#EuropaEuropa: Penny Byrne on Europe's Refugee Crisis and the Power of Porcelain

Oct 05, 2017 - Nov 04, 2017Michael Reid Gallery, Berlin

Australian artist Penny Byrne will be opening her first European solo show #EuropaEuropa, with an installation exhibition at the Michael Reid Gallery in Berlin. On view from 5th October until 4th November 2017, the show is fully focused on the ongoing refugee crisis hitting the EU shores for the last couple of years.

For this show Byrne, produced a series of vintage blue and white porcelain figurines wearing the iconic bright orange life jackets, an undeniable synonym of the crisis. By converting these noble looking characters and symbols of home and security into life risking asylum seekers, the artist is highlighting the sheer quantity and desperation of people crossing the Mediterranean in search for safety and basic life opportunities. We had a chance to talk with Penny Byrne about this politically charged body of work and ask her about her production process as well as goals she's hoping to achieve with such an outstanding installation. 

Sasha Bogojev: What kind of works did you prepare for Berlin show?
Penny Byrne: The show will be an installation where my work takes over the gallery. Masses of blue and white vintage figurines all wearing bright orange lifejackets, some on antique serving platters, others in gravy boats. Still others in delicate china cups, others sitting on saucers or in small bowls. These cups, plates, and bowls are vessels, they are willing to use anything to get to Europe.

When did you start working on that series?
I’ve been working on this series most of this year. But I have been collecting figurines for the series since the middle of last year.

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What kind of response or reaction are you hoping to achieve with it?
I’m hoping that people will be provoked into thinking about the complexities of the ongoing migrant crisis.

What other subjects are your current works addressing?
Climate Change, harvesting of icebergs to make bottled water, the Donald Trump Presidency, the war in Syria, censorship in Russia, the War on Terror

Why do those issues resonate with you personally?
I’m very interested in geo-politics, social justice, climate change and human rights. My most recent works address all these issues.

Do you always create works that are engaged or politically charged?
Very occasionally I will make a work that is not politically charged, but not often! Most of my works have some political element. I can’t help it!!

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Aside from ceramics you've been working in other techniques previously. What makes you chose a certain medium and do you have a favourite one?
I’ve been exploring glass, bronze, 3D printing and augmented reality in recent works. But I will always come back to ceramics, as I love the medium.

When working on this show, did you use old ceramic figures as the base or are you producing your own?
I needed a lot of figurines so I put a call out on social media. I called it “The Great Blue and White Figurine Hunt of 2017” I have had over 80 figurines donated from all over Australia.

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Is the final piece influenced by the base figure or are the figures created to match the final result?
I search for vintage ceramic figurines that have the right look for what I am trying to achieve.

What other projects are you working on this year?
This solo show in Berlin has taken up most of my year, but I have also just completed a new work in collaboration with scientists who are undertaking groundbreaking malaria research for the new Science Gallery at the University of Melbourne.

#EuropaEuropa is on view from 5th October 2017 to  4th November, 2017