Degrees of green art radicalism

Lyndon Blue: Radical Ecologies, PICA

Peter & Molly, The Superior Animal III (video still), 2015, Radical Ecologies

Peter & Molly, The Superior Animal III (video still), 2015, Radical Ecologies

A name can work against you. This seems to be the case with PICA’s most recent group exhibition, Radical Ecologies, an audacious title that invites the show to be judged on unforgiving terms. Rather than present the most extreme or challenging ecologically-minded work being produced today, the curatorial team of Nadia Johnson, Andrew Varano and outgoing head curator Leigh Robb has gathered a diverse assortment of art that resists a simple unifying label. If this makes for an occasionally puzzling viewing experience, it also reveals compelling confluences among superficially disparate art practices.

Radical Ecologies spans PICA’s ground floor and greets you with a rich array of materials: floor-to-ceiling fabric, branches, ceramics, video monitors, prints, ant-chewed book pages, wooden constructions and robotic displays. Its mixed aesthetic suggests the multivalence of ‘ecology’ in an unstable world, and (happily) avoids clichés endemic to the ‘eco art’ genre.

Pony Express, Ecosexual Bathhouse, 2015, Radical Ecologies

Pony Express, Ecosexual Bathhouse, 2015, Radical Ecologies

The most striking works lie along PICA’s south wall. Here, Peter and Molly’s The Superior Animal and an excerpt from fellow duo Pony Express’ Ecosexual Bathhouse [see RT’s Next Wave review] explore sensual interactions with flora and fauna. For Peter and Molly, this entails a triptych of videos with glossy production values, dramatic music and erotic horror overtones as they get messy with leeches, octopuses and clams. Pony Express’ tone is more playful, reworking porn magazines, graffitiing a sauna cabin with eco-sexual puns, photographing vegetal orgies and contriving sext-message conversations between Gaia and Gaia. Both collaborations portray the (human) ecstasy and agony of interspecies encounters: Deleuzian excursions into the double-edged bliss of transgression. None of this promises to transcend the safe sandbox of art performance and become a way of life—that is to say, truly radical. But both offer well-wrought speculative worlds, even if Pony Express acknowledge their own absurdity, while Peter and Molly’s quest for aberrant closeness is undercut by the whiff of animal exploitation.

Mike Bianco, Bee Bed, 2016, Radical Ecologies

Mike Bianco, Bee Bed, 2016, Radical Ecologies

A gentler kind of exploitation—promising more mutual benefit—is offered by artist and beekeeper Mike Bianco. He has constructed a steel-and-plywood “bee bed” that allows visitors to lie atop a hive, experiencing its sounds and smells without fear of stings. From overhead, one can inspect the bees at close range through a clear tube, affording a rare intimacy with these all-important and imperilled insects. Bianco’s nearby drone painting attempts a two-colour composition designed to appeal to humans and bees alike, while his woodblock print situates this interspecies relationship in a mythological and art-historical context. Bianco’s works evince both a thorough ecological understanding and a resolved aesthetic approach, making them undeniable highlights of the show.

Stelarc’s Re-Wired / Re-Mixed: Event for Dismembered Body comprises a five-day performance in which the artist cedes control of his robotically-enhanced arm to an internet audience, while also receiving audio and visual input from different bodies (in New York and London respectively). It’s a worthwhile inclusion, if only in kindling important questions about technological augmentation of biology, but it hardly feels cutting edge, drawing heavily on the veteran’s decades-old projects such as Fractal Flesh: Split Body: Voltage In/Voltage Out—performed (in Perth, no less) in 1996.

Stelarc

Stelarc

Certain works seem more preoccupied with the impression of radicalism than with radical practice itself. Tim Burns’ mini-retrospective installation, incorporating the punky aesthetics of spray paint and exploded TVs, fails to say anything you couldn’t read on a Fremantle bumper sticker. Backlit photograph-cum-sculpture, The Dyeing Ones, documents a fabric-staining ritual by local “end times” art cult The ‘Cene. Thus it emerges from an intriguing premise, but the work’s content fails to provide any meaningful elaboration. Nathan Beard’s Oriental Antiquities sculptures comprise versions of porcelain Buddha heads appropriated by the British Museum. These are beautiful, but don’t seem to belong in the exhibition at all; to shoehorn them with references to a global-political ‘ecology’ feels tenuous.

The ‘Cene, Compact Spirit Rituals, 2016, Radical Ecologies

The ‘Cene, Compact Spirit Rituals, 2016, Radical Ecologies

Other works reveal an intriguing subversive undercurrent. These forego spectacle in favour of quietude and patience. Katie West’s narrated video Decolonist channels nature to foster a meditative space in which to “slowly unlearn what we have been taught” and release the mind from toxic, ingrained discourse. Fellow Noongar practitioner Noel Nannup shares his deep ecological knowledge and wisdom with Matt Aitken in a series of conversations set to local footage, lending a fascinating counterpoint of learning to West’s unlearning. Rebecca Orchard’s sculptures and drawings subject unremarkable stones to a time-consuming, laborious process of replication, thereby eschewing Capitalist notions of value and embracing an intensive intimacy with natural forms. There’s a telling irony at play, whereby art that ignores the aesthetics of ‘radicality’ suggests some of the most radical results. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, though, that an ethos of patience and openness should foster the most promising remedy to a contemporary moment so bereft of both.

PICA, Radical Ecologies, curators Nadia Johnson, Andrew Varano, Leigh Robb, artists Matt Aitken, Nathan Beard, Mike Bianco, Tim Burns, Andrew Christie, Pony Express, Steven Finch, Cat Jones, Rose Megirian, Peter and Molly, Rebecca Orchard, Perdita Phillips, Mei Saraswati, Stelarc, Katie West; PICA, Perth, 31 July-4 Sept

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Lyndon Blue; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

21 September 2016
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