To connect with nature and to feel a sense of belonging.
We are drawn to the natural world. Private gardens and public parks, country walks and forest retreats, we commune with nature to be revitalised, to reconnect with the larger whole of which we are a part. The sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson has called this tendency ‘biophilia’, hypothesising that it is an innate characteristic of human beings to seek connection with nature. This is perhaps not surprising given that our ancestors lived within, and depended upon, the natural world for the vast majority of the time in which our species evolved and our increasingly complex brains laid down their ‘hard wiring’. The natural world teems with plant and animal life emphasising both the complex interdependence of species and the cyclical nature of birth and death. This fundamental cycle could not be, were it not for the microorganisms that break down dead materials into their constituent parts, rendering them available as the building blocks of new life. We are drawn to the burgeoning profusion of new growth, but we rarely consider that we owe as much to the microbes that effect decay as we do to the bees and other insects so essential to pollination.
In her artmaking, Renata Buziak co-opts those microbes to share in a highly unusual creative practice that blends the chemistries of photography and organic decay. What results are hauntingly beautiful images of plant forms in which the colours and textures arise over an extended period from the interaction between the products of decomposition, sunshine, and light-sensitive paper. It is a process she has developed and refined over almost twenty years, calling the resulting images ‘biochromes’.
Conceptually her series explore a variety of themes around memory, time, habitat, health, and inner contemplation. As an émigré she looks back to the plants of her childhood garden in Poland and out to the distinctive flora of her new home in Australia. As a creative practitioner she collaborates with other artists and musicians to expand the affective and sensory experience of her work. As a contextual thinker she recognises the potential for images of the natural world to revitalise the sometimes-sterile spaces of the contemporary metropolis. As a researcher she explores the primordial Gondwanan vegetation that lives on in sub-tropical Queensland. And as a communicator she has used her work to promote the recognition, appreciation, and value of medicinal plants in the context of Aboriginal knowledge and natural science.
What is it that draws you to plants as the subject of your artmaking?
Growing up in Poland, in a small town surrounded by fields and forests, I was at home in the natural environment. I learnt to identify plants and their uses from my mother and grandmother. At the same time, I was learning about photography. After migrating to Australia, I felt lost, so I turned to those childhood interests. It helped me to become familiar with my new country; to connect with nature and to feel a sense of belonging. Since then, I have been introduced to the mesmerising beauty and diversity of Australian flora, making this the subject of my art.
You have developed an unusual way of making photographic images that you call ‘biochromes’. What is a biochrome and how is it made?
The process builds on early photographic processes and experimentation, especially the various forms of contact printing: photogenic drawing, photograms, chemigrams, and regenerative techniques that allow organic processes to interact with the photographic emulsion. The biochrome process I have developed involves the fusing of organic and photographic materials over an extended period. As such, it is a collaboration between artmaking, science, and natural decomposition.
[Left] © Renata Buziak ‘Summer’s Offerings (Podarunki Lata)’ 2009 from the series ‘Afterimage’
[Right] © Renata Buziak ‘Farming Fields (Pola Uprawne)’ 2009 from the series ‘Afterimage’
Tell me about the making of ‘Afterimage’.
This was the most challenging series to make. I had a preconceived idea of what I wanted the images to portray, and yet I was working with a process that is highly unpredictable. I also found it emotionally challenging to spend long periods revisiting my childhood memories of Poland. That said, it was also an exciting process of discovery.
I began by making lists of the things I wanted to include in the work: a lake where we would go swimming, bonfires in the backyard, my auntie’s farm, and the fields and forests surrounding the town. I then experimented with various plants and organic materials in contact with recycled photographic materials. As this process is time consuming and unpredictable, I often made two or three biochromes for each idea, later selecting the images that best evoked my memories, which were themselves already altering with time and distance.
Do you want the images to arouse similar feelings in the viewer?
While the biochrome images are abstract, I hoped the viewers would perceive what I wanted to say. There are clues in the titles. But, regardless of those titles, I wanted the viewer to draw on their own experiences to imagine the place. For example, ‘Summer Night’ might remind them of somewhere they visited, lying on the grass and gazing at the starry night sky. It’s about shared memories through an image. It is not one specific place so much as something from nature that is now distant and yet remains in the heart of memory. What I like about biochromes is that they are layered, the viewer can go beyond what they initially perceive.
[Left] © Renata Buziak ‘Habitat II’ 2015 from the series ‘Habitat’
[Right] © Renata Buziak ‘Colour, People and Places, Helen and David (Cedar Creek)’ 2015 from the series ‘Habitat’
In the project ‘Habitat’ you worked with fellow artist Lynette Letic (now Lynette Spry). How did the project begin?
