Art in the time of the burning

Residents and holidaymakers on the beach at Malua Bay, New South Wales, 1 January 2020. Photo: Alex Coppel
Residents and holidaymakers on the beach at Malua Bay, New South Wales, 1 January 2020. Photo: Alex Coppel

As Samuel Johnson said to Boswell, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I thought of this definitive comment on time as I was writing this article in late December 2019 in the Blue Mountains, in forty degrees temperatures as smoke swirled around outside from fire storms only kilometres away. We had been told to evacuate but we didn’t, we’d been through this before. The car was loaded up, the cats locked in the house and their cages ready to pack and run. But immanent immolation did not concentrate my mind, or only in the wrong way as I compulsively checked FiresNearMe and messaged friends to check they were okay. They often weren’t: several were burnt out, many had life-threatening escapes, and evacuations were commonplace. My friend Ronnie Ayliffe was posting videos of burning trees falling onto the road as she fled her farm and headed for Cobargo, itself already on fire.

Slightly north of her at Malua Bay residents and animals crowded onto the beach in scenes uncannily reminiscent of nineteenth-century genre paintings seen through a thick brown glaze. Further south in Victoria our first climate refugees, trapped at Mallacoota, were being evacuated by naval ships and helicopters. To the south west the highway between Sydney and Canberra was cut off as the fire burnt out the township of Wingello and into Bundanoon where I had lived in the 1990s. Directly west at Wallerawang, the area where I spent my childhood and the early 2000s, was being fiercely defended as the fire threatened the nearby Mt Piper power station. It felt as if my life history was disappearing in flames.

Within ten kilometres of my house at Linden eighty percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area was burnt out killing over a billion animals, an almost inconceivable number. I’m almost crying as I write because the swamp wallabies, lyre birds and mountain dragons that live in our garden are our friends. Suddenly there are almost no birds in our trees, their raucous twittering silenced. This is climate change up close and personal. Time is up, our end is in sight and like any dying person we need to understand what is most meaningful. It can’t be avoided, if you are an artist and you are not thinking about time then you are not thinking. It is not just that secretly nurtured fantasies of future fame are now pointless. Even in the immediate future any sort of conventional artistic career will become impossible in the chaos of social collapse or the massive reorganisation that might, just might, save us. The changes will be difficult, overwhelming and inescapable.

You could say we are past the denial phase of our grief about climate change but only because we have moved to the bargaining phase. Here there is an uneasy awareness that it is all over but perhaps we can claw back more time to make up for our disastrous mistakes. Personally, I have my doubts, but this is the option that has been chosen by most of the world including most of the art world. Earnest alarmed conversations, petition signing, political art, fundraisers, polite street marches, the full panoply of recreational concern safely cushions the majority from immediate anxiety and the bloody business of actual structural change.

Studio Incendo, 6 September 2019, photograph. Courtesy the artist and NSW Hongkongers
Studio Incendo, 6 September 2019, photograph. Courtesy the artist and NSW Hongkongers

But closer to the real action you will find the mass movements like Extinction Rebellion and the Hong Kong democracy protesters constantly inventing new ways to thwart the powers that seek to control them. And this is where the most relevant creativity is thriving. The Hong Kong demonstrators show real genius in re-using the objects of daily life, whether it is umbrellas and face paint to thwart surveillance cameras, gluing bricks to the road to trap cars, or filling streets with forests of bamboo scaffold poles held together with cable ties. They have even extended earlier forms of protest like the so called “Lennon walls”, public walls covered by tens of thousands of messages hand-written on post-it notes that are an almost shocking reversal of the ubiquitous digital messaging of our age.

You could also put the work of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA) in this bargaining category and the whole enterprise of regenerative agriculture. Sometimes it is the most mundane and utilitarian activities that galvanise us into these kinds of actions. As examples of this, art historian Catriona Moore mimics Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the reflective insulation used to protect her house from bushfire embers; while crocheter Tracey Kennedy creates blankets based on the data visualisation of record temperatures. Perhaps the ability to make almost anything may turn out to be the most valuable residual art skill.

