BY SACHI LEITH
“Multidisciplinary” is, to me, one of the most enticing pieces of educational jargon there is. As someone who has been described as chronically indecisive, I have a hard time keeping my interests within isolated fields of study, and the word “multidisciplinary” is like a shining beacon of hope. Sure, I think, I can study science and literature and art and economics, and someday I’ll be able to mash them together into a tailor-made career that I will enjoy for the rest of my life! But when reality hits me, as it so often does, like a record-breaking skydiver at 833.9 mph, I’m sure that the Renaissance woman is irrelevant these days and that I’ll be living in a cardboard box for the rest of eternity. Who in the real world applies “multidisciplinary” to everyday life?
Angela Palmer, that’s who.
Angela Palmer embodies “multidisciplinary,” and she plays the part with style. A Scottish artist who began her career as a journalist, Palmer merges her MFA with, among other things, biology, archaeology, film, ecology, history, literature, music, physics, and anatomy. But it is her career in journalism, she says, that informs the way she approaches each project—the output is a journey more than a static work of art. “The end product is just part of it,” she says. “It’s really about the story.” It can be tedious to hear someone discuss the minutiae of their own work, but Palmer tells these stories with such selfless excitement that one can’t help but be intrigued by both work and artist. “Art is about asking; asking, questioning, challenging, breaking rules, but driven always by curiosity. Curiosity underpins everything I do. Was it a successful piece of art? I don’t know, but for me it satisfies a curiosity.”
One of her most recent works is a sculpture, on 111 sheets of glass, of a child mummy from the Ashmolean Museum, at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Using CT scans of the mummy, she was able to recreate an image of the body, slice by slice, without disturbing his wrappings . From this, scientists were able to reproduce a cast of his skeleton, determine his age, and make discoveries about his teeth and bone structure. She’s performed the same process on herself, author Robert Harris, and the heads of horses, cows, and pigs.
Accompanying the sculpture is a short documentary film from her trip to the mummy’s hometown and tomb (just outside of Cairo), and art pieces constructed from linen wrappings and natural dyes.
Another project, entitled Ghost Forest, involved transporting ten enormous tree stumps from the Ghanaian rainforest to the middle of Trafalgar Square, at the heart of London. Palmer’s aim was to promote awareness of climate change and responsible forestry. The massive stumps stood looming around Nelson’s Column, which stands 50 metres, or 169 feet, tall, the height that many of these trees would have been. The trees were moved to Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference; sat for two years in the front lawn of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History; and have now found their final resting place at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The entire project has been declared carbon neutral, its emissions offset by a company called ClimateCare working to introduce efficient stoves in Ghana, the trees’ birthplace.
“What staggers me,” she marvels, “is that we have these problems in the world and so few artists are responding.”
Even on video, the project was breathtaking—the tangled roots are reminiscent of nerve endings, their silent and majestic presence among both natural and man-made landscapes a reminder of our own insignificant mortality; I can only imagine its power in real life.
“I’m not an activist,” she’s quick to say, “but I’m surprised.” When asked where she draws the line between activist and artist, Palmer pauses. “I don’t see myself as an activist in that quite often with activists, they’re associated with one issue. And that’s a determining factor that underlines their activism. When I was in Copenhagen, I met a lot of activists, and they were very determinedly single-issue. Quite often they were just exhausted by their own activism, in trying to effect change. I’d never want the shackles of it, to be limited to a single issue. The environment does interest me, and I do think we have got a duty, as human beings, but I’m not a preacher, and I don’t exactly go about living in a very pure way. Purity just doesn’t exist in my case.”
And she’s so much more interesting for her impurities. They make her seem so … what’s the word?
[Images credit: angelapalmer.com]