out to be much more powerful to take my time with each drawing. It makes the erasing so much more through provoking too. It can take 100 hours or so for an average drawing and all that’s gone in less than four minutes. That in itself pretty much sums up what the project represents.”
Watching Lucienne in action is quite cathartic. Her blackened hands, discoloured from her simple tools of choice, carefully bring tiny details to life on the huge canvas before her. It’s a process akin to evolution itself. “I do quite a lot of research on each species and really try be as accurate as I possibly can. For an artist interested in the natural world, there’s no better place to work than within a museum,” smiles Lucienne, clearly in her element. Extinction Studies has called the glorious light filled atrium of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) home for almost one full year. “Working here at TMAG has been truly amazing. I’ve been able to look at all sorts of specimens under the microscope and to chat with the staff here. That’s really helped me understand what I’m drawing and in turn helped me to try and do each species justice.”
Spending her early years in Queensland, including glorious summers with her grandparents on Lord Howe Island, Lucienne relocated to Tasmania some twenty years ago. “Tassie was always appealing to me,” she says. “At the time I was looking for a cooler climate and I was aware there was a dynamic arts community here…many of my lecturers at university had been Tasmanian. They had often recommended it to me.”
Lucienne comments on the vibrancy of the local arts community that has readily embraced her. “I like that concept of looking in from the edge, rather than being stuck in the middle looking out…and I liken that to what we experience down here in Tassie,” she smiles. “I certainly feel supported here. It’s a great place to be, particularly as an artist interested in the natural world.”
Lucienne’s subjects to date include a range of plant and animal species from across the globe. “The more you find out about a species, the more they grow on you,” muses Lucienne. “I do more and more research as each drawing progresses and continue to share what I’m learning with those that stop and chat each day. There are some amazing stories behind some of these species.”
“There are so many reasons to care for these creatures. Essentially they’re all life forms that have just as much right to be here as we do. Even if you don’t relate to them, you should care about the secrets that they are harbouring…perhaps we’ve already lost species that held potential keys to lifechanging medical breakthroughs.”
“Someone said to me once that we are ripping up the book of life before we’ve even read it. That’s pretty mindboggling.”
A neat pile of shavings sits discreetly at the base of Lucienne’s canvas. “They’re another talking point,” she nods as she continues adding tiny scales to a spectacular butterfly. “Aside from the ghosts that linger here on the paper, they’re all that’s left of the drawings. If you think about it too hard, it can become quite depressing.”
Lucienne’s paper holds faint outlines of drawings past. “I planned to use this one sheet for the duration of the project and was really interested to see how it held up to the continual drawing and erasing,” explains Lucienne. “It’s been pretty good. I did take the project to Sydney for a short while earlier in the year as part of the Biennale festival and took a different sheet over there, but aside from those drawings everything has been completed on this one sheet.”
A natural conversationalist, Lucienne spends a large portion of her day chatting to onlookers while she works. “There are lots of questions about the structure and function of each species I am drawing, and I particularly love how children respond with questions and comments. You can really see their imagination being ignited.”
“I’ve been quite overwhelmed with the conversations that this has provoked. This is the first project I have embarked on that has an element of performance entwined with it, and it’s also quite political,” continues Lucienne. “It’s through these conversations that I am hoping to create change. People are often sad when I erase a drawing, but I hope that that emotion translates into action and that we can start to see some real improvement.”
The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of that species, although the capacity to breed and recover may well have been lost before this point, making them functionally extinct. “The Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle that I drew is a great example of this,” explains Lucienne quietly. “There are only three males left, so essentially that’s the end of the line.”
“Australia has a global reputation as a place of natural beauty, however we’re not doing a great job of living up to that. We’re losing species hand over fist…people think that we’re doing a much better job of maintaining our biodiversity than we actually are.”
The actual erasing of a drawing has drawn strong crowds throughout the project. “I’ve come to liken the erasing process to a funeral,” says Lucienne. “It’s the closest thing I can relate it to. The work is finally complete and then it’s time to move on…it’s the time when I hope that I’ve done it justice and when all sorts of emotions can surface. The aesthetics of erasing with long swipes is something I find quite satisfying too.”
Watching on, it’s intriguing to see reactions ripple throughout the gathered crowd. They stand in a respectful silence, solemn and still. As Lucienne begins to erase her latest masterpiece, only a few quiet whispers can be heard as parents stoop to offer quiet explanations to their children. It’s a special experience and an emotional and reflective mood is cast gently across the room.
“It can be quite sad really,” explains Lucienne. “But I think we need to be sad about it…just sad enough to take some action. I am very aware how this can effect children so I am careful to promote uplifting conversations with them so that they leave here feeling empowered. I’d like them to think about how they can do their own little bit to solve this problem.” She continues, “About 70 Tasmanian species are currently critically endangered and by the time they get to that points they rarely recover. We are definitely not immune to extinction in our own corner of the globe and unfortunately the children of today are going to have a lot to contend with.”
Speaking of her art form, Lucienne explains how she loves the simplicity of drawing. “I’ve really come to love how it’s not pretentious or rare,” she says. “Everyone’s used a pencil and knows how to draw. It’s very accessible and democratic, and relatively environmentally friendly. With this project, I also really wanted to deliver something that everyone could understand. Sometimes contemporary art can be quite exclusionary and can alienate people…quite often it can make you feel stupid when you don’t understand something. I really wanted to avoid making people feel like that.”
“Sometimes I’m asked why I don’t keep the drawings and sell them in order to raise money for wildlife conservation, but to me that’s not the point,” muses Lucienne. “I think this has been far more powerful and sparked thinking on a much deeper level. I’m glad people are questioning why I have erased the works. At the end of this project I will have invested huge amounts of energy physically and emotionally and will have produced nothing. I just hope that those conversations and deep thinking continue far beyond the museum.”
Chatting over a whisky and soda on her back deck with partner Keely, dogs Patsy and Iggy Pop milling at their feet, Lucienne ponders what’s next. “There are more installation projects like this in the wings,” she smiles. “I feel like it’s becoming more and more important to do this kind of work in public and to get people thinking.” Lucienne continues, “If you feel strongly about the environment, then I think you’re compelled to try and do something. I don’t want to get to the end of my life, look back and know that I didn’t even try to do anything.”
Lucienne continues her commercial art practice and is currently working on a series of striking native orchid pieces. Both enlarged drawings and intricate 1:1 scale miniatures are scattered across her table. “There are over 200 orchids here in Tasmania and 75 of those are endemic,” she explains. “I’ve become quite fascinated with them and their plight. I’ve been seeking them out and really enjoying discovering their world. The more you learn about them, the more you realise just how cool they really are. These are drawings that require a continuously super sharp pencil in order to capture the required level of detail.” Lucienne laughs, “I feel like I am fastidiously sharpening as the pencil needs to constantly be like a needle. Working 1:1 it really feels like I’m working on their terms. The detail is crammed in.”
The final erasing in Extinction Studies is scheduled for this Sunday at 3.30pm. The last drawing in the series is a poignant one for Lucienne and for Tasmanians in general. “I chose the swift parrot as my final drawing,” says Lucienne’s. “I think that it’s quite fitting. Whilst they are not extinct yet, the plight of these beautiful birds is hanging in the balance and just maybe this will help towards a last ditch effort to save them.”
Extinction Studies was commissioned by Detached Cultural Organisation and presented by TMAG. The full journey of drawings has been documented on Lucienne’s Instagram page.
Join Lucienne for the final erasing of Extinction Studies this Sunday, January 24 2021, at TMAG from 3.30pm.