The environment represents perhaps the key global challenge of our times. Never far from the centre of political agendas, whether implicit or explicit in our daily headlines, scientific discourse about nature has flourished as a subject of mass-interest to a degree not seen since the Enlightenment.
Environmentally engaged art production has similarly increased, in proportion to the visibility of the debate concerning climate, as well as the growth of 'disaster-porn' as a genre of popular entertainment. A spectrum of activist models can now be identified, ranging from the artist as political radical (in the tradition of Joseph Beuys), to more subtle, affecting works. Similarly, an “ecology” of modes of artistic language has arisen: ranging from fulminating rhetoric, to the neutral presentation of data, to the poetic evocation of emotion.
Emerging Melbourne-based artist Debbie Symons has positioned herself on the frontline of these debates. Symons’ practice uses drawing as a foundation for relating art and science. This decision recognises the genealogy of drawing as a tool for enquiry, linking her work to eighteenth-century botanical illustrators such as Conrad Martens, who accompanied Charles Darwin on The Beagle. Artists were intricately involved in the first Western documentation of species in Australia, and were deployed across the Asia-Pacific region as the colonial interests of various nations expanded. Through working directly with world-class scientists (including Oxford University), Symons continues this first-hand “witnessing” of environmental concerns by artists, assessing what the long-term impact of those first prospectors has been.
Symons’ notion of drawing is as an expanded graphical mode, extending from the graph and the diagram (both animated and still) to live-feed stock market displays and flight information screens. Symons has a background in the corporate world – she previously worked in advertising – and is familiar with the systems used to display and market information. Redeploying these systems to raise awareness of the ecological damage market forces have caused has become a powerful and confronting tool in her critique of capitalism.
World Species Market (2012) is an example of this double take. The viewer at first assumes the display is another study of market forces at work: which indeed it is, although here the fluctuating data is of threatened species from across the globe, casualties of the businesses we expect to be listed. Similarly, Arrivals and Departures (2011), a study of introduced versus threatened species over time, embraces the flow of information that surrounds us and redeploys this as art.
While the voice in Symons’ work is often deadpan, her animations are remarkably affecting. Here, Symons’ understanding of drawing comes to the fore. As a tool for clinical representation (the relay of data), in works such as Trade (2014), this objectivity intersects with the inherently emotive qualities of drawing – density, colour, structure, mass – which accumulate before our eyes, engaging the viewer as witness of a live act: both as drawing and the environmental degradation of one country meeting the consumer demand of another. Ultimately, Symons’ work asks us to consider: who is the author of the image?
Kit Wise is a graduate of Oxford University and the Royal College of Art, and worked as an artist in London, Paris, New York and Rome before settling in Melbourne in 2002.