Ilka Bauer’s latest works are stunning meditations on opposition. Through large, highly detailed drawings of the natural world, she explores the intersections of seemingly disparate concepts: art and science, life and death, miniature and massive.
Her latest show, Orca Dreams, is the culmination of these gorgeous explorations. On until January 26 at the Gage Gallery in Victoria, BC, the exhibition invites viewers to explore the subjectivity of the boundary between the Real, the Unfamiliar, and the Surreal. Using graphite, coloured pencil, and ink techniques—as well as a rich understanding of nature informed by her PhD in environmental biology—Bauer pushes viewers to reconsider their surroundings in a new light. How do we determine what is fact and what is fiction? How does experience affect the way we see and interpret the world around us? What does “real” even mean?
Here, she tells us more about her process, the exhibition, and the fascinating subjectivity of our everyday experiences.
As someone who identifies as both an artist and a scientist, how do you approach the boundary between the real, the unfamiliar, and the surreal?
Because it incorporates personal experience, the boundary between ‘surreal’ and ‘real’ can be subjective. As an artist, I am fascinated by images that are ambiguous as to where they fall on the spectrum. As a biologist, I can draw on a very specific array of knowledge to create and interpret such images. Much of science is about studying things or phenomena that we cannot see with the naked eye, or that are otherwise beyond our direct experience. Faced with such things for the first time, we tend to think they are strange, or may doubt that they actually exist. Given the importance of individual experience, what we perceive as ”surreal’ will vary from person to person, and I am sure it has shifted over time.
Faced with an image that falls into that grey zone, my own reaction will depend on my mindset at the time. In science mode, I will analyze and try to understand what I see. In artistic or daydreaming mode, I may bypass questions of ‘what’ or ‘why’ altogether and let the strangeness of the image work its magic, allowing it take me to whatever surreal world my brain decides it may be a part of.
Why did you choose to focus on this particular boundary?
Initially, this was not really something I chose to focus on; it is something that emerged quite naturally in my art. My style tends to be representational and precise, but about two years ago, surreal elements started to appear in into some of my drawings. Rightly or wrongly, I see these two things—precision and surrealism—as manifestations of my dual identity as a scientist and an artist. Drawings I personally like best usually involve a close interplay between the two. At the same time, showing my work taught me early on that structures that are clearly one thing to me (such as a moss peristome) are subject to multiple interpretations when shown to a broader audience.
All this means that the idea behind the show emerged gradually over several years. Now was simply the time to put a name to it, examine it more closely, and play with it to create a body of work.
Orcas have a long mythological history on the coast, with an important symbolic function within many of the cultures that inhabit this area. But they also hold an essential—and highly threatened—role in our coastal ecosystem. What’s your relationship to these animals, as an artist, biologist, and a resident of the coast?
I did not grow up on this coast, but I have always loved the ocean, and whales—orcas and others—have fascinated me from an early age. As mammals whose ancestors returned to the sea, they are stunning examples of how evolution can shape a pre-existing body plan, and in 2017 and 2018, I had the chance to draw orca bones in the Royal British Columbia Museum. Beyond that, I cannot claim any special personal relationship with these animals but I have been fortunate enough to see orcas in the wild on two occasions: once on a ferry crossing between Vancouver Island and the mainland, the second time while having dinner overlooking the Haro Strait. Both of these times, the animals appeared completely unexpectedly and went about their business on their own terms. That is how I like to think of them: independent, aloof, and unperturbed by our presence. Unfortunately, the current reality looks very different, and I truly hope we can take real steps to ensure their long-term co-existence with us.
What other kinds of creatures feature in the show?
The most obvious other creatures are a hermit crab that carries a whole menagerie of intertidal invertebrates on its shell, as well as several types of kelp, snail shells, and mussels. There is a large tryptic (Orca Dreams) that features a number of microscopic groups, such as diatoms, dinoflagellates, radiolarians, and a tintinnid lorica. To someone who is not familiar with these organisms, the scene depicted may look more like science fiction than anything on Earth, and beside real creatures, it does contain some others that are wholly or partially made up.
What you see in the two large coloured pencil drawings is open to interpretation. Unravelled includes feathers and a piece of driftwood that, to me, looks like a bird, but visitors to the show have seen a whole range of different animals. Similarly, Chinook includes a crumpled-paper fish that is meant to represent chinook salmon, a key food of southern resident orcas. Viewers, however, may interpret it quite differently, especially if they do not know the title of the image.
Tell me about your artistic process. Why did you choose to use graphite, coloured pencil, and ink? Do you draw from life, from photos, from imagination—or something else entirely?
Other than the occasional digital work, graphite, coloured pencil, and ink are the three main media I use. I learned how to draw in pencil in my teens, and the other two have followed more recently.
My actual process varies from piece to piece. For a simple drawing that is strictly representational, I will pick my subject, choose a view, and draw it from life or (if that is impractical) from photographs. If the final drawing is meant to be accurate to the specimen, I may use a grid or light table to transfer outlines. In other cases, I may combine elements of several photographs or specimens. Similarly, for drawings that contain multiple elements, I often work from several specimens or photographs, starting with a general plan that may get adjusted as the work develops.
There are so many strange and beautiful creatures in this exhibition. Why did you choose to the orca as the headliner?
The idea for this show began with an orca skull, and quite a few of the final drawings contain references to orcas. As I mentioned, I had a chance to draw skulls from the vertebrate collection of the Royal British Columbia Museum in 2017 and early 2018. I drew three bear skulls, a bighorn sheep, a beaver, and two ravens, and these drawings are very much true to the specimens. However, the moment I first saw an orca skull and fell in love with it, I knew wanted to do something different. I wanted to turn bone into wood. So that is what I did. I took the shape and bones of an orca skull and rendered them as driftwood. The resulting drawing, Killer Whale, is what started the idea for this show.
What do you hope to leave gallery visitors with? What do you hope your show achieves in the world?
I think this questions has answers on multiple levels. Most fundamentally, I hope that visitors will have a positive experience, and that they enjoy the art however they choose to engage with it. I would also love to see some science-art crossover—that those whose primary interest is science find interesting ideas in the art, and that those whose main interest is art learn something new and engaging about science.
Returning to the theme of the real, the unfamiliar, and the surreal, I think the show presents the viewer with a playful way to investigate their own perception of what is real or plausible, and how the way we interpret what we see is shaped by our personal background. A drawing like Orca Dreams will seem surreal to most viewers (it does to me), but when it comes to interpretation, those with some training in biology will have a very different entry point than those who lack such a background. What the drawing shows—let alone what it means—is open to interpretation, as is true for most of the art in the show.
Overall, the show invites the viewer to remain curious, and it reminds them that gut reactions can be misleading. It reminds them to be open-minded and to ask deeper questions.
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