Essay by Sophia Liddy for Contextualising Practice



I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which I make, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. I recognise their connection to Country and role in caring for and maintaining Country over thousands of years.


Why does a spider make her web tighter in one place and slacker in another? Why now make one sort of knot and then another, if she has not deliberation, thought and conclusion? We sufficiently discover in most of their works how much animals excel us, and how weak our art is to imitate them (Montaigne, cited in Hazlitt 1952:216)

I remember the soft, fading light of the late afternoon.

I remember sitting on the verandah that wound around the side of our house.

I was distressed again.

In front of me was a manicured garden. Our garden was beautifully manicured.  A stark contrast to the rest of my life.

I noticed a spider diligently spinning a web.

I watched in awe. Mesmerised by the creation of an exquisitely balanced, beautifully patterned, structurally sound web by what seemed to me to be an incredibly special little creature.

I remember the calm feeling.

I was ok again.


Although I didn’t know it at the time, this memory would stay with me for decades and shape the way I interpret the world. As a child, pattern watching was largely about seeking calm. Throughout the journey of life, I have embraced the restorative power of recurring patterns. It has become a constant companion, allowing me to recognise patterns in many things around me such as sociocultural and political change, the interplay of relationships, the cyclical nature of fashion trends, the female reproductive cycle, the lunar cycle and nature.

Fractals, a term developed by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1983) refers to groups of reoccurring patterns of varying scale that are abundant in nature. Since Mandelbrot’s thesis, the physiological and psychological benefits of fractals have been discovered. Specifically, fractals have been found to induce relaxation, reduce physiological stress and heighten neurological attention and engagement (Robles et al. 2021, Taylor et al. 2011, Taylor 2021). Mandelbrot (1983) devised a formula for calculating fractal complexity. They concluded that many naturally occurring fractals sit within the mid-range of complexity. Physicist Richard Taylor and their colleagues have consistency found that the benefits of fractals are greatest when complexity also falls within this intermediate range (Hagerhall et al. 2008, Taylor et al. 2005; Taylor 2006, Taylor et al. 2011, Taylor 2021). Further, fractal patterns have been found within biological tissue (Balmages et al 2021) and the vascular network of the eye (Taylor, 2021) indicating that we are fractal based ourselves, we are part of nature. Fractals are a gift. I see access to nature as the great leveler. Most species that exist in the biosphere, irrespective of their placement on the taxonomy table, can appreciate the presence of flora, sunlight, rain, shade and fresh air. This is as simple as it is special.

Like many, I am deeply troubled by the increasing destruction of the biosphere. The term Anthropocene, introduced in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and limnologist Eugene Stoermer, describes the devastating impact human activity is having on the Earth. Increasingly, people are turning their attention to understanding how we created a world of cascading extinctions, insurmountable waste and endless ecosystem damage. A review of the variables that have instigated and/or underpin the Anthropocene reveal prevailing scientific paradigms, religion, european colonialisation, annihilation of indigenous ecologies, the transatlantic slave trade, genocide, heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism, extractive economies, neoclassical economic structures, socioeconomic inequalities, nuclear weapons, the military industrial complex and technological development to name a few (Crutzen et al. 2000, Gan et al 2017, Haraway 2016, Hejnol 2017, Krajewsha 2017, Morton 2010, Saldanha 2020, Swanson 2017, Wessels 2006, Yusoff 2018). A discussion of these variables is beyond the scope of this essay; however, I will focus on anthropocentric thinking as this relates directly to my practice.

Ecologist and philosopher Timothy Morton (2010) argues that we have not only damaged ecosystems but also our thinking. Some of our anthropocentric thinking can be traced back hundreds of years to prevailing scientific and religious paradigms, European colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade. For example, the study of anatomy and taxonomy lead to hierarchical, linear and dichotomous thinking that has shaped our relationship with the Earth (Hejnol 2017, Kemp 2007, Krajewsha 2017, Wessels 2006). Similarly, the religious doctrine that the possession of a soul is exclusive to human beings has further shaped this relationship (Kemp 2007, Krajewsha 2017). In the 17th century, influential scientist and philosopher René Descartes proposed that animals did not have the capacity to feel pain, think or exercise moral discipline (Kemp 2007, Aloi 2012), a view that prevailed for centuries and still exists today despite accumulating evidence to the contrary (Kemp 2007, Krajewsha 2017).

European colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade played a crucial role in establishing anthropocentric thought. Colonisation resulted in the formation of neo-europes, which involved massive deforestation along with extensive destruction of indigenous ecosystems. Subsequently these ecosystems were replaced with foreign ecologies and plantations (Saldanha 2020). The plantation economies were sustained by the transatlantic slave trade, which paved the way for one of the most nefarious elements of capitalism; its continued expansion at the expense of those considered less significant; black and brown people (Saldanha 2020, Yusoff 2018). Another consequence of colonialism was the propagation of the idea of land ownership, or ‘capital.’ This concept was inconsistent with many Indigenous cultures who viewed land as communal, often holding ancestral significance. At the same time as eradicating or displacing Indigenous communities and their cultural practices of care for Country, eroding their self-sufficiency and forcing their dependence on white settlers for survival, European colonisers inculcated an anthropocentric view of dominion of the earth, a narrative that thrives today under capitalism (Saldanha 2020, Yusoff 2018).

