In Conversation with The Ryan Sisters

    From humour and horror, to death and the absurd, artworks by The Ryan Sisters leave you asking questions and wanting more. With works spanning taxidermy, sculpture, science and fine art, we delve into the childhoods of this highly-talented contemporary arts duo to discover what drives their creative process and their work. The answer? A love of animals, a deep connection with the body, and an innate ability to celebrate humour in adversity. See works by The Ryan Sisters – Pip Ryan and Natalie Ryan – at the ‘FAUX STUDIO’ fundraiser exhibition, now showing at the Convent’s c3 Contemporary Art Space.   

    When did you first start collaborating? Did you work on creative projects together as children?

    P&N: We started producing work together in 2013 with our first solo show ‘Guess Who’, which was actually at the Convent’s c3 Contemporary Art Space. The title played on the fact that this was the first time we had shown as The Ryan Sisters. We have always had an element of collaborating and helping each other since we started making work in high school. We were incredibly lucky to have a really great childhood with two loving parents that embraced creativity and inspired us to let our imaginations run wild. We have another sister and grew up with three boys; we were always building cubby houses and inventing games, usually based on horror movies we’d watched. So I guess in a sense we did collaborate creatively as children.

    When, why and how did your interest in animals develop, and when did you start exploring this in your artwork?

    N: I’ve always had a love for animals; from a very young age we took in strays and injured animals, and had many wonderful pets. When I was very little Mum would often find me talking to bugs, birds, cats and any other animals that wondered into the garden. However, I did really struggle when they died; I guess this was my first close encounter with mortality, which may be why it is something I use as a platform in my practice. I first started exploring the animal in my work when I was doing my honours degree with the work ‘Dead Hare’. I had been collecting my hair and was trying to find a body for it to occupy and ended up using the cadaver of a hare; this was a shift from the human body I had previously used.

    P: We had lots of pets growing up, including guinea pigs, budgies, mice, rabbits, cats and a dog, so I guess we have always had a connection with animals. When I was young I invented fictitious characters and hypothetical situations, usually using hybrid animals I had imagined. One of my favourite imagined animals was ‘Barramundi Dracula’; I would blame everything on this beast. I started re-looking at toys and animals in film school and honours, using their motors to build apparatuses to film with, then eventually I incorporated them into the video works. I think this comical element exists within my work, and reimagining these animals in unusual situations is still very much the focus of my practice.

    Together your work explores humour, horror, death and the absurd through a mix of artistic practice, including taxidermy, sculpture, science and fine art.  How does working together impact the direction of your work for joint collaborations, and do you favour certain themes and modalities in collaboration, versus in your own individual works?

    P&N: The human body is something that we generally only make reference to within our collaborative practice. So far all of the works we’ve made have been using our own bodies, and in some ways are like a collective self-portrait. There is an element of nostalgia, duality, failure, horror and humour. Collaborating in this way has allowed both of us to step out of the confines of our own practice and play in new and exciting ways.

    The conceptual and making process is often quite rapid and seems to flow at a different pace in comparison to our individual practices. Two heads, four sets of hands and someone to bounce ideas off and problem solve with makes for a great process.

    Tell us about the work you created for c3’s 'FAUX STUDIO' exhibition.

    N: ‘Untitled (black wallaby)’ is a work from a series which explored the process of taxidermy. In this series I was interested in the form that the animal skin was stretched over, and how this part of the body was never seen. I wanted to pay homage to the original animal that would have been used to create this faux body that supported the dermis of the other animals inthat species.

    P: ‘Bird with Glove on Head’ is a watercolour from a new series I have been working on. I have been painting some of the imagined animals from my childhood. I have also been looking at animals in predicaments and toys placed in unusual situations. I’m interested in taking familiar imagery such as animals or toys and placing them in uncanny comical scenarios.

    P&N: ‘Farqutwo’ is a work that really is a nod to our Dad. He was a photographer and printer, and in the 70s worked at a printing press that was closing down; everyone lost their jobs. The team went out with style and all dressed in top hats and suits, hired a Rolls-Royce and drank in the park. They called themselves the Farqutwo club. We have several pictures of our Dad and his work mates on this day, and one of them showed them all ‘giving the bird’. We wanted to recreate this moment and add the comical element of the finger puppet. We lost our dad 11 years ago. We were very close, and he was always involved with our art practices, so we often think of him in our work.

    What was the creative process for creating your c3 'FAUX STUDIO' piece?

    P&N: For c3’s ‘Faux Studio’, we have included work from our solo practices alongside work from The Ryan Sisters. In this sense it reflects our real studio that we share, in which we work on both our collaboration and solo practices. Our creative process generally starts with a conversation. One or both of us will come up with an idea, and then we start talking through and refining the concept and the practical elements of how we will make it. The process is so in-sync that we can’t really remember who initially starts the discussion about each piece.

    What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from working as an artist?

    N: That art is something I’m tied to; it’s both a lifeline and a noose.

    P: You just have to keep going through the good, bad and ugly. It’s a tough road.

    Which other artists do you draw inspiration from and why?

    P&N: We are really lucky to have such an incredible friendship group and network of artists that continues to inspire, support and encourage each other. It is such a hard industry, and there is nothing more exciting than seeing someone you admire get the success they’ve worked so hard for; this is truly inspiring. There are too many great artists to list, but a few who have inspired us throughout our careers and more recently are: Berlinde De Bruyckere, Maurizio Cattelan, Sarah Sitkin, Kiki Smith, John Issacs, and Littlewhitehead.

    How did you become involved withc3, and why does c3 matter?

    P&N: We had our first show as The Ryan Sisters at c3 in 2013. This was a very significant moment in our career, and marked the launch of our collaboration.

    c3 matters as it is an incredibly important space. The Gallery supports so many dynamic shows, and is an exciting and progressive force in the Melbourne art scene. John and the team are incredibly professional, and are really passionate about the arts. The space is also in a really unique setting and is accessed by hundreds of people from both the arts and public, which creates a huge amount of exposure for artists and the arts in general.

    c3 has a very high standard ofwork. Due to the site having multiple exhibition spaces within the gallery, artists get to meet during install, which is a great opportunity to exchange networks. This also creates a large audience and a real community environment. It allows artists to have their work viewed by a wide range of people and build new industry relationships.

    What’s your advice for contemporary artists starting out?

    N&P: Apply for everything. There will always be rejections, but just keep getting your work out there. Network – enjoy the arts community, openings, art school and studios, and surround yourself with passionate, good, supportive people. Always stay true to the work you want to make.

    The ‘FAUX STUDIO’ fundraising exhibition at c3 Contemporary Art Space is open every day from 11am – 5pm until Sunday 11 December 2016. Proceeds from sales are shared between the artists and the gallery, reducing costs for artists exhibiting at c3 in 2017.

    For more on The Ryan Sisters, see Pip Ryan’s website here, and Nat Ryan’s website here.