‘Gaia’ at Liverpool Cathedral: interview with artist behind giant Earth installation
Visitors to Liverpool Cathedral can currently witness the world under one roof, following the launch of a month-long display of ‘Gaia’.
Internationally renowned artist Luke Jerram is behind the 23ft replica of our planet, and also created the popular ‘Museum of the Moon’ which was showcased at the venue last year.
YM Liverpool caught up with him to talk climate change, Liverpool creations and making art accessible for all.
Interview by Natasha Young
‘Gaia’ has arrived at Liverpool Cathedral a year after displaying ‘Museum of the Moon’ there. What is it about that venue that fits your creations?
It’s just an extraordinary space, isn’t it? The architecture is so incredible.
I suppose with cathedrals and churches they’re designed for people to go there and contemplate so it suits the idea of having an artwork in there. It just makes sense.
“The Moon has been so successful that an opportunity came up to make an Earth and I was interested in how different it would be to experience because we’d been staring at the moon for 200,000 years.”
Both artworks were put together using NASA imagery. Were they created as a joint project?
They are quite similar. The Moon has been so successful that, and I had to put a lot of work and time into being able to develop that artwork, an opportunity came up to make an Earth and I was interested in what it would look like and how different it would be to experience because we’d been staring at the moon for 200,000 years.
The Moon is used by so much literature, music and religion. It has always acted as a destination for humanity so it’s inspired all elements of our culture whereas with the Earth, it’s only been 50 years that we’ve been looking at it as a full planet floating in space so we just don’t have that same sort of history associated with that particular image. I was interested to compare one experience to the other.
When I’m presenting the Earth now in churches and cathedrals the condition is that the Moon has to be presented there beforehand, just to allow those same audiences to have the Moon experience first and then see the Earth, being able to compare one experience with the other.
It seems a fitting time for ‘Gaia’ to tour, given the current focus on climate change. How do you hope your artwork will impact on that debate and people’s views on looking after the planet?
I’m really hoping the artwork will make people think carefully about what sort of future we want and how urgent it is that we reduce our carbon emissions.
I work as an artist and I travel around the world. I’m realising it’s not sustainable and it’s a complete disaster for the environment, so I have to work out quite carefully how I’m going to change my arts practice to be able to reduce my carbon emissions.
It feels like there’s a tipping point that’s arrived where we’re having a real look at ourselves and realising that actually we do need to change our society and actions very, very quickly if we’re able to prevent runaway climate change from taking place.
Like with ‘Museum of the Moon’, ‘Gaia’ is accompanied by events during its Liverpool Cathedral display. Are you involved in those too, or do you just get to see how your work has inspired others?
I’m happy to allow [Liverpool’s ‘Changing Tides’] festival to plan its own programme of events. A number of my artworks do that – they allow other people to be creative.
I’m known around the world for putting pianos in the streets for people to play and that’s very much about providing space for the public’s creativity. The Moon and the Earth do the same – they act as a venue to allow local programmers to think about and programme their own events beneath them, but when there aren’t any events [the pieces] act as installation artworks in their own right.
There’s a running theme of allowing people to interact with your artworks and get up close to them. Has that always been a driving force when you’re creating a project, as opposed to making something to display to people?
Yeah, often the artworks are completed by the presence of the public.
I remember when I was at art college there was lots of performance artwork and often it was the performer on stage who was having the most interesting time.
I think very carefully about the public’s level of interaction with the artwork and I also try and make art that can be appreciated and accessed by different people at different levels.
A four-year-old child will enjoy seeing the Earth or the Moon and it’s really of interest to amateur astronomers.
Anyone in society has their own relationship to the Moon and the Earth and so [that artwork] can be accessed and interrogated in different ways and on different levels depending who they are.
“I’m really hoping the artwork will make people think carefully about what sort of future we want.”
‘Tribute’ – a commission for the new Royal Liverpool Hospital – is a piece that people in Liverpool will be able to explore. How did that project come about and what was the idea behind it?
I was invited to develop an artwork to promote organ donations by the charity associated with the hospital and they were looking for an artwork to allow people to contemplate the meaning of organ donation and celebrate donors and people’s lives. It was shortlisted down to three artists and I was selected for the commission.
I designed a six-metre tall tower that allows people to go in. It’s got a mirrored floor and a mirrored ceiling so when you go in there you see this infinite, kaleidoscopic space.
Then on the windows there are quotations by patients about what the organ donation meant to them.
We had the input of hospital staff, as well as patients, to design that artwork.
When did you make that artwork?
It was completed at the beginning of last year. It’s just really tragic that it’s been sat there gathering dust for the last year and no-one’s been able to enjoy it.
Where do you draw inspiration from as an artist?
I get inspired by all sorts of things at different levels. I’m inspired by science quite a lot, and I’m colour blind as well so I’m interested in visual perception and thinking about light.
I’m generating new ideas for artworks all the time by travelling and meeting people and responding to briefs.
If someone asks me to design an artwork to go on a roof of a building I can do that, and if it’s a temporary artwork to go in a bus shelter I’ll have a go at that as well. It’s just a creative openness that allows me to have a go and to respond in different ways to different situations.
Do you enjoy being handed a brief as opposed to just being left to come up with something?
Yeah, I do need a brief and if one isn’t given to me then I’ll often work with an organisation to define the brief.
I enjoy learning the different languages of different specialities. I’m working with glass blowers, or I’m working with engineers or architects or composers and every different specialist has their own language of creation, I suppose. I enjoy learning those and collaborating with people to make things happen.
“I’m inspired by science quite a lot, and I’m colour blind as well so I’m interested in visual perception and thinking about light.”
Your artwork seems quite diverse in terms of styles, materials and the types of projects you’ve worked on. Was there a specialism you started out with as an artist?
I’ve always been quite open to possibilities. I tend to learn what I can from one artwork and then move on, so a lot of the artwork doesn’t look quite the same as another.
It makes me slightly free and it’s quite exciting to know that I don’t really know what sort of artwork I’ll be making in five years time.
You’ve exhibited all around the world and attracted large audiences and news coverage. Do you feel pressure to achieve the same level of success and exposure on new projects?
It makes it harder to be able to present artwork I’m not happy with.
Not every artwork will capture people’s imaginations but it’s harder now to make an artwork and present it because if it’s not any good then I’m exposed.
To do something under the radar is perhaps a bit harder now than it used to be.