Giving Nature the Mic

Updated: May 2

Environmental art and its power to change to change behaviour? Mia Gaudin investigates.

A review of Listening Stones Jumping Rocks (through 27 March 2022) and Rīvus: The 23rd Biennale of Sydney (until June 2022)

By Mia Gaudin

When I was studying environmental law and art history, I became interested in how artists were engaging with climate change – could art have a role in changing behaviour? Would art make me a better recycler? Could it help me not only care, but take action? A bemused professor brushed off my proposed essay topic (I write about that here: Artists as Environmentalists); now, twelve years on, I take these clearly live questions to two shows. Susan Ballard, a lecturer at Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University specialising in “art and environment,” co-curated the recent Adam Art Gallery show: Listening Stones Jumping Rocks.

The show consisted of loaned works and items from the University’s collection (Susan’s co-curator is Sophie Thorn, the Adam’s Collections Curator), and aimed to present artists in “a timeline of engagements with the environment here in Aotearoa.” While a chronology isn’t obvious in the way the items are displayed, the works play with and span time, from Len Lye’s 1976 kinetic Universe which welcomes us into the space with a resounding whack of metallic reverberation to Paul John’s 2020 assemblage Been Here Long?: two ancient rocks having a comic convo in the stairwell.

Shona Rapira-Davies, Ka pinea koe e ahau. Ki te pine o te aroha. Ki te pine e kore nei. E waikura e. A lament

The works also span a range of ways of bringing the environment into art. We see works that depict nature, like Shona Rapira-Davies’ Ka pinea koe e ahau. Ki te pine o te aroha. Ki te pine e kore nei. E waikura e. A lament, with its botanical recordings; work that draws from rocks to create experimental mediums , as Raewyn Martyn does with her mineral pigments and sculptural paintings; and works that aurally document, like field studies, the world around us.

It’s a noisy show — the art works are literally “in conversation” with each other and vying for our attention, asking us to be better observers of our environment. The gallery attendant sheepishly admits he turns down the noisiest ones when there’s no one around. The Universe is loud!

Rachel Shearer, Te Oro o te Ao

Rachel Shearer’s work Te Oro o te Ao (2018) is most successful in getting my ear. Entering a darkened room, we’re drawn in by karanga which shifts to a composition of the sounds of cicadas, waves on pebbles, a howling wind, water falling as though we’re inside a cave, nestled into the earth. As my ears attune and I get comfortable in the blackness, I realise our ability to pick up on aural cues is strong. Without distractions, I am listening. Art has the power to make us better observers.

If Listening Stones Jumping Rocks attempts a chronology of artists in Aotearoa, Rīvus: 23rd Biennale of Sydney is a culmination. With many works commissioned specially, and representing 80+ participants from over 30 countries, we get a global insight into how artists worldwide are responding now to environmental issues.

Led by Columbian artistic director José Roca in conjunction with a “curatorium” (that seems to be a collective noun for curators), Rīvus gives us multidisciplinary perspective and multiple lenses (think law, science, matauranga, art) into the non-human world. Rivers and waterways are a central theme of the Biennale, providing a metaphorical framework and physical pathway. Audiences are invited to follow trails through the city likened to art-flanked riverbanks between Biennale venues. “Rivers are the sediment of culture”: this curatorial refrain appears on the walls as you reach each new venue, drink bottle in hand, looking for the water fountain.

Abel Rodríguez, Mogaje Guihu

My Rīvus experience begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art where the intricate drawings of Mohaje Guihu (also known by his Spanish name Abel Rodriguez), an elder from the Muinane community on the Cahuinari River in the Colombian Amazon, occupy an entire room and look through multiple lenses: they represent the deep knowledge of the rainforest passed down through family, his work as a guide for scientific researchers, and his desire to preserve and share his stories in art. Guihu gives us an opportunity to learn about his place in the world, and the intimate nature of his work draws us in much more successfully than a scientific record could although the science is there.