MICROBIOLOGY, FARMING AND ART ACTIVISM
BY OLIVER ENWONWU
2 September 2019
South African artist Ingrid Bolton was born in 1963 in Johannesburg. She studied medical technology but in a radical departure enrolled at the University of South Africa in 2008 for another degree in the visual arts. Bolton takes pressing global issues and brings them into the public space for discussion. Installation is her predominant medium, but she is also known for videography. Interestingly, Bolton’s background in microbiology fuels her need to make the microscopic world visible. A few years spent running an organic farm with her family naturally led her to focus on the changes in climate conditions and the weather. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her background, choice of materials, and theme.
Following your diploma in medical technology, as well as a career at the Groote Schuur Hospital and UCT’s Medical School, what lured you to the visual arts and how has the journey been so far?
My creative energy had been spent on making pottery for many years. However, I discovered that despite holding a diploma in ceramics, it is not taken seriously in the contemporary art space. I decided if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to take myself seriously by gaining a degree in the visual arts. I was not resident in a city, so I decided on the University of South Africa, a distance-learning option. Thereafter, I completed my Masters of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Art. I have never regretted it.
My journey, like most, has had its highs and lows, but I have been fortunate to do what I love, namely, make art and teach. What I am passionate about is that the contemporary art space enables you as an artist to engage with society in a meaningful way.
Please tell us how these experiences have informed your body of work, regarding narrative and style, while taking care to deepen our understanding of your techniques and process.
The advantage of age is that I have experienced life and have baggage to work with. I believe that we are an accumulation of our life lived. My history in microbiology, ceramics, and farming inform my art making. I don’t imagine anyone else having my specific past experience, and so it validates my art making, as it comes from my own experience and is therefore original to me.
My work Un(sea)n is a good example of this, because it combines materials and ideas that come together in one. Phytoplankton are the microscopic organisms in the ocean that are affected by carbon dioxide emissions. Some of these organisms have been absorbing our emissions for millennia, but now they cannot cope with the quantity we produce. My disintegrating porcelain organisms are suspended over a tray of used motor oil. My past experiences of farming during a dry period, microscopy, and ceramics inform this work.
Do you think a dichotomy exists between your concerns for environmental sustainability and your use of copper, a non-biodegradable metal, to symbolise human connectivity and dependency in a digital age?
A dichotomy does exist in how we, including myself, live as humans. The global focus will have to shift away from the burning of fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind. Individuals can make a difference, but how governments respond will be crucial to our future. The use of resources like copper will impact our future. It is 100 percent recyclable, which helps, however, there is a finite amount. Innovations are happening daily but because it is such a good conductor of energy, it may take a while to find an alternative.
In 2012, Un(sea)n won the Sasol New Signatures award, and in 2013, your first solo exhibition held at Pretoria Art Museum. How important was this exhibition to advancing your career?
Winning the Sasol New Signatures award was a fantastic leap for my career. I was in the process of completing my undergrad degree, but because the solo exhibition was housed in a museum space, it enabled me to step up. It was an opportunity to meet new people, and the event itself created its own momentum. The media coverage got my name out there, which was stimulating to be a part of.
In Connect Disconnect (2013) and Crossing the Ecoline (2016), you investigate our dependency on copper for our interconnectedness and respond to the changing levels of ocean acidification, respectively. With particular reference to the latter, both exhibitions underscore the increasing interdisciplinary nature of art; how would you define the artist’s changing role in the society today?
I have not really grown out of my rebellious teenage years, but I have found a home in the activist art space. Making work that is meaningful is important to me. Similarly, using materials that carry meaning makes it so much more relevant to me, but also, hopefully, to others.
Artists have been working with and commenting on societal issues for centuries. This current time has so many contentious issues, and it is the artist who has the ability to work with those issues. Pointing fingers doesn’t help, because we are all implicated in the predicament that our globe is in at the moment. How can I, as an artist, co-opt society to think about climate change? Can I encourage debate? I find it rewarding to make art that might motivate someone to think about climate change and potentially even act on that thinking.
More and more, we are discovering that even the smallest microscopic organisms, as well as compounds or minerals in the earth—the things we cannot see—are crucial for a healthy globe. We are discovering that what we do in our world affects other living creatures but ultimately affects us in ways we are unable to control.
Your last solo exhibition Re-Connect Cubed, at Berman Contemporary from October to November 2018, featured work that has evolved from your entry in the Sasol New Signatures competition in 2012. What significant changes has your work undergone in this period?
Visually, the cable work has taken on a more three-dimensional form, emerging out of the cubic shape but also out of the cable itself. The cable’s rubber housing is removed to reveal the individual copper interior. It looks at the one-in-many, or exposes to view that which is unseen. I have also played with scale, with some of the work being much larger –up to 1.5m –referencing a matrix and bringing a three-dimensional appearance to the work.
Please tell us about the Cellular project and other exciting ventures you have lined up.
Whilst the cable work and the copper work are quite different visually, they do interconnect and relate to each other in so many ways. I am working towards a body of work that will bring together the materials and connect the concepts, focusing more on the land, the compounds, and the materials.
The Cellular project is a body of work that will be going to the Start Art Fair in London in September with Berman Contemporary. This work focuses on our human onnection, or lack thereof, with the environment, and I am excited to be part of this fair.