The Jane Goodall Institute Australia asked local artist Lisa Roet to create David Greybeard for their sixtieth anniversary. David Greybeard is one of the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.
I can’t think of a more appropriate artist; Roet has been making figurative sculptures about non-human, great apes for decades. Her art reminds us that we are great apes, along with chimpanzees, orangutang and gorillas.
I have only seen photos of the sculpture of David Greybeard in front of the Arts Centre Melbourne. When I was last in the city, high winds were predicted for later in the day, and the sculpture was deflated and tied down.
He is sitting with one hand, reaching down towards the pedestrians below. The architecture of the recent edition to the Arts Centre lends itself to becoming a plinth.
The sculpture raises several questions. Is an inflatable silver plastic a respectful media given its association with balloons, advertising, and bouncy castles? What would it look like with an inflatable form of a middle-aged human? How environmentally sound is the media; are we destroying a forest to remind ourselves about its inhabitants? I do know one thing about this inflatable; it has to be deflated and tied down in high winds.
How would David Greybeard feel about his inflated image? Maybe he would only care about its size and popularity.
I prefer other works by Roet in more traditional media — am I really such a media snob? Rather I like the detail that bronze and marble afford. At RMIT there are two great wrinkled hands cast in bronze, but not human hands. They are the hands of chimpanzees, our closest relative in the great apes. The two big hands are slightly raised from their bench level base (studded with skate-stoppers); one is vertical, the other horizontal.
The single finger, in marble at the Bendigo Art Gallery, is both familiar and alien. Like her sculpture at RMIT, these are not gestures, only hands or a finger. What is startling is that my relatives’ hands are not more familiar, like the back of my own hand. Roet’s sculptures remind the viewer how focused art is on the human figure as if we were the only species on earth.