Re-inscribing nature

Jade Wildy: Mildura Palimpsest #9

Joanne Mott, Grounded, 2013, native grasses, sedges and rushes, Palimpsest

Joanne Mott, Grounded, 2013, native grasses, sedges and rushes, Palimpsest

Joanne Mott, Grounded, 2013, native grasses, sedges and rushes, Palimpsest

“Palimpsest means a parchment that has been partly erased and re-inscribed. It evokes the marks made by human settlement on the land, the passage of time, presence and absence and the web of inter-dependence uniting the natural and the cultural, the material and the immaterial.”
www.artsmildura.com.au/Palimpsest

The “Biennale of the Bush,” as Palimpsest is sometimes known, is huge, both in terms of the number of artists participating and the sheer geographic scale of the event. Since its inception in 1998, the environment has been a recurring theme in Palimpsest. Outdoor works featured prominently this year, some hearkening back to the Mildura Sculpture Triennials of the 1970s—among the first events in Australia to move out of the gallery and situate artworks in the natural environment. This link was particularly notable in Joanne Mott’s living installation, Grounded, located in the very same park (a reclaimed rubbish dump) that housed the outdoor artworks of the Sculpture Triennials.

Mott’s creation has sustainability at its core. It uses living, Australian native, anti-erosion grasses planted to spell out GROUNDED, reflecting various interpretations of the word, including the very soil in which the grasses are planted and the concept of being psychologically earthed. This work is a continuation of Mott’s practice of planting and her conceptual interest in what she describes as the “heterogeneity of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’,” which are united in her artworks (www.joannemott.com). In Grounded, the health of river systems is reflected in the proximity of the artwork to the river and her use of soil erosion grasses that prevent riverbanks from being washed away. Clearly hand-planted, Grounded emphasises human presence, encouraging consideration of the efforts people make to repairing the environment.

Danielle Hobbs, 7000 eucalypts, 2013, mixed media installation, Palimpsest

Danielle Hobbs, 7000 eucalypts, 2013, mixed media installation, Palimpsest

Danielle Hobbs, 7000 eucalypts, 2013, mixed media installation, Palimpsest

Danielle Hobbs’ 7,000 Eucalypts comprised a gallery-based sculpture and a large site-specific artwork, drawing on the symbolism of a famous work by German artist Joseph Beuys: 7,000 Oaks. Completed by Beuys and the townsfolk of Kassel for Documenta 8 in 1987, it bore a message that related to both environmental remediation and urban renewal. This resonated with Hobbs, who reworked Beuys’ idea into an artwork that also had personal resonances for her. On a property managed by her father, the artist reframes a forest of hundreds of Australian gums from plantation trees into both an artwork and an environmental statement. Each tree was spray-painted with a pink dot, like those that councils use to indicate a tree destined for removal. The trees in 7,000 Eucalypts reflect new thinking about sustainable logging, but are also, says Hobbs, a reminder of the thousands of old-growth forests being cut down every day (Artist Talk, 5 October).

Hobbs has maintained a sense of environmental responsibility since her youth and admits to being a vocal critic on the subject, even within her own family. Thus, her father’s movement into sustainable logging makes the work personal. From the perspective of an observer kept behind safety fences, I found the number of trees marked for felling moving—representing a metaphorical and very real barrier between humans and the environment given the ongoing demand for wood-based products. The number of forests that are logged is alarming though there was some relief in knowing that these trees were not old growth.

Hobbs’ gallery-based work was featured in the ADFA building, recently refurbished as an art gallery, having formally housed the Australian Dried Fruits Association and fallen into disrepair. Hobbs describes her work as “art as an ecological intervention,” drawing on environmentalist themes and presenting them as art. The sculpture in ADFA draws on the same imagery as in the plantation, but we are instead presented with sawn logs. Stretching between plantation and gallery, 7000 Eucalypts offered passive yet powerful imagery, linking iconic Australian trees, and therefore the greater Australian environment, with the global one by referencing Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks. A sense of the presence and absence in trees growing and logged, was consistent with the Palimpsest theme.

Also using the outdoors and gallery space to engage with the environment, David Burrows drew on the landscape of Mildura’s Lake Ranfurly, an artificial stormwater basin covering almost 200 hectares. My first impression of the ‘lake’ was of a large open span of sand, devoid of water, invoking concerns about water security in Australia. In this ‘lake,’ Burrows presented Mirage Project ….[salt], a reinterpretation of his Mirage Project ….[iceberg] presented in 2012 in Melbourne’s Federation Square. This project utilises stereoscopic 3D photographs of icebergs taken by Burrows in Antarctica and seen, on the lake, through mounted binocular slide viewers. These works were carefully positioned so that the viewer could see the icebergs from the same positions that the original photographs were taken. These images of beautiful, naturally formed ice sculptures contrasted sharply with the arid lake. As you see the three-dimensional detail of the icebergs, your body feels the dry heat and baked sand, generating a sense of the very real potential of global warming to transform one landscape into the other. Burrows’ companion work, Crepuscule was featured at Mildura’s Wallflower Photomedia Gallery presenting beautiful photographs of the slowly changing effects of light on Lake Ranfurly.

Juan Ford’s Lord of the Canopy at the Mildura Arts Centre, embodied the nocturnal ambience of nature in a darkened gallery lit with spotlights casting ominous shadows on the walls. A large tree on the gallery floor comprised several segments, visibly bolted together into what Ford describes as a ‘frankentree’ (Artist Talk, 6 October). A highly polished possum ring (sheet-metal designed to prevent animals from climbing trees) was positioned on the trunk to reflect a large, circular painting of the warped image of a possum on the gallery wall, establishing a dialogue between the natural denizens of the Australian night and the human hand on the environment. Walking through Lord of the Canopy, I felt the need for quiet and slow movement as one might when encountering a possum at night in your backyard. Yet that feeling of wonder was overshadowed by the ‘wrongness’ of this bolted-together, artificial tree and the denial of the possums’ natural home represented by the ring.

These works, just a few of the many created by the 49 artists in this year’s Palimpsest, demonstrated not only a developing subgenre of Australian art concerned with the environment, but also a wider consciousness of the natural environment and a gradual inscription and re-inscription of the environment. While I’ve focused on works with direct environmental concerns, other artists created works with subtler tones of environmentalism and a diverse array of other themes including surveillance, mental health, blended cultures and the changing face of Mildura. Palimpsest is a powerful event reflecting many current concerns through the lens of contemporary art.

Arts Mildura, Mildura Palimpsest Biennale #9, curator Helen Vivian, assistants Geoffrey Brown, Rachel Kendrigan, Rohan Morris, various venues in and around Mildura, 4-7 Oct, www.artsmildura.com.au/palimpsest/

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 28

© Jane Wildy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2013