Heat: Art & Climate Change (Review for Art&Australia Vol 46 No 3 Autumn 2009)

Greg Pryor 2009

Gregory Pryor 2005

HEAT – Art and climate change
Curated by: Dr. Linda Williams
12 September – October 18, 2008
RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston St, Melbourne, 3000

The trajectory of public consciousness is often governed by the wave of discourse which surrounds a particular issue or cause. The very real and foreboding spectre of climate change has generated considerable discourse in the public field both at a macro and micro level. It seems pertinent and timely that Heat – Art and climate change explores the themes surrounding degradation and decay and the very evaporation of the ecosystems which create, support and renew life – systems that are in dire threat due to post-industrial expansion. Held within the awkward confines of RMIT gallery, Dr. Williams has curated a suite of works that point to an incredibly bleak and unsustainable future.

The notion of maintaining a delicate balance between the multi-layered and complex ecosystems that surround and sustain our ways of being is explored in several works. Janet Laurence’s Carbon Futures (2008) is a small, spherical biomorphic-looking orb of blown glass which nearly becomes lost within the gallery space as dramatic statements and apocalyptic endgame visions of the future appear to dominate. Laurence responds differently by exploring the inherent renewal processes that occur as a direct result of decay. By placing plant matter into a molten hot glass orb, seeds immediately spring forth signaling optimistic new beginnings. The orb is then hermetically sealed creating a mini self-contained ecosystem – delicate, unencumbered and in balance.

The direct effects of our destabilization of finely balanced ecosystems is painstakingly documented in Gregory Pryor’s Black Solander 2005. Entering the guise of botanist, Pryor has produced five thousand intricate ink and graphite drawings which are individually numbered, cataloguing the botanical species in Western Australia that are extinct or at risk. Drawn on black sugar paper, these small rectangles of botanical documentation fill up an entire room, wrapping around the viewer in a mausoleum-like display. There is an overt sense of despair as the work acts as an ode to flora that has been lost through human ignorance and over-consumption.

A change to our physical environment is also a consideration in Philip Samartzis and Michael Vorfeld’s installation Black Habit 2008. Samartzis and Vorfeld look into the before and after of energy use and the raw materials that are required for the production of everyday objects – objects such as a light bulb, often taken for granted, but an everpresent piece of rudimentary technology that provides us with invaluable illumination. Vorfeld’s large black silhouettes detailing the inner carcasses of old incandescent light bulbs are exposed onto large pieces of translucent paper. The black silhouettes themselves look like they are outcomes of scientific experiments, aesthetic and mesmerizing in their own right. This is overlayed with Samartzis’ sound work, a field recording of a coal extraction plant in rural Yallourn Valley. The noise that is created by the mammoth-sized trucks and machinery of the coalmine ruptures the relative calm of the space, drawing attention to the vast requirements of carbon fuel that is needed to sustain our fast-paced lifestyles. This recording is followed with a collaborative composition that uses high frequency microphones to record the omnipresent hum of electrical current that radiates from a light bulb. The incessant whining, and haunting buzz and crackle reminds us that they are indeed in use, critiquing the apathetic nature with which we use energy – a finite resource being consumed as if it was infinite.

There are several works that engage with the issue of climate change with subtlety and a sense of hope – most notably Ken Yonetani’s beautiful and textural porcelain tiles of otherworldly coral and Ash Keating’s large-scale project 2020? which reuses and reconfigures urban detritus into artworks exploring environmental sustainability in collaborative art practice – however I could not help but walk away with the feeling that I had been effectively hit by a sledgehammer. It may be my own predilection towards being an optimist, but there is an overwhelming sense of bleakness that flows throughout the exhibition. Instead of providing a contemplative and reflective space where the viewer could explore their own contribution to the slippery downhill slope of climate change, Heat: Art and climate change is a call to arms – where time to consider and ruminate is thrown out the window in the race to make a telling difference before the climate change tipping point is reached.

Copyright Leon Goh & Art&Australia 2009



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