Golden Monkey: A Creative Exploration to the Origin of Human Beings

A primate dangling on a skyscraper — your first guess is probably the iconic scene of King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building, a classic symbol of the contested relationship between human and nature. But if you look up while passing by the H Code Building in Central recently, you will see the scene reinterpreted by Golden Monkey, a 14-meter tall inflatable sculpture created by Australian artist Lisa Roet. It was launched during the Business of Design Week (BODW) last December and will be on display until 10 April as part of BODW CityProg, an extension programme of BODW which aims to activate the collaboration between the creative and the business communities.

With a strong passion for primates, Lisa has delved into the relationship between human and the species for 30 years. DMatters had the chance to talk with her about her art and the relationship between creativity, science and business.

Golden Monkey  represents the sneezing snub-nosed monkey. Could you share the conceptualisation and the research process? 

Many years ago I began a series of works called Extinct Distinct based on my documentation of some newly discovered yet endangered species of primates. While researching orangutan in Borneo 10 years ago, I was invited to join a team of scientists to look for a newly spotted species in Borneo. I did visual documentation of the new species as there had not been any. This started me on a long project resulting in Golden Monkey. 

There are many interesting stories associated with snub-nosed monkeys. Their sneezing snub nose is definitely one of them. They sneeze to get melted ice and rain out of their upturned nose. Before they were discovered, nearby villagers thought the sneezing sound was from their sick ancestors. That led scientists travelling in the village to investigate, and they found this new species in Yunnan’s high mountains in 2010. Global warming made an impact on its habitat, making it a symbol of changing global weather patterns.

I wanted to create a large scale version of this monkey to be placed on skyscrapers in urban centres to highlight the increasing urbanisation and co-habitation of urban and nature. I used a lightweight inflatable metallic material to make it feasible to hang a large sculpture on a building. Its inflation and deflation also highlight the vulnerability of the endangered species.

What is the most challenging part of creating Golden Monkey? How did you overcome it?

The most challenging part is installing the sculpture onto the building facade. Weather and wind are the biggest challenges. Making sure the sculpture is secure and well monitored during the display period are the key to a safe and successful public art project. For a project like this, the teams you work with are crucial. I was very lucky to have worked with an amazing team in Hong Kong who brainstormed with me how to get Golden Monkey up.

You have explored the theme of primates with a variety of media, including sculpture, photography, drawing, film, etc, for years. Which do you think has delivered your messages most effectively?

All my projects and the media I work in feed each other but I think large public projects like Golden Monkey is so satisfying! It appeals to a wide range of age groups and people. It exposes the public to art while also creates layers of engagement for those who wish to know more about its meaning. I have spent many years creating art within the gallery system but I find the public domain a very different and important one. It allows the discussions about the environment, global warming and extinction of animal species to be shared by all.

The collaboration between art and science has got more attention in recent years. Nature and the environment have been your focus since the beginning of your career, how has the perception of the relationship between art and science been changed? How do you think it will evolve in the future?

When I first started making art I was a failed “wannabe” scientist. I wanted to study Primatology or Zoology but failed physics. An art teacher at my high school encouraged me to go to art school. When I finished art school in the eighties, I decided to continue my career in science research but through art. For my first art grant proposal, I was asked if I was a scientist or an artist — no one got it!

Now I am asked to give talks to science students at universities. Scientists ask me to join them in their research campaigns. I think there is a greater understanding globally of the importance of creative thinking. Obviously, artists have a way to tap into the creative processing of the brain. With this comes new avenues of thought potentially for other industries. There is nothing new in this idea. When you look back to the work of Renaissance artists like Filippo Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci, the relationship between art and science was quite prevalent and fruitful.

As part of BODW CityProg, Golden Monkey demonstrates the chemistry between the creative industry and the business sector. Do you think the commercial sector is increasingly celebrating creativity? What are the challenges of pitching artistic ideas to business people? 

I am really interested in the relationship between artists, business sponsorship and environmental science. These three groups have the potential to bring something equally important to the table and together create positive and important art projects. Many businesses are looking at their future sustainability projection. Art and science always need sponsors and scientists need a visual voice. Together this three-way relationship can be very powerful. The most challenging part is to persuade business people of the power of creative visual messages.

What will be your next step after Golden Monkey? Could you give us a little peek at your next big project?

I have been invited to develop a global art project which will tour major cities to highlight and celebrate the incredible work of scientist and environmentalist Jane Goodall. She was also my childhood hero and my female role model. She is a pioneer female scientist in a predominantly male world and her research shows a whole new perspective on animal behaviour — that they also have feelings and emotion, for example. I also have an exciting new project coming up in Singapore!

Golden Monkey will be shown until 10 April 2019.