Kate Rohde: In My Nature - Art Collector

Issue 50, October - December 2009

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For many Australians, the idea of wild nature is coloured by distant stereotypes of shaggy grizzly bears, roaring lions and antlered reindeer. Despite working with synthetic materials and a hypercolour palette, Kate Rohde’s version of nature is much closer to home writes Ingrid Periz.

A woolly mammoth being attacked by sabre-toothed cave lions; a rhinestone-studded mink; a spotty skunk. Kate Rohde’s forthcoming show at Karen Woodbury Gallery in Melbourne should come with a warning: no animal parts were used in the production of this work. Rohde’s faux fur animals – even the feathers are synthetic – installed in elaborately staged settings can make for what she calls a “crazy natural history museum slash rococo palace,” a place where, to misquote Steve Irwin, animals rule, but always at a distance.

Since completing a degree at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2001, Rohde’s star has risen quickly. Taxidermy, her first solo show with Sydney’s Kaliman Gallery was a sell-out; two years ago Business Review Weekly called the young sculptor and installation artist “hot property”. The National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia along with a number of regional galleries have acquired her work. A 2006 finalist in the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award, Rohde has been awarded residencies in Paris and Tokyo. Her work has been shown in London and Dunedin and most recently she was included in (4A) CODE SHARE, a Lithuanian mini-biennale curated by Simon Rees.

Nature in Rohde’s work is never entirely natural. “I want to create an experience of encountering nature in a fantastic form,” she says. Growing up in Sassafras in the Dandenongs on Melbourne’s outskirts, “it really was the experience of being connected and disconnected to the natural world all at once. I grew up in a region of temperate forest where dramatic nature events happened so rarely, plus with there being no big dangerous animals it seemed very sedate. I still felt a kind of wariness wandering off the beaten track, the forest seemed to have a haunted atmosphere and I was always glad to get back into the clearing out of the thick bush.” At the same time, she says, “I was looking out upon the Australian forest, but all the books and television images were of North American and European animals. The first wild animals I saw in Sassafras were ferals, rabbits and foxes.”

This sense of unnatural or highly mediated nature – Rohde also mentions The Adams Family and National Geographic as influences – underwrites all her work whether the natural world is encountered in her recreations of old-fashioned museum vitrines or dioramas, in the biologically based decorative flourishes of 17th century interior decoration, or the homemade accessories of the stereotypical hunter. In Cabin Fever (2002) a mock-up of an imagined isolationist’s cabin and Taxidermy, a collection of mounted antlered heads and display cases of smaller animals shown a year later, Rohde honed the taxidermy skills she had gleaned from a second-hand DIY book. (Rather than use real animals, Rohde stretches faux fur over taxidermy forms.)

A turning point came when Rohde visited natural history museums in Paris and Vienna along with the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, the Museum of Hunting and Nature, also in Paris.

Appreciating their “older style presentation techniques and period rooms,” she put these experiences to gorgeous effect in Chateau Fatale, her 2005 show. Its pink and gilt-walled baroque splendour owed more to cake icing than rococo silversmithing techniques, marrying well with faux marble flooring, ornate mirrors, and curved vitrines housing peacocks and squirrels among rice-paper flowers. She made extensive use of natural motifs borrowed from baroque and rococo predecessors, along with papier-mache, plasticine and polystyrene. Some kind of empire reprised the baroque/rococo excess, but in a cooler, icier key using silver filigreed mirrors on pale blue walls.

Rohde’s working process is laborious and risky. The MDF (medium density fibreboard) she favours makes poisonous dust. While production could be outsourced, she says: “It’s very important for me to be involved as much as possible in its creation. Every day I am problem solving and experimenting with materials. I can’t express how much fun it was making it.” In a short space of time her work has moved from folksy woodland cabin to rococo palace, with a corresponding increase in production values. Although the natural world may provide a starting point, naturalism has never been her aim. In what she calls her “twisted dioramas that present unreal reality,” she re-imagines natural history as something very strange.

Kate Rohde’s next exhibition will be staged at Karen Woodbury Gallery in Melbourne from 25 November to 19 December 2009.

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