Primates prowling in an urban jungle
Humans can receive blood from chimpanzees since we share nearly 99 percent of DNA.” Lisa Roet, Australian artist and expert on ape research
Agiant golden monkey climbing a green glass building in Beijing’s downtown attracts a lot of eyeballs, and bystanders liken this scene to King Kong looking at an urban landscape from the top of a building. For its maker, Lisa Roet, an Australian artist whose inspiration comes from primate research, the giant inflated golden monkey is a symbol of global warming — to remind humanity we’re displacing animals, including our relatives that share 99 percent of our DNA, says Roet. The first golden monkey show was staged in February in Melbourne.
Then, a 9-meter-high golden monkey was placed atop the parliament to mark the Chinese Year of Monkey in Melbourne.
Now, a 14-meter version of it is in China, climbing a wall of Opposite House, a hotel in Beijing’s Sanlitun area.
The inflated golden monkey work is based on the golden snub-nosed monkey discovered in 2010 on the border between China’s Yunnan province and northern Myanmar. No more than 400 survive.
They were found because villagers heard them sneezing.
Typically, snub-nosed monkeys are found in high-altitude areas.
But they have moved away from their original habitat thanks to climate change, which is causing the snow to melt in the mountains, and also due to growing human settlements.
Roet got the idea of a public sculpture of a monkey in Beijing three years ago when she did her artistic residency program in the city.
She then spent some time at the Beijing Zoo observing the golden monkey.
But observing apes is not new to her.
For the past 30 years, Roet has been studying the primates at zoos and research centers across the world.
All her art works — sculptures, photos, videos and jewelry designs — are based on apes.
“Humans can receive blood from chimpanzees since we share nearly 99 percent of DNA. But I aminterested in the 1 percent difference,” says Roet.
Roet once played with a baby gorilla during her time in Berlin in 1998.
The gorilla called Bokito made headlines in 2007 when it reportedly escaped from its enclosure in the Netherlands and attacked a woman, leaving her with hundreds of bite wounds.
Before the attack, the woman regularly visited Bokito, taking flowers and food for it.
“Bites were a way for Bokito to show his love. Maybe he wanted her to join his group of females,” says Roet.
According to the artist, Bokito was being raised by a zookeeper in an apartment in Berlin after he was abandoned at birth, when the artist made friends with it.
Roet later spoke to the wounded woman’s husband about his wife’s love for the gorilla and learned that he thought it was better than loving a man.
Roet says that sometimes the apes’ ways of expressing things are different from humans, but inmany instances they are very similar.
When she was at the Language Research Center at Georgia University in Atlanta in the United States, she encountered a chimpanzee trained to use a special keyboard to communicate with humans.
And the chimpanzee repeatedly asked her: “Where is my mom? I want my mom.”
The chimpanzee had been trained by a woman scientist for years since its infancy.
But then the scientist shifted focus to another animal and this chimpanzee was, to some extent, abandoned, says Roet. “It was really sad,” she says.
Born in a coastal city in Australia, Roet has been interested in monkeys since childhood although there were no monkeys where she lived.
She first learned about monkeys through TV documentaries and books.
When she grewup, she traveled to zoos around the world and took up artistic residency programs in primate research centers.
Meanwhile, using her art to explore the relationship between humans and other primates, Roet hopes to remind people of their duty to protect the environment.
Separately, she is also fascinated by scientific discoveries about apes.
Her latest project involves getting palm lines from primates and translating these fortune lines into an art project.
She is also working with Chinese artist Shen Shaomin to explore the identity of primates in human society.
“While watching our relatives, I often reflect on humans,” she says.
Top: Lisa Roet’s sculpture of a golden snub-nosed monkey is showcased on a building in Beijing’s Sanlitun area. Above: GoldenApe.
Chimpanzee bust, SouthernIce, by Lisa Roet.