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Otherworldly atmospheres: an interview with Serena Dzenis

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

Stable Planet Alliance recently launched "Earthlings Gallery," featuring the work of passionate women photographers "working to protect biodiversity, wildlife, domesticated species, and the ecosystems which support us all during and beyond the Anthropocene."

Serena Dzenis, our featured artist for July 2022, is a lens-based artist from Australia currently living in and exploring the otherworldly landscapes of Iceland.

This interview explores Serena's unique take on nature photography, mycology, science fiction and the role of the artist in an era of climate change. --Kathleen Sweeney

The themes of science fiction and ‘otherworldliness’ are palpable in your work, projecting the viewers into imagined fictitious environments even as the visuals originate on our own planet. What are your thoughts on the power of lens art to offer viewers an opportunity to journey within the images to other worlds?

I think that lens-based art is very important when it comes to fostering critical thinking. As a lens-based artist, I use all types of image-capturing devices, not just traditional cameras; this improves my scope for storytelling in a world where technology is constantly advancing.

I believe that rather than promoting photography as the act of taking pretty pictures of the environment, we can use lens-based art as a conversation starter to inspire people to think more deeply about where we're headed as a species and how we're evolving. It's an essential tool when it comes to encouraging viewers to ponder the impact of the decisions that we're making and the effects that humans are having on our own planet. When we focus only on photographing the beauty of nature, we tend to extricate ourselves from it, despite being a part of it. By creating an otherworldly atmosphere, my goal is to offer viewers an alternative way of making the link between what we are doing to the environment here on Earth and how we might possibly continue with negative patterns of behaviour in another world if we don't change the way that we think and live.

Starting the conversation is vital when it comes to creating a supportive setting in which people feel safe enough to communicate about how they think our future might manifest. We need a starting point to be able to arrive at new ideas and to come up with possible solutions to the dilemmas that we are facing in the world today.

Your MycoWorld project developed during the Coronavirus lockdowns in Iceland, producing luminous, magical images of mushrooms and fungi. More and more research is emerging about the power of fungi in detoxification as well as mycelial networks for connecting to the Wood Wide Web of trees. What did you learn from the fungi you photographed?

Fungi are such fascinating organisms! When I began photographing fungi in Iceland, Merlin Sheldrake happened to release his book, Entangled Life, which inspired me to no end. Fungi have played such an enormous part in the evolution of plants. I learned so much about mycorrhizal fungi and mycorrhizae, which refers to the underground symbiotic networks between fungi and plants. Fungi perform important roles when it comes to providing plants with nutrition. They also affect soil biology and soil chemistry through the decomposition of organic matter, contributing to the cycle of life, death and regeneration.

There are so many applications for fungi in the human world, most of which we are unaware of. Aside from consuming mushrooms as food, we use fungi in the form of yeast for bread, as well as for fermenting wine and beer. Antibiotics such as penicillins, cephalosporins and carbapenems are produced by fungi, while fungal enzymes are even used in the manufacture of detergents and pesticides.

Scientists have estimated that there are close to 3.8 million species in Kingdom Fungi, of which only around 148,000 have been described. The majority of plant pathogens are fungi, so it is very important that we learn and understand more about their uses to humans, as well as their dangers. There is so much biodiversity to be explored and so much to be discovered, yet mycology is an often neglected branch of biology. I hope that by putting the spotlight on fungi, more people will be encouraged to learn about mycology and to enter this field of study.

The images of architecture and industrial sites interact visually with the landscapes, integrating nature in uncanny ways: the moon above a geothermal plant, mountain ranges in the distance, rosy hues in the sky. What is the connection between these manmade enterprises and the earth/sky elements?

With the project "2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting", I wanted to transport the viewer's imagination to another world that existed outside of time. I felt that this would allow me to conceptualise the architecture that might shape the world of tomorrow while exploring ideas of utopia and dystopia in a more palatable way. By combining human-made structures with celestial elements in the sky and natural landscapes on Earth, I was able to create an otherworldly atmosphere that evoked a sense of being in a futuristic world, disconnected from where we are today.

Humans are made of the same particles that stars were born from. As the scientist Carl Sagan once said, "we are made of star stuff". Everything we create, and all of nature around us, is made of the same stuff. For this reason, I wanted to emphasize that artificial environments such as buildings, other structures and the materials that go into their production are essential to supporting human life. However, our ability to thrive as a species means that the planet suffers. We need to move forward from thinking of Earth as a provider of natural resources. All things depend on other things for their existence in this world. Our planet is a living system and we are organisms living within it. This is the only home we have and we need to learn how to better protect it.

What advice would you offer to aspiring young photographers based on the journey you have taken as an artist?

Life is fleeting, so dare to be bold in your artistic choices. Find a way to disconnect from what is expected of you because there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to making art.

Like all other forms of art, photography is a tool for communication. If you learn how to use it effectively, then you can inspire conversations and action for causes and urgent issues that you may feel strongly about.

What you create has the potential to engage and support others when it comes to shaping our future. Through collective action and dialogue, we can create awareness and make an impact together.

How do you see your work contributing to dialogues and action on climate change?

The climate crisis is already upon us and it has spawned a lot of eco-anxiety. Meanwhile, art has the power to create a sense of solace. By presenting my ideas in a utopian way, rather than in a post-apocalyptic fashion, I hope that my work is accessible enough to invite more people into this ongoing dialogue and to inspire them to take action on climate change. Perhaps one day, my work will be my legacy, transforming the way that the next generation thinks and acts when it comes to nature and caring for the environment – whether that's here on Earth or a space colony elsewhere on another planet.

Serena Dzenis is a lens-based artist from Australia who lives in Iceland. Her work tells stories about science, conservation, environmental issues and the future of mankind. The emphasis of her art is on storytelling within the landscape – connecting with the land and exploring the outcomes of human desires while immersing oneself in the rhythms and dangers associated with the living presence of this world.

Learn more about Serena's work on her website and social media: Instagram Facebook

Kathleen Sweeney, Communications Consultant for Stable Planet Alliance, is a multimedia storyteller, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School, and author of The Book of Awe: Meditations on Creative Resilience (forthcoming, Monkfish Publishing, 2023) .

All photos ©SerenaDzenis

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