Updated: Jan 20
For this edition of Art List we visited Natalie Field, a South African artist based in Trondheim, to explore the bizarrely beautiful world of biosurrealism.
“The concepts in my work are driven by a desire to reconnect humans — including myself — with the natural world at this crucial moment when the planet is experiencing a devastating loss of biodiversity due to anthropomorphic machinations.”
Looking around Natalie Field’s studio, you’ll see meticulously cleaned animal bones, hanging dried-flower bouquets, wall collages, displayed butterflies, and scattered leaves. What unites all these elements? Death. What is the missing piece in this puzzle? You.
In her artistic practice, South African biosurrealist and contemporary artist Natalie Field seeks interconnectedness. By researching the matter we’re made of, she asks us to spend time with nature rather than just walking through it so we may look into our own relationship with natural materials and the changing landscape that surrounds us.
Her desire to take a deeper dive into human-animal relationships has led her to Trondheim Art Academy, where she is working on her thesis. Tracing back the line that connects all of us, she is opening a dialogue between her art, the ecological system, and preserved objects in museums. Natalie shares that she never used photography as the standard tool.
Since the beginning, she was always deconstructing and collaging in an attempt to make the invisible, visible. From working primarily with light-based media, her methods are now becoming interdisciplinary. This experimental approach made her question how to take her process from photography to sculpture.
To her, the two mediums have in common that they both “freeze moments in time”. Her series Merkaba: Vehicle of Light inspired the shift to sculptural installation. Right now, she is mostly working with prototypes through a journey of trial and error to see what works best. Natalie follows the material. She waits for stories to jump out to her and then creates vessels for them to reach us.
Conversation with Natalie Field
What drives your artistic creation?
In 2016, personal circumstances led me to think about death and how precious time is. That encouraged me to apply for an artist residency in Finland. I would go out, lie down in the forest and imagine what would happen if I would die right now, right here. I would return to the natural world.
There was a lot of solitude in this activity. It changed my perspective on life. From then I decided to focus my attention on helping the natural environment back. Death and the loss of biodiversity are very central themes in my work. That is the underlying thread that I follow.
Why did you choose Trondheim to develop artistically?
I chose NTNU because The Natural Science Museum in Trondheim belongs to the university. I wanted a university close to a natural history museum to learn bone conservation and preservation techniques.
When I got here, I managed to get an apprenticeship with Guus Wellesen at the NTNU Department of Clinical and Molecular Medicine. I’ve been doing it for about 13 months now.
And how is the apprenticeship going?
It is very exciting! I am learning new techniques that allow me to expand my visual aesthetic... although perhaps I didn’t think it a 100% through. It involves skinning animals which isn’t necessarily within my comfort zone. I have a lot of empathy for animals, so it’s been difficult.
To me even in death, a bird remains a bird. It had a life and memories that are still encapsulated within the material itself. I want to create something the animals would want to be part of, something they would agree to.
Your work can be described as ‘biosurrealist’, what does that mean?
Surrealism, at its core, but with a biological twist. I take elements from nature and associate them in a way you wouldn’t necessarily find them to create a vehicle for narrative.
In my work released during Trondheim Open, for example, I combined a rooster and songbird to create an unlikely situation. The piece is about biomass distribution and the fact that only 30% of all birds are wild birds. There is a huge imbalance in the biodiversity of birds and it keeps deteriorating. In this artwork, the egg carton symbolizes the chicken industry, the rooster is the king of the world, and the songbird represents wild birds.
How do you feel about the art community in Trondheim?
The community here is very supportive, and building a network of scientists, biologists, conservators and museum curators to work with has been a joy. During my application interview, I was very clearly told that it was completely up to me to build connections. Being a driven person, I made that happen. I can be... quite insistent.
Trondheim is also an absolutely delightful city. It is small in comparison to Johannesburg and I enjoy the sense of community and would love to stay on after my master's. I have built great connections and feel integrated into the community as a whole.
How important is interaction to you?
Incredibly important. My work Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner?, described earlier, had a QR code with a link to the paper I based the artwork on. My work from 2021, An Encyclopedia of Random Meadow Beings, had a species list printed on the side of the installation, while The Viewing Portal only functioned when being activated by gallery participants.
When people can experience art rather than just look at it, they are more likely to feel connected and take action. I convey information through the work, creating a bridge between art and science. How they read the work or what they take away — well, I suppose, that is up to them.
This article first appeared in print in The List Winter issue 2022.