The Industrial Revolution further propelled the concept of capital and human dominance over nature. The development of new agricultural practices increased the capacity to control, manipulate and commodify nature on larger scales (Aloi 2012). Urbanisation and the supply-demand chain that underpins capitalism flourished (Aloi 2012, Wessels 2006). As Aloi (2012:27) statesthe industrial revolution recklessly redefined the boundaries between the wild and the urban, nature and culture.’

Occurrences such as these have shaped the dominant narrative in the western world, especially amid the owning class, of self-appointed human supremacy (Saldanha 2020). This narrative purports that all other living and non-living entities on this earth are here for our exploitation regardless of consequence. Further, we live under the illusion that science and technology will solve all of our anthropocentric complications, allowing us to persist with over consumerism and the relentless pursuit of capitalism (Gan et al 2017, Krajewska 2017, Swanston et al 2017, Wessels 2006). Underlying this narrative is a denial of our interconnectedness and our interdependence with all other species and ecosystems on this planet (Haraway 2016, 2017, Gan et al 2017, Morton 2010, Moyer 2011, Wessels 2006).

Moving forward, we need to cultivate new ways of thinking (Gan et al 2017, Haraway 2016, 2017, Krajewska 2017, Lippard 2011, Morton 2010, Moyer 2011, Wessels 2006). Morton (2010) argues that we need to cultivate ecological thinking, a thinking that recognizes we are connected with everything on this planet. Multispecies feminist theorist Donna J Haraway (2017) calls for tentacular thinking to replace traditional hierarchical and dichotomous thinking. They describe tentacular thinking as non-linear, capable of moving in multiple directions simultaneously, embracing of uncertainty, of complex entanglements, of interdependence. New thinking recognises that we are all symbiotic (Gan et al 2017, Haraway 2016, 2017, Swanston et al, 2017). As Haraway (2017:30) eloquently writes ‘every living thing has emerged and persevered (or not) bathed and swaddled in bacteria and archaea’. Our symbiosis extends beyond our biology. Wessels (2006) proposes that we are in a cultural crisis, one of disconnection from each other and community. This disconnect has created a ‘hollowness’, one that Wessels argues we attempt to futilely fill with self-absorption and consumerism. Consequently, in the midst of this cultural crisis, our awareness of how we impact one another and the environment is severely deficient.

To address our anthropocentric and cultural crisis, many are calling for multidisciplinary, collaborative and community-based action (Gan et al 2017, Haraway 2016, 2017, Krajewska 2017, Lippard 2011, Morton 2010, Moyer 2011, Swanson 2017, Wessels 2006). Because artists have great capacity to support cultural change, to imagine different worlds and to deepen discourse, the artistic community can be an integral part of change (Gan et al 2017, Haraway 2017, Krajewska 2017, Moyer 2011). Haraway (2017:35) suggests that science art activisms defined as ‘a model system in which scientists, artists, ordinary members of communities and nonhuman beings become enfolded in each other’s projects, in each other’s lives’ are part of the solution. Krajewska (2017) encourages artists to inform themselves of scientific findings and contemporary thought so that they can create meaningful art that speaks to the escalating issues surrounding the Anthropocene.

In August 2022 I woke around three o’clock in the morning with a surging clarity. I wrote something down and returned to sleep. When I woke, I read ‘patterns within patterns within patterns repeat’. Many stray lines of thought that had been circling around my head for years had found each other, had connected. I researched recurring patterns and discovered the miraculous world of fractals. This meeting of my personal philosophy and creative practice made so much sense to me. I had found a deeper ‘truth’ as an artist. My work is fractal based. Fractals are healing. Nature is my most inspirational artist. We are all nature. This understanding forms a major part of the conceptual foundation of my practice. Creating fractal-based art is the meeting point for my love of recurring patterns and my need to support the reimagining of our relationship with the planet. Fractals are an example of symbiosis; they communicate interconnectedness and interdependence beautifully.

Figs 1–3. Sophia Liddy, ‘I wonder if she knew she was healing a human?’, 2022

I wonder if she knew she was healing a human? (2022) (see Figures 1–6) is a gesture of gratitude to the spider I met in my childhood. This piece is modular, consequently I have recreated it several times. It is always made of discarded steel from a metal factory, and sometimes made with found sea glass, paprika and papier-mâché. The metal is beautifully patterned and rusted from factory life, because of this, it could not be recycled. Because of this, it triggered something in my inner world, an intuitive connection to a creative idea. Artist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist Patricia Townsend refers to this intuitive idea as a pre-sense (2019). I did not know what I was going to create with this metal, but I knew I was going to create with it. After sometime, I curved the metal into crescent shapes. The sculpture is based on a beautiful fractal pattern of concentric circles. It references many things from spider webs, undulating water, the lunar cycle, interconnection and healing.