We wanted to explore the idea of gardening. Why do people have gardens? What motivates them to work hard on a piece of dirt? Why is soil so precious to life? In Poland, the main purpose of a home garden was to grow and harvest food and healing plants. We wanted to find out what motivated gardeners in Pine Rivers, a suburban district a little north of Brisbane. It is an area that includes small residential gardens and larger properties with acreage.
We sent out expression-of-interest forms and set up meetings with those who responded. During our visits, the participants would show us their gardens, and I would record interviews where we discussed specific plants or decorative objects and the reasons behind their garden design or lack of it. Some gardeners were very specific about what they planted; others let things evolve without much intervention.
For me, working with those plants was very different from my previous projects, because now it was about their significance for those garden owners and their stories. So, the biochromes were arranged into a story they shared or the particular design of their garden.
How did you and Lynette collaborate?
Lynette took photographs of the gardeners, their gardens, and some details of specific things she found particularly interesting. Meanwhile, I collected plant samples with which to create biochrome images that might represent the various gardens in another way. Plants that were meaningful to the gardeners or their families because they evoked a memory or because they attracted butterflies and birds.
Lynette transcribed the interviews, and I edited them. A concise version of each interview was included in the catalogue with the extended version in the exhibition. Each interview inspired the individual title. We also set up a Tumblr page to document the project online.
[Left] © Renata Buziak ‘Centella asiatica… anti-inflammatory…’ 2015 from the series ‘Medicinal Plant Cycles’
[Right] © Renata Buziak ‘Euphorbia hirta… anti-fungal…’ 2015 from the series ‘Medicinal Plant Cycles’
You made ‘Medicinal Plant Cycles’ on Minjerribah [North Stradbroke Island] in close consultation with the local Aboriginal community, the Quandamooka people. What did you learn from them and how did this inform your image-making?
I learned a lot about being on country. About listening to country by walking the land and listening to people by sitting and have a yarn. About community, belonging, and connection to ancestors. Some of the stories that were shared with me described the use of plants and went on to shape the work I made. In the ‘Core Energy’ series, for example, I arranged healing plants in a circle reflecting concepts such as island, community, and belonging.
© Renata Buziak from the series ‘Polish Meadows’
[Left to Right] ‘Pokrzywa zwyczajna (Urtica dioica)’ 2018; ‘Jarzębina (Sorbus aucuparia)’ 2018; ‘Krwawnik pospolity (Achillea millefolium)’ 2018; ‘Babka zwyczajna (Plantago major)’ 2018
In ‘Polish Meadows’ you continued that exploration into medicinal plants, this time from your native Poland.
I had known about the significance of medicinal plants since childhood. Rediscovering them on my visits back to Poland, I began creating these works so that I could then make them known in my new country. This series was about the plants that I grew up with and the passing on of knowledge. I wanted to highlight the women who are important in my life and their connections to those plants. For many people, these plants are considered weeds, but they have healing qualities. They are used throughout the world in teas and other remedies.
I am interested by the way you draw on context without overly determining the visual results.
I am fascinated by the gap between intention and outcome, which according to Margaret Iversen [professor emerita of art history at the University of Essex] is essential to the role of chance in art.
Since I was a child, I have loved playing in the darkroom and the unpredictability of experimentation.
It is a collaboration in which my input – selection, interaction, touch, arrangement – initiates a process completed by microbes and natural decay. The creative process extends beyond envisioning the end results and it can lead to surprising and exciting outcomes.
The process is elegantly illustrated in the time-lapse videos you have made.
I was curious to see and understand the flow of the microbial colonies as the plants decayed on the photographic surface releasing chemicals that slowly build up the biochrome image. The time-lapse videos compressed decomposition that took over four or five weeks into a couple of minutes. I find the process mesmerising, as did the audience at my first screening.
[Left] © Renata Buziak ‘Crinkle Bush (Lomatia silaifolia) Autumn’ 2022 from the series ‘Gondwanan Biochromes’
[Centre] © Renata Buziak ‘Anchor Vine (Palmeria racemosa) Fragrant Oil’ 2023 from the series ‘Gondwanan Biochromes’
[Right] © Renata Buziak ‘Geebung (Persoonia species) healing sweet snack’ 2022 from the series ‘Gondwanan Biochromes’
Tell me about the making of ‘Gondwanan Biochromes’.
This series was made during my residency on Binna Burra land, which is located within the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, in Lamington National Park. Over the twelve-month period I catalogued the Gondwanan plants that grow on Binna Burra land, researching them in publications, and consulting with experts. Collecting plant samples for my artwork posed a challenge as this is prohibited in the National Park. Fortunately, the Binna Burra Lodge gave me permission to collect plant samples on their private property with which to create my biochromes. At first I worked in the Pottery Shed, later in a safari tent and then in a heritage listed building called Groom’s Cottage, which was the first house built on the property. This provided me with a longer-term studio where I could continue to develop my work and welcome visitors.
