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.
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’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.
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.
The Rights of Rivers (capital Rs!) are front and centre in the MCA and throughout the Biennale. Marjetica Potrč’s “visual essays’’ are splashed across walls in vivid blue, red and black, telling the stories of the River Soča in Slovenia and the Galari on Wiradjuri Country, and the fights taking place for their rights against privatisation and commercialisation. “The time of mother nature is long, but it takes only a single generation of merchants to exchange wetness for dryness,” we read, painted in thick black letters beneath a metres high abstracted image of the river and her tributaries. It’s a call to attention for the viewer, and though the works are text-heavy, people take the time to read in a way they would unlikely do in a non-art context.
We are familiar in Aotearoa with legal personhood being granted to the Whanganui River as a “living indivisible whole… from the mountains to the sea.” As described in the legislation. The Biennale highlights that this movement is gaining traction, as rights have been attributed to rivers in India, Australia, Colombia, and Ecuador. Each venue introduces us to a new river, and they have literally been given voices, as video works record elders and other knowledge-holders telling their stories. Commissioned by the Biennale, this is art intersecting with an environmental movement — making real and visible the abstract and technical legal work of governments.
Left: Baaka (Darling) River, Australia Voice of the Baaka, spoken by Uncle Badger Bates (2022). Right: Birrarung (Yarra River), Australia Voice of the Birrarung, spoken by Uncle Dave Wandin (2022). Photos Mia Gaudin.
I meet with a friend who walks with me to an impressive space walled with rock beneath Barangaroo Reserve — once a fishing and hunting site for the Gadigal people, then an industrial port, now rehabilitated into a native botanic garden making a fitting substitute for a stark gallery. This is where we find te Mata Aho Collective’s aptly named work He Toka Tu Moana: She’s a Rock, 2022, a site specific weaving of heavy duty webbing between two structural columns of the space.
The Cutaway, like the Adam, is full of video and sound works that pull us through the space. There are talking fish, animated polar bears and rhinos, and icebergs telling stories of how humans have caused their destruction (see Will Benedict’s work All Bleeding Stops Eventually, (2019).
We take a moment’s rest at David Haines and Joyce Hinterding’s Pink Stream 2022. We lie and listen: the tones are descending, going deep, and it’s as though we’re experiencing an unseen landscape, perhaps holding a film negative to the sun. Indeed the sounds are in fact translations of energy — traces of cosmic rays colliding with the earth’s atmosphere, “like another kind of rain made of invisible energy.”
My friend is a curator, and recently worked on an “art and environment” show at another Sydney museum. She reacts to the curatorial task: “The aim is to create an emotional connection to the environment, to bring the viewer in closer. It’s not about being a didactic or authorial voice,” she says. This resonates. The works that make me care the most are the ones that don’t lecture. This is art, not science. I keep this in mind as we walk through the sunshine up to The Great Animal Orchestra, an immersive soundscape of 15,000 animal species recorded over the past 50 years. Its call to action is explicit: “Listen closely to these animal voices. How can you help to ensure that they are not silenced forever?” Nature has been given the mic, and now it’s on humans to act.