Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Bethany Gibson: The word “luscious” occurs to me as I look at Emilie Grace Lavoie’s work. It’s complex, organic, involved, lush. It suggests movement and aliveness and interdependence within and between environments that appear both natural and alien. I am drawn in, I want to follow paths, figure out where tentacles make contact, go down tunnels, make connections.

We talked about her work and about ecology, as practice and inspiration.


Emilie Grace Lavoie: From an artistic point of view, I have always drawn my inspiration from the natural world. I began my studies in fashion, so I wasn’t aware of environmental degradation until my mid-twenties, when I had a work experience, planting trees in New Brunswick, and I saw the seriousness of, for example, the genetic manipulation of trees, the pesticides, the lack of biodiversity in our forest, the lack of species. It made me wonder about the as-yet-unknown, long-term impact in general, and on the food chain. I deepened my knowledge of this crisis through documentaries, books and articles, and talking to a biologist who did research on the same land on which I was planting trees. That allowed me to understand how everything is interrelated and, above all, to understand my role and the role of small-scale actions in this great equation.

BG: This idea of interdependence, of entwined lives, is very clear in your work. Did you see these ecological connections, or did you develop a consciousness of this interdependence over time? 

EGL: After my summer tree planting, it became almost like an obsession. I wanted to understand why we are not understanding that by destroying our natural environment, we are destroying ourselves. The awareness came to me through my research. In the beginning, I was very interested in the idea of imagining species that could be the result of the unknown impact of chemical and genetic manipulation. Later, I became interested in what we share with the natural world, for example, as part of our genetics. In this sense, my ceramics professor has truly been a mentor. She shared her knowledge and pushed me and my creativity to explore further in this reflection and to question a lot as well. I think, the more we talk about it, the more aware we are.  

Then I became interested in the object and Jane Bennet’s “thing power” theory, and how objects can demonstrate traces of aliveness. The materiality of ceramics and my physical involvement in the creation of my sculptures allowed me to think through the ecology of my studio. It is an experiment to create large-scale works and see how people interact with them. My piece Symbiose is a good example. It is a large sculpture that needs to be installed directly on the floor. The viewer then shares the same space. Every time that work is installed, in a gallery or any public setting, there are always broken pieces on the floor the next day. As if, because of its size, people/viewers don’t see it as fragile. People hug the piece, they take selfies with it, and walk a bit on it while doing so. For me it’s an exciting interaction, because at the end of the day we are doing the same while we walk in the woods, for example, walking and breaking branches, destroying a little bit as we go without fully realizing it. 

BG: I keep thinking, if only people could sense these things, which you show with your work, these dependencies, these beautiful and intricate and delicate details, and could see our place in these systems, and what we are doing to them — we would be in a different place, we wouldn’t be destroying our own nest. Do you think art has a role to play? In other words, how do you see the link (if you think there is one) between art and how we behave in the “real” world?

EGL: I think environmental degradation needs to be approached and presented on a smaller scale. Yes, art has a very important role! Many theorists and philosophers, such as Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton, explain that the scale of environmental problems is too big for an individual to fully understand or take an interest in. People don’t recognize that individual actions create collective actions, that they can make real change. I believe that art has a role to play in making people think, and making them question. It has the potential to really offer to the viewer a way to enter an unknown but at the same time familiar world. I believe that viewer-work interaction is important, because even if the works are not “alive,” it is important to observe how we interact with certain organic elements and unknown species in the work. Because they belong to a world different from our own, it offers avenues to understand our interactions with organic elements and species in the real world. Often, when we don’t recognize certain forms or elements as being part of our environment, we will automatically relate it to undersea life or to outer space, so that is an interesting aspect to count in the equation.  

Everything is related. Through working in the studio I ask myself how can my art create links between the viewer and the ecology presented, while immersing the viewer in a universe that offers reflection and experience. I want viewers to make connections to what surrounds them, through their emotions and reactions.

BG: What about the materials you use in your work, how are they connected to this broader artistic and environmental focus? 

EGL: I mainly use ceramics as a sculptural medium. In recent years, I have begun to integrate elements other than ceramics, such as textiles. I have always been interested in textiles, which are part of our collective environment, our culture and consumption habits, our identity, to a certain degree. I believe that this mixture of materials allows the viewer to recognize familiar and unfamiliar elements. This ambiguity perhaps allows the audience to weave links between the elements or at least to recognize their interrelationship. 

I began to push the limits of my medium by using recycled clay. When I was at university, this was something we were told not to do (mixing different kinds of clay together, as different clays lose different amounts of water at different rates and can result in deformations and cracks). Using recycled clay allowed my works to transform beyond my artistic intention. It was a certain collaboration with the unknown. This unpredictable aspect has allowed me to create outside my comfort zone, and to forge links and better understand the relationship between the object and ecology. 

BG: When I look at Between Ecology and the Object specifically I get the sense of nothing really ending, but everything feeding into everything else. Has your sense of this interdependence in your work come from your understanding of natural ecosystems, or has your artistic practice made you more aware of the natural ecosystem?

EGL: The interconnection and interdependence begins in my studio. My approach is to push myself physically in order to feel the physical consequences of my work and feel its impact on a daily basis. There are often links between my body and the body of the sculpture. These effects connect me, in some way, to my work, an intimate relationship. I often realize through the process of making my work how the outside world I am creating influences my inner world and vice versa. I believe that it is through my practice that I connect and understand the natural world. In a way, I reflect on my own vulnerability and fragility and how this informs what happens outside and vice versa. What my body is telling me, my practice is teaching me. This approach helps me to establish links and tangible traces of my connection to the nearby environment.  

Between Ecology and the Object specifically was created from this approach. Also, with the idea of taking care of the material (ceramics), like one cultivates a garden. I believe that the slow process involved in the creation of the works is transported from the studio into the exhibition space. The installation (on the wall and floor) was created to offer the viewer a sense of being subsumed in the installation and to feel its presence, but also to be part of the whole installation through interaction.

BG: Underwater ecosystems are evoked in much of your work, it seems. Sea anemones, coral, seaweed, barnacles, molluscs … Any thoughts on why these ecosystems are compelling to you?

EGL: When I was a child, we had a cottage by a lake. Once after a swim, I had a tiny fish caught to my sandal. I remember it as if it was yesterday, all the questions that went through my head (what is this?!). It was the first time I had seen such a species. It was as if all of a sudden I realized that there was a whole world I didn’t know existed. I think my fascination with these elements began at that moment. I grew up in a forested area, so the marine world was not an integral part of my culture. Every time I went to the sea, I was fascinated but also scared by algae and other organic matter. When you think that 80% of life is underwater, it’s quite overwhelming and frightening imaginatively — to think of all the different species that exist, which I am sure we don’t know everything about. Moreover, water is a vital source, we cannot live without it. It is the basis of life — that’s why this environment is important to me. 

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