From the River to the Source: Lloyd Godman's Ecological Explorations

Lloyd Goldmans twin careers of serious and successful organic gardener and practising artist of great creative energy converge in new and constantly surprising ways to make art about the ecological concerns that underly his gardening. Over almost three decades his art has widened out from relatively traditional landscape photography to include elements of performance, audience participation art and multimedia installation to explore the tensions between electronic consumer society and the ecosystem.

Lloyd Godman's twin careers of serious and successful organic gardener and practising artist of great creative energy converge in new and constantly surprising ways to make art about the ecological concerns that underly his gardening. Over almost three decades his art has widened out from relatively traditional landscape photography to include elements of performance, audience participation art and multimedia installations as he came to use both living plants and electronic technology to explore the tensions between electronic consumer society and the rest of the ecosystem of which it is an often destructive part. Long time Godman-watcher novelist Lawrence Jones tracks his artistic development in New Zealand where they both taught at the University of Otago up until Godman's shift in 2005 to St Andrews, near Melbourne.

In his landscape photography of the 1980s Lloyd created powerful black-and-white images of natural phenomena under threat in our consumption society. The Last Rivers' Song (1983-84) was a striking exhibition of photo-murals and panels, accompanied by original music by Trevor Coleman and Paul Hutchins, of the Kawarau and Clutha rivers in Central Otago as they flowed through the Kawarau and Cromwell Gorges respectively. Many of the photographs were taken by a camera on a boom just above the freely and rapidly flowing rivers. As Otago poet Brian Turner said in the introduction to the book that later grew out of the exhibition, these are 'passionate and sensuous images' that 'show or imply that the forces at work are, on the one hand, raw, primeval, dangerous, and on the other, seductive'. They also have an edge of sadness and anger, for, as the title implies, the high dam at Clyde on which construction was then beginning, would turn these gorges into an artificial lake and the mighty song of the rivers would be heard no more. The process of the drowning of the gorges Lloyd documented in his two Lake Fill projects (1993, 1994). Lying down by the river's edge clad in a surfer's wetsuit with a camera at the edge of the rising lake water that was triggered when he touched an electric plate near his hand, Lloyd took a series of photographs showing the relentless filling of the gorges as the water encroached upon him and the camera. His projects were simultaneously environmental protests and performance art in which the camera was not a neutral recorder but rather played an integral part.

Lloyd's other landscape photographs of the later 1980s continued the environmental themes. Secrets of the Forgotten Tapu (1985-86) was a photomural exhibition focusing on another endangered place – Tinirau (Black Head), a headland north of Brighton, an historically important tapu site for some Maori groups, and now the site of a large quarry that is turning the natural formations to crushed black rock for roofs and roads. The exhibition called attention to the destruction and led to a negotiated covenant and protection order for at least some of the headland. The Summer Solstice sequences (1988-2004) charted the relationship of the natural rhythms of the ecosystem with such Otago sites as the Rock and Pillar Range inland from Dunedin or Brighton Beach looking out to Green Island or Chrystall's Beach south of Brighton. In these sequences, Lloyd would spend the full day of the summer solstice at a single place, photographing at regular intervals the movement of the sun through the sky or of the shadows across the land. These natural movements form a contrast to the imposed movement of the water in the Lake Fill sequences.

In the early 1990s Lloyd's work explored the complex mix of creative adaptation and destructiveness involved in the human participations in the ecosystem. Codes of Survival (1989-92), the result of a journey to the Auckland Islands, is a sequence that surrounds photographs of the pristine sub-Antarctic land and seascapes with photograms of the human-made detritus that has washed up there. These objects, many of them tools, are 'pollution', but they are also evidence of human attempts to survive in a harsh environment. As Linda Tyler commented, the images paradoxically 'register the inscriptions of culture upon nature, while alluding to the supremacy of the chthonian (natural) realm, which is beyond our possession'. That paradox is explored further in Adze to Coda: an archaeology of device (1993-2004). Photographic images from 'the estate of wilderness' – native bush at Piha, on the Auckland west coast, rock formations at Port Pegasus on Stewart Island in the far south – are accompanied by shaped photograms. The shapes are of simple tools – Maori fishhooks, adze heads, patu; Pakeha hammers, saws, spanners, while contained within them are photograms of layers of old gears, broken blades, corroded screws – tools of the past, returning to nature through rust and rot, 'an archaeology of implements that reference their own history'. The series ends with 1's and 0's instead of tools, for with the 'soft tools' of the computer age we are left with binary codes rather than physical remains, and 'the tactility of the object is denied'.

