The first thing to notice about this exhibition is that it has no title of its own, but takes the name of the artist cooperative who’s work it presents: The Sunflower Collective. The blurb is more a description of the group than the exhibition:
“The Sunflower Collective is a self-organising collaboration of regional artists” and the exhibition is composed of “work that would have been conceived and developed through practices of engagement exploring how collective knowledge is accumulated and communicated; how we can move as a collective to produce actions of change informed by ecofeminism.”
Despite not having any declared theme, the exhibition definitely has the coherence of a unified conversation. This could be put down to the fact that all of the work addresses environmental concern, but a common content does not account in itself for the unity of anything. An exhibition that can be reduced to its thematic is an unsuccessful exhibition. Instead, the unity of this exhibition lies in the tone or tenor of the work, all of which possess a sense of quietude that first draws my sympathy. The unprepossessing nature of the work is consistent throughout the exhibition, uniting the variety of voices through their common soft spoken quality. This unity is complimented by another commonality, the solitude of each body of work and the isolated nature of the disparate experiences presented.
This solitude perhaps most poignantly manifests in the work of artist Kelly Leonard, who combines long woven skeins of recovered industrial copper wire, wool and quartz into a large hanging textile apparatus. The work itself is actually functional and the artist has installed it in the industrial remnants of the extractive industries around her home in Broken Hill, recording snatches of random radio broadcasts that happen to wander into the net of her contraption. These broadcasts are played, along with video projected onto a woven skein through which the projection leaks, creating a strange ghostly presence behind the screen. The imagery consists of the artist weaving at a loom, and engaged in ritualistic exchange with the landscape. Occasionally a title such as “Ask that mountain” appears along the bottom of the screen over an image of the artist walking slowly, methodically toward a mountain. “Ask that lake” and the artist walking toward a lake.
The meaning of the work is opaque, but comes in snatches of obscure affect like radio waves collected on the improvised apparatus that composes it. There is the mute sense of the desire to communicate, to commune, to relate, to the landscape more than to the audience. The artist’s figure walking toward the mountain, alone, within the instruction to ask that mountain. Ask what? Yes, what. The means of communication are as obscure as the meaning they are meant to transmit but I understand it. It is the desire to relate to the land, to communicate to the land, perhaps to apologize and to ask forgiveness, to pay it a respect we know is in vast arrears, an obligation in cosmic deficit.
In the end, what is transmitted is the silence, some static, a garbled transmission pulled from the sky and the intense, frustrated, lonely and earnest desire to communicate.
Even more mute is the work of Michael Petchkovsky, which can only be described as future artifacts for an extinct humanity. A small metal heat sink embedded in the remains of a styrofoam box and wired into a simple regulating circuit that maintains this solid state rectangle at the temperature of the human body. Not far from this work, another of Michael’s contraptions mirrors this artifact with a similar gesture: this time a clear tubular biome powered by a solar array that keeps the temperature inside the tube at 10 degrees below the ambient temperature around the device. Inside the biome stands a single red brick, upturned on its end, serving as home to a relatively healthy colony of moss. The idea being that as the earth’s climate warms, the interior of the biome will come to resemble the climate on earth when it was viable for human habitation.
These diminutive and abject objects sit on their plinths as self-effacing remnants of our human existence, designed to preserve these single conditions of human life for future generations (generations that will not be around for it to remind them of our existence). Like the feedback loop that regulates the objects’ temperature, the work is caught in an infinite loop of its own, regulating the persistent thought of our not being there.
Around the corner from these first two works, Michael has hung two small square paintings, monochromes of a pale, pasty yellow. A small light flickers erratically behind one of the frames. The wall text informs us that the paintings are made using a plant based pigment that preserves its photosynthesizing capacity and can even be used to create solar panels. The effect is that the paintings make you aware of the energetic nature of the pigment, that its visibility to the human eye through which you perceive it is a field of energy that is also the source of life. It is also the same energy that we use to power our society. The flickering light, like the cliche metaphor of human life as a candle flame is an almost ironic statement on our participation in, our complete lack of detachment or separation from the natural world.
This awareness reflects back into the previous two works described, and back to Kelly Leonard’s work, snatching signals out of the air, as ghostly as they are actually occurring and natural.
Julie Montgarrett picks up on this same frequency with her work “Shelter in place: neglected dimensions”. Three long textile panels are hung from the ceiling suspended over three vessels, one with salt water that wicks, crusting up the bottom of its panel and the other two made from rusted iron baskets containing rusted detritus. The three variegated panels of diverse cloth, stitching, and patchwork, hang like prayer beacons above their vessels. When the door to the gallery is open they sway in the breeze like a meditation.
