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Cellular Memory: Elizabeth Thomson

Elizabeth Thomson Free Jazz Colour Cry 2021 Large

Free Jazz, Colour Cry, Elizabeth Thomson, 2021

11 June – 21 August 2022 | Main Gallery | Curated by Gregory O’Brien

'We are each made up of one hundred million million cells, none of which have any idea who we are.’ - Marcus Chown

For over 30 years, Wellington-based sculptor/installation artist Elizabeth Thomson has been drawn to areas of scientific knowledge such as botany, micro-biology, oceanography and mathematics. With images and concepts from those fields as their starting point, Thomson’s works take flight. They impart a sense of mystery, beauty and the sheer exhilaration of being alive in a universe which is itself living, sentient and ever-responsive.

The works in Cellular Memory attest to a career-long commitment to grappling with both natural history and the human condition, fuelled by poetic imagination as well as by much research, field-work and long hours in the studio. The result is a body of work which asks some fundamental questions: How does humanity fit within the broader realm of nature? To what extent are we a part of, or distinct from, our environment? And how might the human imagination engage with the field of scientific knowledge?

Alluring yet at times a little disconcerting, Thomson’s works constantly return to the notion of strangeness and beauty which lies at the heart of the Romantic tradition. Echoing 20th century abstract art and French Surrealism, her works incorporate photographic source materials as well as techniques drawn from the fields of painting, sculpture, craft traditions and practical science.

In Thomson’s art we encounter new ways of seeing, feeling, understanding and possibly even remembering. As human beings, we are familiar with our own patterns of memory — and with motor- or body-memory which allows us to repeat physical movements. The idea of cellular memory raises the possibility that memories might be stored within cellular structures.

In Elizabeth Thomson’s art we recognise not only the beginnings of life in microscopic, cellular structures but also the pulse of energy through water, the patterning of wind on sand and the cycles of growth and decay that characterise all life on our planet. In these meditative, beguiling, vital works, we begin to sense the curious intelligence and sensibility of our world — the many-layered environment of which we are a part.

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