Tracy Kennedy, Crocheting Brisbane, 2019 Temperature Data blanket, 2019. Courtesy the artist
Tracy Kennedy, Crocheting Brisbane, 2019 Temperature Data blanket, 2019. Courtesy the artist

And at the opposite extreme from the makeshift barricades of street demonstrations you will find the dull-walled estates of the ultra-wealthy who believe only the poor will die as long as this privileged few keep themselves quarantined. The reality is that the poor and indigenous communities, less driven by individualism and competitiveness, may well be the best equipped in the art of survival.

But in a context where there is quite literally no future, where time is a rapidly diminishing resource, what is the point of making art? The several possible responses all originate in the deeply ingrained human tendency to constant cultural adaptation, the fact that right to the end we will be inventing new ways of coping. If manufacturing content for the art market provides you with an income you may as well continue, given the short time left. But since art in that sense is a luxury form of consumerism, a major cause of our problems, you should probably be seriously considering whether your time would be better spent instead doing things that might help save us. Even our public institutions are moving to education programming over the promotion of high-status consumer goods in a generational paradigm shift to relational models of art.

I’ve also been thinking about my own forty-year involvement with relational models of practical, useful cultural practice. I have decided that if there is no future then compromises don’t matter so I may as well play nicer with the institutional art world when that might help. This means I’ve been working with Kaldor Public Art Projects (KPAP) while also participating in the latest major event for the KSCA. Both have had moments where cataclysmic fire was a significant cultural event.

The fires were only getting started in early September when I flew out to northern NSW for the Groundswell Conference staged by KSCA in Bingara. The night before had been the grand opening of Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects at the Art Gallery of NSW. Bingara was a plunge from the moneyed bubble of the art world establishment into the apocalyptic fiery and drought-stricken depths of the new normal out in the bush. KSCA may be a group of artists but we work with farmers, out in the real world. We have been dealing with a different type of cultural remaking and deeper time, through regenerative agriculture and other infrastructural programs designed to rebuild the environment that Europeans have so rapidly and completely destroyed in just over two hundred years on this continent.

Workshop participants in the 2019 Groundswell Conference organised by Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation, Bingara, New South Wales. Photo: Vicki Zhang
Workshop participants in the 2019 Groundswell Conference organised by Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation, Bingara, New South Wales. Photo: Vicki Zhang

The Groundswell Conference, a weekend attended by hundreds, was a great success and a scary harbinger of what was to come. Held in a Mad Max atmosphere in dusty sheds and marquees on the edge of town, many of the attendees driving through bush fires to get there, it also attracted a dust storm on Friday that coated everything in red dirt and lingered as that thick brown haze we are now all so familiar with. It was the curtain raiser to the months of ferocious fires and storms to follow.

The two days brought the issue of time and remaking into sharp focus. Assuming we can somehow stop all use of fossil fuels within the very near future, we then face the enormous task of remaking not just a viable society but also its entire ecological framework. On the other hand, if it is too late all that is left are the death throes as nature shrugs us off and remakes the world without us. As I said in a panel discussion at the conference, perhaps we needed to seriously consider ourselves as mounting a rearguard action, trying to save as much remaining ecology as possible while smoothing the pillow of our own dying species. Any illusion that climate change is just about hotter weather has now been destroyed. We are only at the beginning of the ecological changes and already it is far more personally threatening than most people imagined.

In his 1988 essay “The beginning of wisdom”, published in Time on the eve of Australia Day in that Bicentenary year, historian Manning Clark celebrated the fact that Australian history and its art finally got interesting when we took this moment to face the truth about our blinkered past, acknowledging that the coming of the British was the occasion of three great evils: the violence against the original inhabitants of the country, the violence against the first European labour force, and the violence done to the land itself. We have created the perfect storm, so to speak, that entangle also our culture and our history of denial.