This dark turn continues in Evidence from the Religion of Technology (1993-94), a 22 metre long composite photogram, arranged as a continuous circle or rectangle around a room, with photograms of the debris of technology broken by three verticals - a woman, a man, and a skeleton, all placed against a coloured background that runs through the spectrum from living green to toxic violet, and back again. The installation reminds us that life as we know it can exist only in a relatively narrow band of conditions and that our religion of technology threatens those conditions, not least in its use of chemicals. The complex chemical legacy of our technology, of which photography is a part, is explored in Aporian Emulsions (1996-2003). Photosensitive hand-made emulsions from the early days of photography were applied to photographic paper as free-flow painting, usually in the shape of tools, forming individual prints that were hung together to form a single shape. The designs are attractive, but there is an ambivalent sub-text concerning chemicals and technology.

Since the late 1990s Lloyd's work has been more a celebration of light 'as origin, process and outcome'. Light is the 'giver of life' through the process of photosynthesis, is central to the process of photographic image-making, but is also ironically 'the medium which metamorphoses on the screen as advertising or corporate radiation' and thus 'indirectly drives the global mechanism of consumerism'. That consumer society depends on 'a growth that places proportionally more demands on the diversity of abundance of flora and fauna on the planet, the very ecosystem that is the boiler house and drives life on this planet'. Lloyd's chosen means for celebrating light in a series of installations between 1996 and 1999 was epiphytic bromeliads. These South American plants live on but do not parasitically feed off of other plants, providing a symbol of non-exploitive and creative adaptation to the ecosystem. The installations use photosynthesis as photography to create images on the leaves of the plants. Lloyd's method is to mask off designs, usually alchemical symbols; when the masking is removed, the designs stand out against the surrounding surfaces which have been darkened by photosynthesis. During the months while the photosynthetic images were forming, the plants were installed in a common room, in a boiler room, in a lift, in a museum case, on a mannequin, on a skeleton, on people.
Since 1999 Lloyd has used hanging bromeliads interacting with electronic light sources controlled by infrared sensors to produce shadow images. In en Light en (1999) projectors with colour filters threw shadows of the plant on tissue-paper screens at either side of the gallery, with the lights going on and off according to the number and movement of people. The plants were so arranged that an unfiltered projector at the front of the gallery threw shadows on the back wall spelling out 'LIGHT'. In @ the Speed of Light (2002) two slide projectors projecting a Windows desktop image threw plant shadows on to photographic paper on the opposite walls, shadows which gradually developed into images on the paper. On the last night, the images on one wall were fixed and washed and re-hung in a slow-motion performance that included audience participation as well as original music by Trevor Coleman. Leoni Schmidt commented that the performance made the audience 'acutely aware of time and its effects and of the archaeology of processes which are now being made obsolete by the speed with which we can access or produce images in an era of post-photographic visuality'.

Timed Lapse at the Accelerating Sequence show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia, USA in January this year used hanging plants and viewer participation for a different effect. To dramatise time and ageing - the organising themes of the multi-artist show - Lloyd had a trough of growing (and ultimately dying) plants suspended between a webcam and the viewers.
Using a joystick, viewers took photos of themselves and the plants, and these were fed into a computer with time-lapse software that continually reconstructed changing two-minute sequences of 50 images that played back to the audience on a screen. Incorporating new images into the database, dropping others out, the program imitated the process of memory over time. The juxtaposition of the people with the plants was a constant reminder that we are part of nature's temporal order, physically subject to its ageing process, and the changing image sequence showed that even memory, with which we oppose entropy, is subject to it. With our consciousness and with the technology we create with it we try to transcend the order of nature, but we are part of it, subject to its basic forces, and ultimately as dependent on photosynthesis and as mortal as the plants that Lloyd has continually placed in front of us.

Lloyd's most recent installation, Source, was an ephemeral sculpture in the courtyard of a restaurant in Hurstbridge (Vic) in 2005. It was a suspended table and chairs, with growing bean plants on the table and with the legs of the furniture replaced by tree trunks with exposed roots, all painted white. It is a suggestive and succinct reminder that we are dependent not only for the food we eat but for all the objects of our culture on an ecosystem driven by photosynthesis. I look forward to Lloyd's next explorations of that complex nature-humanity-technology relationship.