The Artist as Environmental Change Agent
by Chris Reid
A creative period in art is determined by the order of a particular style applied to the disorder of a particular time.
It gives form and formulae to contemporary passions.
— Albert Camus, 1951 (1)
I do believe that art is this amazing form of understanding in itself, that it helps us to problematise and make sense of our situation.
— Maria Lind, 2015 (2)
An abiding question is whether socially engaged art can have a transforming effect on society and the environment — whether it can encourage or even precipitate positive and substantial social transformation. Artists and artist-activists have long raised political, social and environmental concerns and there are numerous examples of biennial and triennial exhibitions as well as smaller scale exhibitions that focus on vital issues to the point where socially or politically engaged art has become the norm. This article identifies a few recent examples of artistic activity that engage positively with the land and the environment and which illustrate a variety of ways in which change might be achieved.
In the inaugural NGV Triennial (December 2017 – April 2018), Brodie Neill exhibited Gyro, table (2016) a circular table made from plastic retrieved from the ocean. In the accompanying essay in the exhibition catalogue, Myf Doughty notes how Neill’s work inspires the retrieval and reuse of waste plastic.(3) Neill’s manufacturing process is emblematic of the need for recycling, a process encouraged by the work’s inclusion in the Triennial, and the table is also an attractive and practical piece of furniture. Doughty notes that, while the production of such furniture will not alone solve the problem of plastic waste, it “contribute[s] to the global conversation by offering a tangible example of how considered design can not only alter but also drastically shift industry and consumer perception of the value of a typically unremarkable or problem material.”(4) She cites firms which are using recycled plastics to make consumer goods and to replace asphalt in road-making. Evidently, Neill sourced his plastic through social media, thereby triggering the birth of a new industry of small-scale beachcomber plastic collection. Neill’s work is not only symbolic of the need for recycling, it establishes a business model that may make an impact on the problem of plastic pollution.
Adelaide’s Open Space Contemporary Arts (OSCA) develops participatory art projects in cooperation with communities,(5) and OSCA worked with Friends of Mutton Cove on its latest project, Landscape Stories, Mutton Cove (2018), shown at Fontanelle Gallery, Port Adelaide, a project documenting the work of a community restoring the ecology of an area of Le Fevre Peninsula northwest of Adelaide.(6) Landscape Stories, Mutton Cove comprises videos of performances at Mutton Cove by artist Cynthia Schwertsik and sound recordings of stories told by people engaged with the area. Artist Laura Wills’s participatory project Creek Lore (2017), which drew attention to the mismanagement of Adelaide’s creeks and waterways since colonisation and to First Creek’s Indigenous community’s custodianship of it prior to colonisation, was also conducted in cooperation with OSCA and involved participants in walking the creek bed, retrieving rubbish and listening to talks about the creek, its communities and its management.(7) Community participation of this kind extends art beyond the white cube’s typical audiences and integrates it with wider community activities.
Sauerbier House, which is operated by the City of Onkaparinga, runs a cultural exchange program in which artists in residence engage with the local community.(8) Most recently, photographer Neville Cichon, under the mentorship of artist Peter Drew, worked with the Onkaparinga Sustainability Team on a project to bring to public attention the environmental impact of climate change in the Onkaparinga district.(9) In opening Cichon’s exhibition entitled Filter, which was an element of the 2018 Onkaparinga Photographic Biennale entitled Shimmer, Drew noted that public reaction to the burgeoning effects of climate change ranges from panic to apathy, but he suggested that art can address those in between who might respond positively. Drew suggested that Cichon’s accessible, sometimes humorous work, “infects the way you see the rest of the world.” Cichon’s residency at Sauerbier House involved audience participation, thus actively engaging visitors. Onkaparinga City invited Cichon to work with its Sustainability Team to spread its message via the resulting exhibition, providing a more engaging and emotive presentation than bare statistical data on the
changing topography. Photographic and installation artist Alice
Blanch also exhibited at Sauerbier House as part of Shimmer,
her exhibition Land’s Edge exploring through a series of
exquisite photographs the visual effects created by the reflection
of the sky at dusk in the still waters of the Onkaparinga river.
Together with samples of local flora, her installation draws
attention to the fragility as well as the beauty of the environment.