How did the palaeobotanist Dr Ray Carpenter help you in devising this work?
Ray helped me in locating and identifying plants so that I could be sure of their Gondwanan lineage. He shared valuable stories about the plants and indicated some of their features, all of which was invaluable in helping me develop the work. He also participated in the Art. Nature. Science. program I led alongside of my residency, presenting a talk on Gondwanan lineage plants. And he wrote an essay about it for our publication ‘Art. Nature. Science. at Binna Burra’.
[Left] © Renata Buziak – View of ‘Medicinal Plant Cycles’ installed as privacy screens at Griffith University Nathan Campus, Brisbane. 2019
[right] © Renata Buziak – Easter at The Piano Mill public event, 2017. A work from ‘Flickering Overtones’ installed in Oban, a building designed by Jasper Wolfe on the Harrigans Lane Collective property, Queensland.
You have shown your work in a number of innovative ways – on fabric, on glass, in relation to musicmaking…
I want to offer a variety of ways for people to enjoy my artwork and connect with nature. I believe it’s essential for diverse audiences to be able to access and experience art in a range of formats and materials. For example, by bringing biochrome images into corporate settings we can foster a culture of innovation and creativity through a connection with nature. An example is the application of art onto the glass screens used to divide office and teaching spaces [seen above]. Instead of the usual sterile frosted glass, these biochrome art panels provide privacy while inspiring and motivating engagement.
I enjoy providing a tactile and unrestricted experience for audiences. Printing images onto fabric brings a different experience of an artwork allowing for a flow and gentle movement of textile on a wall. Its softness and scale again suggest the natural exterior world, creating a harmonious and inspiring environment.
I have collaborated with a number of musical events including those at an inspirational Wilsons Downfall bushland property near Stanthorpe in New South Wales run by the Harrigans Lane Collective. My biochrome images of flora from the property were displayed on outdoor performance stages, at their new chamber music venue, Lagavulin, and in a collaborative interactive installation created with Bloom Collective. Collaborating in this way allows the sensory experience to be expanded in ways we cannot achieve on our own and, in the process, it feeds our individual creativity.
[Left] ‘Remapping Mitchell’ – an ongoing collective project. Renata leading a collaborative cyanotype mural, ‘The Spirit of Country’, at Mount Moffatt arts camp. Photo © Jude Roberts
[Right] ‘Remapping Mitchell’ – an ongoing collective project. Renata Buziak preparing the cyanotype exposure. Photo © Clare Cowley
What are you working on now?
I love to learn and share through my work and, at any one time, I usually have several projects in various stages of development. Currently, my most immediate project is ‘Remapping Mitchell’, focused on sites along Maranoa River on Gunggari country in Queensland. During the recent residential arts camp with a group of indigenous and non-indigenous artists at Mount Moffatt we worked on individual and collective artworks, which included me leading a collaborative cyanotype mural ‘The Spirit of Country’. The project will be exhibited in Brisbane, Mitchell, and Injune in 2023 and 2024.
Another project involves an international collaboration between artists and scientists through the ecoartspace movement. The focus is on soil health. Healthy soil with a thriving microbial population is essential to life. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to protect our life-giving soil, and education is an important part of this.
What has this creative engagement with plants taught you?
Engaging in the creative process while surrounded by nature has been an ongoing journey of self-discovery. Through it I have become more aware of my environment and learned to appreciate the cycles of life. I found healing for myself and gained insight into how I can help others. I am motivated by the needs of others to connect with nature, and this fuels my desire to share my work and engage in meaningful conversations.
Renata Buziak was born in Rybnik, Poland, in 1973. She emigrated to Canberra, Australia in 1991, settling in Queensland a few years later. She has a bachelor’s degree in photography with first class honours (2006) and a doctoral degree (2016), both from Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane. Her work has featured in seventeen solo exhibitions, six two-person shows and over fifty group exhibitions across Australia and in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom and the USA. In 2005 she won the DELL Gallery Thiess Art Prize; the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society Award at QCA; and the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital Art Award. She went on to win the Emerging Art Prize at the St Sebastian’s Spring Art Exhibition, Yeronga, Queensland, in 2008. Her artworks are held in a number of public and private collections including, in Poland, The National Museum in Wrocław; the Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw; and UMCS University in Lublin; and, in Australia, Brisbane Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha; The University of Queensland, Brisbane; the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital; the Mater Hospital Queensland; and the Queensland Children’s Hospital. Renata Buziak’s monograph ‘Afterimage’ was published by Queensland Centre for Photography in 2010. She lives and works in Queensland, Australia.
Photo: © Patricia Olazo
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.