climate change, communication and visual art: what were they thinking?
This is a story of failure, I’m afraid.
Very early in the development of Docklands, a large sculpture by John Kelly was placed by the water’s edge. The sculpture, of a very box-like black and white cow upside down in a tree, had recently been shown in the Champs Elysees in Paris where, the Australian newspapers proclaimed, it was a really popular.
It is understood in the Australian essays surrounding this work that a cow up a tree is, however, a bleak reference to floods that occur across inland Australia made more complex by being represented in a cartoon-like manner. As someone who grew up on the edge of the desert farming country the actual sight of a dead, bloated cow caught in a tree by floodwaters is haunting in its particularity of devastation.
But to place the work on the foreshore in the centre of Docklands turns this work into an astounding portent to which the officials seem blissfully unaware.
The cow is 2 metres off the waters current edge. About the same height as the water level is predicted to rise within the next 50 years as a result of melting icecaps. All anyone who wishes to invest or live in the area has to do is look at this sculpture to realize Docklands is not a long-term prospect. And they can do so on a daily basis. There are no essays that I can find about what this context does to the meaning of the work however.
One might ask what were the authorities thinking? The answer would be – not much.
In 2009, I was commissioned by the City of Melbourne to create a work for the Mockridge Fountain and to invite 3 other artists to also do so. The fountain had been shut off for several years because the Council didn't want to seem to be profligate with water during the 8-year drought that was occurring. During that time it was covered with a painting of dry, cracked earth by Ash Keating.
One of the artists I commissioned was Gayle Maddigan, a proudly indigenous photographer who wanted to present a complex image of the land in drought.
The huge b&w photograph of dead trees was a big hit with many photographers, including the Age fashion photographers who cheerfully photographed the winter collection in front of it.
One might again ask what were they thinking? The answer would again be – not much.
My own work for that site, Whispering Wall fancied itself as a solar-powered sound work, of people from the regional town of Avoca in central Victoria, talking about climate change whispering from a ply wall of the sort used in construction fences. It worked for the most part, despite it being mid-winter, because of the fancy footwork of Jesse Stevens, the technical expert involved. However later when it appeared outside the MCA as part of the exhibition In the Balance: Art for a Changing World, there were problems. The MCA was being rebuilt at the time and the work was designed to be located along the structural ply fence that was supposed to be in place. It wasn't so the construction company sweetly built a special wall which was never used functionally. A ‘real’ ply wall was later built directly behind it. Furthermore the construction site started to bulge forward as the building grew, completely stopping any sun from reaching the solar panels. So the work became a series of squeaks and pops and this went un-noticed for many days until I turned up in Sydney and wandered over to see how it was going. Apparently the work was checked in the early morning when the solar panels were able to operate. It had to be supported from the grid.
What were we all thinking? Here, clearly, not enough. They didn't think to tell me of the building changes, I didn't think to ask if there would be any.
Public sculptures, exhibitions and commissions, individual installations all addressing climate change either accidentally or inadequately or to no effect are now rife.
In light of these stories of inadequacy of communication, it’s not surprising you might think that many artists who work in the ‘public’ sphere now look to creating what are more and more frequently called ‘interventions’.
The word itself immediately conjures up an uninvited political act that cuts through the academy of the time that, reveals the weaknesses or corruptions or intransigence of the culture into which it is ‘dropped’.
Within the visual arts, the word has form. The US art historian Mirwon Kwon suggests it was first used by the US artist Richard Serra to cut through the politeness and bland service to architecture that public art was being put in the 80’s What I call the ‘brooch’ effect – where a sculptural work is placed just so to be tasteful (or even tastfully contentious) and expensive and to frame the ‘face’ that is the building of which it is part. The argument might well be made again today.
Perhaps the most potent use of the term can be found in the activites of Kochenstrauer, an Austrian collective of artists who use the idea of an art space to bring together social groups that in other circumstances are oppositional.
Their works are all called interventions.
However, also in the 70s, Joseph Beuys, an artist known throughout Germany, not only for his extraordinary art practice but also for his refusal to teach within the art system and his contribution as a founding member of the German Greens party, perhaps the most likely to call his performances ‘interventions”, used instead the word ‘actions’ to descibe them. As a shamanic figure he clearly placed himself at the centre of his culture, not outside it offering a critique. Thus 7000 Oaks, a work begun at Documenta in 1982 can now be found in many parts of the world.
So there is an issue with behaviour change – it has to start with our own. And it can be found in the very language we use. The need to understand the degree of difficulty involved in changing habits – thinking habits. In now seeing a landscape but becoming part of the land.
In the meantime, a third image has been added to that of the solitary bear on an floating piece of ice, and the colour green as internationally recognized symbols of global warming. It is not created by artists, nor is it a sign of pain or defeat. Nor is it an intervention. It is instead an enormously positive action undertaken by a growing army of householders. It is the solar panel.
Lyndal Jones 2017