Announcing the fourth commission for STAGES: photography through the pandemic

Artist profile: Isobel Knowles + Van Sowerwine

Art Announcement from Australia. Published by Monash Gallery of Art on Wednesday 16 September 2020.

Announcing the fourth commission for  STAGES: photography through the pandemic image Announcing the fourth commission for  STAGES: photography through the pandemic image Announcing the fourth commission for  STAGES: photography through the pandemic image

Isobel Knowles & Van Sowerwine are the latest recipients of Monash Gallery of Art's STAGES: photography through the pandemic commissions. Responding to the unprecedented social, environmental and economic impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic on Australian artists and society at large, Monash Gallery of Art has commissioned five artist projects.

Nominated by:
Gael Newton OAM
Curatorial Consultant & Researcher

Nominator’s statement:

I have always found ‘table top’ photography – as the genre of arranging miniature objects and figures to suggest a narrative has been called in amateur camera club exhibitions – fascinating. The miniature narrative has also been powerfully used to express views of how the world is – or might be. My favourite artists of the genre are mid-20th century Hungarian, Klara Langer and German-American, Ruth Berhnard.

Constructed tableaux are forms of transmission or subversion of cultural values. They are usually patently constructed; an illusion of realism is present but not the point. Perhaps the genre subconsciously reconnects us to memories of children’s books.

Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine create poignant, finely crafted tableaux and animations which continue the genre’s tradition of empathy and questioning of the world, our own and others’ personal experiences. Once seen you can’t erase the characters – they have joined the living.

- Gael Newton OAM

Artists’ practice statement:

Our practice centres around the way miniatures, photography and animation can speak to an audience’s imaginations directly and open up unexpected emotional responses. The immersive experiences we create bridge the gap between on and off screen reality, disrupting normal perception to create significant narrative engagement. Our work investigates narratives of community, childhood and metamorphosis and engages viewers both physically and emotionally.

We are interested in the fundamental question of what it is to be human, and what are the formative experiences that shape our lives and our world view? Our narrative threads are drawn from the rich world of childhood, from places of deep significance and from experiences of trauma and intensity that resonate deeply. Miniature characters and scenes create appealing, immersive worlds that draw viewers in then go on to expose problematic depths below.

- Isobel Knowles & Van Sowerwine

Artists’ proposal:

As collaborative artists we normally spend time in the same physical space to create work, experiencing the room, the energy and the interruptions together in one space. During the pandemic we are forced apart and spend time together through digital windows into each other’s spaces and lives.

Isobel’s world became sparsely populated with vast stretches of time alone and silent in an eerie calm, experiencing the surreal dissonance between peaceful surrounds with abstract distress from the outside world coming in only via devices. Van experienced the lockdown with her family, children homeschooling, teaching through video conferencing, many layers of responsibility and activity piling in behind the zoom screen to create acute overwhelm and stress. The pandemic starkly demonstrates how one rule imposed upon every person results in vastly different experiences as our lives become simultaneously more homogenous and more disparate.

As a response to the pandemic, and to the project, we want to photograph an imaginary interior landscape. The intent is that the project will take the form of a series of images of miniature sets exploring the contrasting emotional and physical environments during COVID-19 based on our personal experiences.

We intend to build miniature sets representing domestic interiors we inhabit, but with surreal and unexpected elements that reflect our own internal emotional landscapes. Some of these will be based on virtual backgrounds used during video-conferencing, others on the difficult emotions we experienced.

These will be carefully lit and photographed creating a series of prints that are uncanny and surreal.

We have worked extensively with stop-motion animation, photographing frame by frame miniature sets to resemble real worlds, as well as working with miniature sets and photography to tell stories through a single image. We are excited about returning to photography to tell personal stories of COVID-19.

- Isobel Knowles & Van Sowerwine

About the commission

Responding to the unprecedented social, environmental and economic impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic on Australian artists and society at large, Monash Gallery of Art has commissioned five artist projects.

Photographers image the spaces between us, whether physical or psychological, be it through portraits or landscapes, within the domestic sphere or the public realm. The significance of work and leisure routines and the liberty of everyday behaviours we take for granted is never better understood than when the right and ability to do them is taken away.

STAGES: photography through the pandemic will see Jane Burton, Cherine Fahd, Phuong Ngo, Isobel Knowles + Van Sowerwine, and James Tylor respond creatively to the unprecedented social, environmental and economic impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The resulting bodies of work will feature in online and gallery-based exhibition outcomes as part of MGA’s Luminaries exhibition series in 2021. A selection of the commissioned works will also join the MGA Collection to contribute to the cultural record of this time.