Amidst the move towards ecological thought, a theoretical and philosophical movement known as new materialism has emerged. Also challenging hierarchical thinking, new materialism suggests that non-living objects have agency and vitality (Bennett 2010, Bolt 2007). In relation to artistic practice, Bolt (2007) suggests that an art work is a collaboration between artist, tools and materials. As Bolt (2007:3) so beautifully writes ‘our relation to technical things is inevitably characterized by a play between the understandings that we bring to the situation and the intelligence of our tools and materials. This relation is not a relation of mastery but one of co-emergence’. Co-emergence was at the core of A gesture of graciousness (2023). I feel like this piece of metal had been communicating with me since we met. Some might describe me as ‘unhinged’ but perhaps this sense of communication is a connection to material, to Earth, to the biosphere of which I am a member. Perhaps this awareness of communication comes with ecological thought. Interconnectivity. Complex entanglements. We are all nature.

Figs 4–6. Sophia Liddy, ‘I wonder if she knew she was healing a human?’, 2022

One morning I was driving down Bell Street with my partner. On the median strip, something caught my attention. It was partially concealed under leaves and branches, but I could see and feel a ‘wounded’ piece of metal. We stopped. I walked to the metal. It had entered a state of corrosion giving rise to beautiful patterns within patterns. It was truly special.

This piece of metal, larger than a human body, convinced me that it was coming home with us. I did not know what we would make together, but I knew we would make together. I took this piece into the studio where I study. There, I found a redback spider in the metal. For public health reasons, I knew I had to remove them. I felt upset. I was evicting them from their home. I was exercising dominance over this incredibly special little creature. Descartes would approve. As I was encouraging the incredibly special little creature into a bottle, they reared as they moved into flight, fight or freeze mode, they seemed terrified. I felt very upset. I took them back to the space where the metal had lain. It was the best solution I could think of. Maybe one day, as my ecological thought grows, I will be capable of thinking of another solution.

Truly special. As I began to interact with this metal, I had several strong sensations. I explored cutting it and painting it, I added some materials; turmeric, sea glass, discarded plastic, I felt a quiet ‘no’. When I started to shape the metal in the only section that was strong enough, giving the capacity to stand, I felt a quiet ‘yes’. I sensed they liked standing. Now they were wounded and strong. Strong and wounded. Just like the biosphere.

We have been working together now for three months. We have tried many different configurations and combinations. I sense that truly special likes being suspended (see Figures 7–11) taking on an almost human form. I enjoy the irony of this. What A gesture of Graciousness has taught me is that when nature has begun the process of reclaiming that which we deem as waste, I cannot prevent this. For me this piece is about how gracious the Earth is. At some point, humans have ripped this metal from the ground, modified it and recklessly discarded it when it was no longer considered of value. Nature began their process of slowly bringing this metal back into their core. A gesture of Graciousness. Eventually I will lay this piece on the earth somewhere where it can continue to corrode back into the earth. But for this interlude, it is my intention to give A gesture of Graciousness a voice.

A rusted bit of steel hangs from the ceiling like a curled ribbon.
Figs 7–8. Sophia Liddy, ‘A Gesture of Graciousness’, 2023

Whatever was missing (2022) was also collaborative interplay between water, sunlight, papier mâché (made from food packaging) and myself. The flow of the water, the malleability and delicateness of the mâché together with the movement created by my body we created a paper alluvium that settled into translucent, organic, mountainous forms. I could not have achieved the curvature of the paper alluvium without the cascading properties of water. I could not have achieved the translucency of the mountainous forms without the delicacy of the mâché. Again, in an act of co-emergence, Whatever was missing is dependent on sunlight to illuminate the delicate translucent forms (see Figure 12). The title refers to the world of cascading extinctions, to any creatures that may have once lived in such a place.

A transparent sheet hangs in front of a window with a wave pattern over the top.
Fig 12. Sophia Liddy, ‘Whatever was missing’, 2022

As may be obvious from the above examples, my material selection is guided by a departure from hierarchical thinking. I look for value in what has been discarded as waste. My rules are simple, I work with materials that are either compostable or going to land fill. Firstly, I do not want to create demand for resources that will further strain the biosphere, and secondly, I want to contribute to waste management, albeit on a small scale. I didn’t sit down one day and decide these were my rules, they evolved through iterative practice and listening to myself when something felt wrong. I enjoy working with the vast array of materials my selection rules present me.

For now, I am on a journey to expand my tentacular thinking, my ecological thought, my awareness and knowledge, so that I may fold this meaning into my fractal creations. If some of my pieces help to connect, heal, sooth or nurture any living or non-lining entities on this Earth, I will feel truly grateful. I hope that we come to cherish our symbiotic status so that all on this earth have opportunity to appreciate flora, sunlight, rain, shade and fresh air. If we accomplish this, it may be the most genuine form of ‘progress’ we ever achieve. This will be as simple as it is special.



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Essay – How a spider helped me to understand the world: Symbiosis, the Anthropocene and new materialism
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