Onkaparinga’s Shimmer Biennale featured an exhibition of photographs by Dave Laslett (Anglo-Australian/Spanish) and Inkatja (Wangkangurru/Adnyamathanha) at Red Poles Gallery in McLaren Vale, entitled TWO WAYS \ A Dualistic System.(10) Their exquisitely produced and evocative tableau images tell their personal stories of growing up in the Davenport region around Port Augusta. Each image is accompanied by a text identifying the story behind the image and positioning it in their respective journeys of self-discovery. The joint exhibition suggests a symbolic meeting of two cultures and a dual re-occupation of the land. Laslett is concerned to facilitate the empowerment of Indigenous communities through the use of visual media, oral history and story-telling.(11) A professional photographer and film-maker, he mentored members of Inkatja’s community and Inkatja made clear at the exhibition opening that she and her community felt empowered by the project. The works position Indigenous history alongside colonial history, recognising the importance of both. Laslett indicates that the pioneers in this district saw the land as an adversary — he grew up with the idea that, “we lived in an inhospitable land that needed to be subdued,”(12) but has since changed his view, and his shift towards reconnection both with the land and with the Indigenous owners of the land creates a paradigm central to sustainability and to community cohesion. Their imagery is loaded with carefully considered iconography and becomes a symbolic space of dialogue and reconciliation, where two cultures meet in equal partnership, emphasising the importance of place and relationship to the environment.
Gavin Malone is an Adelaide artist and cultural geographer concerned with the environment and the approach to transition necessitated by climate change.(13) Amongst numerous other projects over many years, he has purchased a 16 hectare block of former farming land at McLaren Vale, Lot 50 Kanyanyapilla, which he and other participants are restoring ecologically and culturally. Malone has long been concerned to work with Indigenous communities to recover their culture and establish a paradigm for joint management of country.(14) At Lot 50 Kanyanyapilla, he is working with the local Kaurna community and indicates that, “A Management Plan has been prepared with advice from relevant authorities and a peer group. The Plan adopts a bi-cultural, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, approach to land management and recognises the cultural practices and traditions of both cultures. An informal community-based support group has been formed to assist the project.”(15)
At Palmer in the Adelaide Hills, sculptor Greg Johns purchased in 2001 a former sheep grazing property of 163 hectares where he and volunteer participants are undertaking ecological restoration.(16) Malone has been a collaborator on the project and a Friends of Palmer community group has been established to continue the restoration. Johns has also established the Palmer Sculpture Biennial, which is situated there and says, “The Palmer Sculpture and Environmental Landscape is a long term project. Two decades will be needed to bring it to its full potential. Already plants/animals are reappearing after a 15 year re-vegetation program. Sculptures have and will be placed in a considered manner over that time period. I hope that it will strongly/subtly convey the reality of the interconnected environment we live in, an environment which must be cared for.”(17) Gavin Malone adds, “The Palmer Project activities have been, and still are, a microcosm of the sustainability challenges facing all of humanity; of the broad range of issues pertinent to the relationship between art and sustainability, both ecological and cultural.”(18)
Johns, Malone and the participants in their projects are physically transforming the land and creating a model for relational land management in consultation with Indigenous communities. In both cases, the artist is a mobilising member of a team that involves others in an active community concerned with land management and sustainability.
All the artists mentioned have reconsidered their connection to the environment. In the face of climate change, society must adapt, and the adaptation will require new business and manufacturing methods, new land management practices and close cooperation and mutual respect between communities. The examples above briefly illustrate the potential for artistic activity of various forms to precipitate environmental awareness, trigger changes in broader community behaviour and shift the nature of commercial activity towards a more sustainable footing. In articulating a philosophy and advocating it through the creation of aesthetic works, art may be seen as an integral element of social, political and business activity rather than separate from it. Artists alone cannot change the world but can participate in teams that bring about change locally, the sum of which can promote necessary adaptation globally.
The Rebel, Albert Camus, trans. Anthony Bower, Peregrine Books, London, 1962, p.239
Maria Lind, Director, Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm, in interview with Terry Smith, in Talking Contemporary Curating, Terry Smith, Independent Curators International, New York, 2015, p.324
Myf Doughty, ‘Brodie Neill: high tide’, in 2017 NGV Triennial, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 2017, p.241-249
Open Space Contemporary Arts; see also Cynthia Schwertsik (accessed 28 September 2018)
Friends of Mutton Cove (accessed 28 September 2018)
Creek Lore project (accessed 28 September 2018)
Sauerbier House Cultural Exchange (accessed 28 September 2018)
Neville Cichon (accessed 28 September 2018)
Dave Laslett (accessed 28 September 2018)
Gavin Malone (accessed 28 September 2018)
John Neylon, “Gavin Malone, Boots and All”, Guildhouse, undated (1 October 2018)
Lot 50 – Kanyanyapilla (accessed 28 September 2018)
Greg Johns Palmer Sculptural/Environmental Landscape (accessed 28 September 2018)
Gavin Malone, “The Palmer Project: art meets ecology”, Guildhouse, 22 September 2011 (accessed 30 September 2018)