Having been playing with ceramics ever since, the Penny Byrne has managed to make a name for herself in the art world and is now coming for Berlin. In her first European solo exhibition starting on October 5th at Michael Reid gallery the main focus is going to be the on-going refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. With her somehow cute yet often shocking porcelain artworks she aims to make people think and even overthink all of their views and opinions. But even in the misery of a dreadful subject like a crisis Penny isn’t afraid of one thing: laughter.
Can you tell us a bit about your life history? And at which point working with ceramics has come into it?
I grew up in my mother’s antique shop surrounded by ceramics of all kinds. I’ve always been drawn to porcelain figurines; I love the way they are so expressive and amusing. As a child I enjoyed modelling figurines in plasticine, and once I discovered clay at school, I was hooked! I then went on to study ceramics at art school.
I read that you use vintage porcelain figures and rework them for your pieces. Do you also produce some figures on your own?
My use of vintage figurines has come from my work as a specialist ceramics conservator. When I’m not making my art I often spend my days repairing and conserving porcelain. My artwork subverts this conservation approach. And although I know how to make ceramic figurines I choose to use vintage figurines because I think they have an engaging quality that comes from the way they were made. They were mass-produced and, as a result, their faces often have disarmingly quizzical expression, which I love. I also like to think that I am rescuing them from being discarded as I buy them from charity shops.
Your work is highly political. Is that something you aim for, or did it just happen to be that things, which inspire you, are mostly of political origin?
I use my art as a springboard to talk about political issues that I think are important.
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As a very critical artist, are you ever afraid of being misunderstood? Or is that something you don’t think or care about?
I can’t be sure how different people will react to my work. Everyone brings their own experiences to bear when they see it. So I guess there will be times when my work is misunderstood. That’s okay with me. As long as I get people thinking about particular issues I’m happy.
Working with really powerful images, do you want your work to start a discussion or thinking process? Does it ever try to give an answer?
I have my own political views but in my work I mostly aim to provoke discussion and get people thinking. There are many different views about particular issues, nothing is black and white, but a multitude shades of grey. As long as people are engaged with an issue then I have achieved my aim.
Your work is described as being “often disarmingly humorous”. How would you react to people laughing at some of your pieces? Would that be a reaction you are fond of? Do you ever expect a particular/specific reaction from the viewers?
People often laugh at my work, and then I can see them beginning to think about what it is I’m trying to say and sometimes they become more thoughtful. Humour is a gentle way to engage people in difficult subjects without being dogmatic. I find it is often a good way to start a conversation about a particular issue.
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You are living in Melbourne (Australia), but your recent work and also upcoming exhibition, #EuropaEuropa, focuses on the refugee crisis and its relationship to Europe. What will the bottom line of the exhibition be? Is there going to be one?
I’m not proposing any answers to the refugee crisis. Rather I am aiming to provoke dialogue and get people to think about the complexities of the on-going crisis.
How do you think the point of view of an ‘outsider’ can contribute to the discussion of the refugees in Europe? What would you like the Europeans to know/notice through your pieces and exhibition?
To Europeans I might be seen as an outsider, but we are all citizens of the same world. There are refugee crisis happening all over the world, not just in Europe. There are continuing mass movements of people occurring in many parts of the world – Africa, South East Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and South America. It’s a worldwide issue.
What do you think about Australian politics and the part Australia has played in the refugee crisis?
Australia is dealing with the issue of mass movement of refugees too. We have a complex political approach to the crisis. Some government policies are extremely harsh and there is a lack of engagement in finding a regional solution to the issue. We have instead become very insular and have a focus on protecting our borders without attempting to work with our regional neighbours and the United Nations to find a meaningful solution.
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Your art is very straightforward and strong. There are works criticizing politics, capitalism, certain ideologies and social injustices. What do you think are the most important issues we should start really worrying about as a whole ‘human civilization’?
A few years ago I made a work titled The Four Horsemen of the 21st Apocalypse. This work covers the four major issues I think are facing humanity in the 21st century: peak oil, water scarcity, over population and food insecurity. Climate change is at the very heart of all these issues.
Are you an optimist for the future? And seeing the current state of the world, what are your thoughts on everything that is yet to come?
There is a lot to be deeply concerned about in the world today, but also a lot to be hopeful for. There are so many passionate people working to solve the massive problems we face today. I take great comfort in this, and continue to hope for the best for humanity’s future.
Also in terms of your own future: are there any new things or new mediums you want to experiment with? What are the next steps for Penny?
I’m increasingly interested in the invisible light spectrum – infrared and ultraviolet – and am beginning to make work that taps into this. I have also been experimenting with Microsoft Hololens augmented reality technology in a new work called #BloodDiamond. And I’d love to work with a ceramics factory such as Meissen to create some new pieces based on their original figurines and models, as their original 18th century figurines were also highly political and filled with social commentary. 
#EuropaEuropa by Penny Byrne will open on October 5th at Michael Reid Contemporary Art Gallery, Ackernstrasse 163, Berlin.
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