Something of this loss of innocence, the violence done to the land and its people and parallel visions of that history seen so clearly in Bingara further assailed me on returning to Sydney. As one of the four artists commissioned to do new work for the KPAP exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, I had been asked to revisit a 1969 work, Natural Parallels. As a site-specific outdoor work made by draping ropes across cliff strata it obviously could not be recreated but embedded in KPAP’s archival project of revisiting this time and place, a form of time travel was possible, thinking my way back into my eighteen-year-old self and doing what I might have done with elements I was using in mid 1969.

And 1969 was a different world. For starters, Wrapped Coast, the first major environmental project created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude was a coup for John Kaldor. Impressive in its scale, in retrospect it was also notable for a lack of awareness characteristic of the era, with no acknowledgement or respect for the custodianship of the land by the Eora people. The work became an uncritical illustration of European dominance of land and nature, reducing Aboriginal land to a blank canvas. Then things changed. In 2016 KPAP’s first project to feature an Australian artist was by Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones: barrangal dyara (skin and bones) featured 15,000 bleached white shields outlining the site in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens where the Garden Palace had stood for four years until the 1882 fire that destroyed not just the building but also thousands of significant First Nations artifacts that had been stored there. The fire was an inadvertent example of European ethnic cleansing, wiping out most of the remaining pre-colonial Aboriginal material culture, an event recognised as more significant now than it was then.

Juundaal Strang-Yettica in an article for the newspaper EXTRA!EXTRA! produced as part of the exhibition suggested that time had now come to recognise the need for restitution, that the Two Wrapped Trees by Christo and Jeanne-Claude should, like the stolen bones of ancestors, be unwrapped and repatriated to their original country. The ultimate irony was that by the time her article was published the fires ringed Sydney, destroying most of the Blue Mountains National Park to the west, driving countless species to near extinction. The Garden Palace fire had destroyed an irreplaceable trove of Aboriginal material culture, this fire destroyed the landscape and wildlife that had given rise to that culture.

Jonathan Jones, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), Kaldor Public Art Project 32, gypsum, kangaroo grass, eight-channel soundscape, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, 2016. Photo: Peter Grieg
Jonathan Jones, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), Kaldor Public Art Project 32, gypsum, kangaroo grass, eight-channel soundscape, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, 2016. Photo: Peter Grieg
Christo and Jean Claude, Two Wrapped Trees, 1969, Installation view, Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: AGNSW, Jenni Carter © Christo
Christo and Jean Claude, Two Wrapped Trees, 1969, Installation view, Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: AGNSW, Jenni Carter © Christo

When I reread this essay I can see through the haze of smoke and anger the themes that now obsess me. Time does not necessarily heal, but it certainly changes our understanding. Remaking is fundamental to reinterpreting the past and driving any possibility of a future. This battle of recompense clearly needs to be on an industrially engineered scale, but also on more intimate scale as a symbolic unwrapping of our culture. This fire—the bonfire of our vanities—is consuming all life around us. Those animals who seek our aid in a last desperate bid for survival must surely hate us and wish us gone. My anger and grief and guilt make me certain I want to go out fighting against the other humans whose greed and stupidity have caused this disaster, I want to make a last-ditch effort to save as many other creatures as possible, privileging them over humans. Even if failure is inevitable I want to channel the worst of my basic human instincts, the primal Homeric joy of throwing oneself wholeheartedly into violent battle, but this time against capitalism’s death wish, with our tribal battle cry, “It’s time!”.

And finally, I think of the earliest dated artwork, a recently re-discovered cave painting on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Its origin some 44,000 years ago doesn’t sound like a very long time ago to me. If that’s all the time we humans had, we should have spent that time more wisely.

Ronnie Ayliffe, scientia inflammatus (knowledge on fire), 2009, ephemeral sculpture, encyclopedia set ablaze beside a drought‐stricken dam at Sams Creek, Cobargo, NSW. Courtesy the artist
Ronnie Ayliffe, scientia inflammatus (knowledge on fire), 2009, ephemeral sculpture, encyclopedia set ablaze beside a drought‐stricken dam at Sams Creek, Cobargo, NSW. Courtesy the artist

 

Ian Milliss is an artist, writer, political activist, compulsive researcher, Facebook addict and member of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation who worked on Wrapped Coast in 1969.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.