Six questions for
Christine Atkinson

Tique asks six questions to an artist about their work and inspiration.
This week: Christine Atkinson.

Artist Christine Atkinson
Lives in Los Angeles, California

How do you describe your own art practice?

My work is broadly about colonialist environmental practices and more specifically about the erasure of the native ecosystem of the American West. There is a huge disconnect between the manufactured aesthetic of tropical plants, eucalyptus, lawns and imported ornamental plants, and the diverse and abundant habitat. This disparity has become the central point in my work.
I work in photography, installation, and sculpture. I rely heavily on found materials and photography. I’m interested in piecing together a sense of the West, both pre-European occupation and the one that has since been manufactured. I ask for a lot from my materials, but in return I am able to give them a voice. Often a large portion of the content of the work is the materials themselves. The two series of sculptures, Fragmentation and Remenet are made with wildfire debris mixed with epoxy. Just through the combination of these two materials we have the story of the age that we are living in, fire and plastic. While all my education has centered on photography, it is a natural progression, especially when you are working in the studio, to have things that exist better as objects and environments. The installations and sculptures are almost always made from materials that are not a functioning part of the ecosystem. The bird of paradise fronds, the pepper tree branches, both have very little to offer the network of plants and animals that create our ecosystem in Southern California. These materials are desiccated and often coated in dyed epoxy or fake gold dust as a way to mimic lushness and verdancy. In contrast, the native plants are present almost exclusively in photographs. They feel more fleeting, more fragile. The medium of photography is interwoven with death and preservation. By photographing something you are connecting it with that history.

Which question or theme is central in your work?

“Are we here for ourselves alone?” is a phrase that I use a lot in my work and was the title of my latest show. It references a line in Cicero’s On Duties in which he quotes Plato about how we must contribute to the good of society. It relates to the question of civic duty and selflessness and, in my work, how we relate to the land and the environment. Is it more important to have the land perform solely for us, to be a space for entertainment, or to be optimized into full economic profitability? Or is it possible to give something back? Our ecosystems are stressed, fragmented, and failing. There simply isn’t enough open space left to preserve. The rebuilding of our native ecosystems within the space of human occupation is becoming more and more critical. We must recalibrate how we think of our place in the world.

What was your first experience with art?

When I was little, I watered my parents’ plants for a summer, and in return they agreed to buy me a little plastic point and shoot camera. I was entranced by the whole process, the pressing of the buttons, the fussing with the film, and then getting the prints back. It was magic, and I was constantly taking pictures. Photography, they say, is the bastard child of painting, and for much of my time as a photographer I never felt really connected with art. It didn’t help that my early education was purely technical. Because of all this I would say my first meaningful experience with art was reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. It was the first thing that I had encountered that told me what photography was, and what it could mean. Barthes talks of the way that the light that touches the subject touches the film, and through that there is an exchange, a transfer and a contact with the person and the image. He relates photography to time, fleetingness, and death. This text really changed the way I thought not only about photography, but the power of materials. It started me down this path of asking what things represent and how they got here.

What is your greatest source of inspiration?

The landscape of California has been the driving factor in my work and really my life. California has more plant diversity than the other 47 contiguous states combined. It has the highest concentration of bee species in the world, it has the tallest, the oldest, and the largest living things within its borders. Before I had even started making this work I had started this line of research. California truly is a paradise, and uncovering its history has been fascinating.

What do you need in order to create your work?

To work I need time. I work so slowly. Everything seems to take months of thinking and processing. I am very much a photographer at heart and my practice is molded by that way of working. The actual creation is generally quick, it is the understanding of the work that comes later. I generally will frantically make things, and then hang them in the studio and stare at them for weeks while I work through what is happening in the pieces.

What work or artist has most recently surprised you?

I think it would be Fawn Rogers, “Your Perfect Plastic Heart,” that was shown at Wilding Kran in Los Angeles this past summer. The press release stated that the work was mostly about climate change, drawing the connection with the oyster and the pearl as a cycle of consumption. However, during the run of the show women lost their right to abortion in the United States. The videos and images of the pearls being harvested felt more and more like a metaphor for the consumption of women–impregnated, harvested, and their casing discarded. It was amazing to watch the meaning of a work change so quickly.

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