The text explaining the work is so beautifully written I cannot resist reproducing a piece of it here:
“This work gathers cloth discarded from the relentless wasteful cycles and demands of capitalist economies for endless changing fashion. These scraps of hand made and industrially designed textile from across the globe were once a stylized homage to the beauty of the natural world, yet their exploitative and toxic manufacture was central to the destruction of the same exquisite order in the fragile landscapes that sustain us.”
Out of these materials, the fabric is made, but, as the text further explains, it is then dyed, stained, marked and inlaid with “the traces, scars and colours of country - printed and bush-dyed on sites across country. The three panels register the weight of gravity, the slow turn of time passing, of light and air, the green-gold stain of mistletoe and the deep black gifted colour of red-gum riverbank sentinels, now fragile remnants of once-wild places before the determined invasions of foreigners and relentless demands of industrial-scale agricultural development. These textiles point to the unseen energies of country.”
These works, like those already described, employ the “artificial” teknos of cultural expression to manifest as natural objects and reflect upon man’s identity with the natural world we have so destructively impacted. This is a culture that no longer seeks to exempt itself from nature but insists upon its unity with it, even to the point that it embodies as its nature, the longing to do so.
Julie Briggs evokes this longing with a trail of small stone like objects, made from translucent paper and rigged with motion detectors that cause the objects to illuminate as you walk along them. Each ‘stone’ has a single word written upon it that becomes evident as you activate it, giving to the audience a short journey through its poetic message “Light falls here on this our fractured earth showing us what we must save. Let’s recognize and tend to our non human companions here and claim our full humanity.” The power of the work does not lie essentially in the message it thus delivers. It is something that we have heard and perhaps even thought before. It is in the form of its delivery, that its full significance is grasped, this diminutive poem, which the artist felt compelled to encase in a sophisticated enticement, as though it was necessary to step us through the message in order for us to experience it at all. If you think about reading the poem thus laid out in any conventional publication, this statement relating to our destruction of the environment would be lost on the page, along with all the other statements of its kind, the millions of warnings, pleas and protestations that now are noise to our ears. The artist is achingly aware of this, and brings the full force of her artifice to bear on her audience, compelling us to take its journey, word by word, through the reality of this message. Will it reach us, will they finally get through to us, these words that tell us that we are a part of the world we are destroying?
The final body of work in the exhibition is a series of photographs by James Farley and the most difficult to situate in the context of the rest of the exhibition. This is in part because they have no discernable subject, or at least their subject is diffuse and indeterminate. The photographs take in various aspects of the built and the degraded natural environment of Hill End in regional NSW and employ visual layering to create a kind of all over effect. Shop windows in which the reflection on the glass mingles with its transparency, creating an abstraction that defies the intelligibility of either the reflected image or that which can be seen through it. A porch setting seen through the foliage of plants, a beyond glimpsed through the slats of a fence, the long view down the corridor of a guttered watercourse or the blank grid of an aging playground jungle gym against a tall indeterminate hedge.
Against the strong emotional content of the rest of this exhibition, these photographs serve as a framing backstop (literally hung on the far wall of the show) with the formal detachment and indifference to the fate of man that both the natural world and the camera share. The artist is quite willfully blurring the division between the subject and the ground, refusing the viewer any sense that there is a subject of interest distinct from its environment, and in doing so he collapses our own sense of the distinctness of ourselves as subjects before the indistinct objects we look at. It is important not to overstate this as the subject and ground remain in tension, if only in our desire to pull something distinct from the con-fusion of the presented visual field, to centre it, focus our perceptual energies onto it and thus render it as as a distinctl thing. Instead, the work pulls the viewer, and all the man made objects thus presented, into the foreboding, beautiful, stark, dry, and silent field of nature, refusing us the consolation of creating an anthropic centre from which we can view the world according to our distinct needs and desires.
We speak of the detachment of nature, of the indifference of nature, but what we mean is our own detachment, our own indifference. Perhaps, as the exhibition suggests, these two things are the same thing, a unity that is divided, a yearning and a struggle to reunite what was, if only in our perception of it, sundered, cut off, separated and opposed. We long to connect to the world, to relate ourselves to a natural universe we feel ourselves torn and drifting inexorably, violently, further and further away from. This longing is itself that which it longs for, and we are caught in a paradox: the object and subject of our desire are the same thing.
This is what I so vaguely perceived above and what drew me into this exhibition. I recognised the shape of my own attitude, but also an attitude I have witnessed in so many around me. As the world around us swirls in its incessant concern for everything other than the destruction of the environment and with it our own inevitable demise, we have become quiet as individuals, contemplating our extinction in solitude, we sense more than conceive of our unity with that which we destroy. Perhaps we only come to understand ourselves as nature when we face our mortality within it.