If you’d asked artist Kate Scardifield about shucking oysters 18 months ago, she might have given you a puzzled look. But after hauling a ton of oyster shell waste from the NSW South Coast to her warehouse studio in Rockdale, Sydney, cleaning the lids, drying them in her studio’s car park, using a plate compactor to crush them, and a cement mixer to churn the material, she’s a bona fide expert.
“I know a reasonable amount about that now,” she says, laughing. “That’s the great thing about being an artist, you get to tap into these different knowledge systems.”
Scardifield is a sponge for knowledge. She’s also a bit of a polymath. Her artistic practice has spanned bronze sculptures and video works to lugging heavy parachute fabrics to the coast to see how they change shape in the wind. She’s the current artist in residence at the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) Climate Change Cluster (C3) and she’s a senior lecturer at the UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building. But first and foremost, Scardifield is an artist.
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“Research is fundamental to what I do,” she tells Broadsheet. “And the more that my art practice has developed, I think about what it is I can contribute that’s beyond the art object, whether it’s generating particular conversations or ideas. I’ll be an artist till I die.”
One of her recent works, Urgent Is the Rhythm, was a three-metre-tall column made of algae biomass and oyster shell waste – a material representation of CO2, or “weighted blocks of carbon”. It was on display for three months at the Art Gallery of South Australia as part of the 2022 Adelaide Biennial. For the artist, this organic sculpture held an important message for the gallery and those who visit it: that museums are carers for carbon and that their future role could be to store carbon responsibly.
“I wanted to make something really big, and to draw on that neoclassical architecture on the facades of big state institutions, because the conversation I’m interested in is slightly controversial, so it needed to be big, it needed to be heavy and it needed to be a bit stinky.”
She worked with Appellation Oysters in Shoalhaven to source the oyster shell waste, bringing in scientific research unit C3, a graphic animator, an architect and other designers to help process the biomaterial into pliable masonry matter.
Now that Adelaide Biennial is over, Scardifield is keen to understand how the material will discolour and decompose over time. “I’ve made art for nearly 15 years, working largely with textiles,” she explains. “[But] I’ve become more and more aware of my material footprint in doing that, so a lot of questions I’ve asked myself over the years are [about] how I do what I want to do without being destructive.” In the case of the oyster waste material, it’ll degrade naturally.
The 36-year-old works closely with marine biologists and chemists in her work. She wanted to be a marine biologist when she was younger, she tells us, but as an artist working alongside them today she sees her role as telling stories about our changing world through objects. “I’ll leave the science to the chemists,” she says, smiling. “But art can be critical objects that help us think through really complex things.”
Standing inside Scardifield’s studio, we see dried kelp – crisp and ridged in its crinkled statue state, miniature drawings of large-scale installations that the artist likes to dive into between projects, irons for smoothing fabric, books about pleating, W-shaped moulds for drying organic waste, and rolls of fabric. Rolls and rolls of heavy-duty sailcloth, or dacron, made of polyester.
“I see sails and seaweed as being a synthetic/organic entanglement, in a way,” Scardifield says. “To me it’s not that much of a leap to go from sailcloth to seaweed because I’m interested in how you visualise carbon. When people talk about carbon footprint and carbon emissions it’s so abstract, like picturing a weird future city, so I wanted to give carbon a weight. I wanted to make it visible in a different way. Sailcloth and those textiles help me to visualise and make visible the wind, and seaweed and shell waste can make visible carbon.”
One of Scardifield’s ongoing projects, Canis Major, is about making visible the powerful forces of the wind and our changing natural environment. “It’s as much a signal as it is a warning,” she explains about this artwork, which incorporates some semaphore signals. “I want to use them to talk about the fact that the weather is changing.”
The project’s name comes from a constellation of stars best seen from the southern hemisphere, and the labour-intensive nature of the work – which sees Kate dragging repurposed sails around fields and coastal rocks – harks back to a childhood spent sailing with her family.
“I have these memories of folding the sails back and forth over the boom and being so exhausted and having this cumbersome thing and being frustrated and annoyed, so in a lot of ways it feels like there is a return to that materiality,” she says. “I also really love unruly materials, or materials that can’t be controlled or have their own energy or agency.”
What makes Scardifield’s jump from man-made fabrics to biomaterials endlessly interesting is that the latter are alive. “They get mouldy, they’re stinky, they have these personalities that come out in the process,” she says. “That [discovery] for me in the studio, from what I’ve seen with the scientists I’ve worked with, is similar to the lab space in a way. You’re testing things, you have an idea of what might happen but you’re never sure what you’re going to get.”
Kate Scardifield is one of 12 artists showcasing work in the exhibition Pliable Planes: Expanded Textiles & Fibre Practices, on at UNSW Galleries, Sydney, until July 18.
Read more in our Studio Visit series.