How not to care about ecology

Tough luck to the wood that becomes a violin.
Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871

The picture which is looked to for an interpretation of nature is invaluable, but the picture which is taken as a substitute for nature, had better be burned…
John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1844

Like an enveloping atmosphere, ecology has become a dominant framework for contemporary art. In parallel, criticism has assumed the task of interpreting and re-interpreting art and its history for the ecological moment. Despite its near-imperialistic tendency to redefine the meaning of art works in ecological terms, the use of ‘ecology’ as a framework often precludes critical analysis rather than invites it. We are compelled to equate ‘ecological’ alongside terms like ‘life’ and ‘care’, with ‘good’, neatly bypassing both aesthetic and political judgment. Ecology is levelled to any lively, activated network, ignoring the dead, inorganic and artificial aspects of real ecologies. In the efflorescence of eco-art, the living overtakes the dead at the cost of art’s function...


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Julie Gough and Lucienne Rickard: Witnessing extinction

Lucienne Rickard’s Extinction Studies (2019–2023) was a long durational, live drawing project commissioned by Detached Cultural Organisation and staged in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s Link Foyer spanning four years and three months. Delivered in two iterations, the project focused on extinction as a key concern of the global ecological crisis and a phenomenon much talked about, but rarely witnessed at close range. Informed by links between the destructive impact of human activity within the Anthropocene and the ‘sixth’ mass extinction event, Rickard’s daily presence in the Museum framed extinction as a phenomenon to which we might bear witness in the here-and-now. Employing the double-edged strategy of drawing an extinct or endangered animal on a large sheet of paper and then erasing the image, Rickard’s project alluded to evolutionary cycles as viewers could witness, sometimes over months, the emergence of an anatomically accurate creature, only to watch it disappear in minutes under her eraser. 


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REE dependency, 24/7, 2024

It’s 2am, and I am editing images on my MacBook Pro to include in this visual essay. I am using the Pomodoro method while I work, my iPhone keeping track of time. I am thinking about rare earth elements (or REEs, or rare earths) and their wide use in contemporary art, particularly media art, photography, video, film and animation. If life cannot be separated from art, then it is impossible to have an art practice in 2024 that does not depend on the mass-scale extraction of stolen Indigenous land and resources.


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Mapurtiti Nonga / Evil Ass Dreaming: What are the butt plugs made of?

2022 Tiyari, Tiwi season of hot and humid. We felt unsettled watching the news of Jikilaruwu Tiwi Island clan seniors taking South Korean Government to Seoul Central District court; a sip of solidarity beyond state borders to halt financing Santos and SK E&S Barossa Gas Project near Tiwi Islands. But the court dismissed the case after two months as foreign environmental rights are inaccessible to the Korean constitution. In scrutiny, ‘rights to clean air’ as basic rights is categorised under South Korean private law, which was a seeded sacrifice when the constitution was first drafted in the ‘60s after the Korean war—the beginning of economic boom and resource privatisation. This underlying legislative code of proprietary extractions has been reinventing “natural environment”, “resources” and “wealth” using becoming-Global-North colonial science, where the environmental law in Northern Australia is sprouted from these legislated Ponzi schemes. 


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The Gouldian finch and the "Save Lee Point" campaign

I have never seen a Gouldian finch “in the wild”, but over the past two years I have become familiar with its image on signage in Darwin streets and byways along with the words Save Lee Point. This typically shy, mostly silent and endangered bird is the brilliant icon of a grassroots movement to protect one of Darwin’s last remaining woodland corridors.


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Fragile tethers: Art after floods

Some things won’t change, a woman told me in a small room on Bundjalung Country, filled with other women weaving; the smell of raffia and pillows. It was raining so we couldn’t sit outside. I began to weave a circle.


We thought we trusted the bush to be there, but then fire comes, Ruth said. We thought we could turn to the river, but then it overflows. The places we take refuge don’t feel so safe. But we can count on galaxies and bacteria and stones to be around long after we are gone.


Driving my carbon-belching hatchback from one colonial settlement to another, I listened to a book about microbes under a slivered moon. Fires flanked me at one point on the road. They weren’t close enough to scare, contained, but there: the contents of my gut, and the flames.


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The Art-Raft Project: Activism at work, rest and play

The art-raft project is, in Hakim Bey / Peter Lamborn Wilson’s words, a materialised ‘temporary autonomous zone’, where collaborators and activists have space to playfully propose questions, be involved in a common cause, generate connection and envision more positive future narratives.


The project began as a response to the needs of the People’s Blockade, a peaceful ‘flotilla’ protest organised by Rising Tide, held annually in the harbour and river mouth of the Coquun/ Hunter River, at Muloobinba/Newcastle. United on Awabakal and Worimi land and waters, the November 2023 protest saw 3,000 people occupying the world’s largest coal port for 34 hours.


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Wills Projects: Low impact art in the age of impact

South Australian creative duo Laura Wills and Will Cheesman are the artists we need for the future. Partners in life and work, the pair have collaborated informally for nearly two decades, since the mid-2000s. Working across public art, relational and participatory practices, the duo—formalised as Wills Projects in 2020—invite many hands to co-create and deliver their projects, promoting non‑hierarchical structures of engagement that cater to the capacity and diversity of their participants. Based in Tarntanya / Adelaide, on Kaurna Yarta, Wills Projects is an exploration of the artists’ action-oriented yet reflective way of responding to the world. Prior to meeting, the pair lived parallel lives, riding bikes around Australia, living in squats in Europe, volunteering and WWOOFing, all while creating art. These experiences brought them together in what Wills refers to as ‘a shared culture’.


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Katie West and the anti-metaphor

decolonial poetics (avant gubba) (2017), by Bundjalung poet Evelyn Araluen, captures a poignant facet of Katie West’s practice: ‘there are no metaphors here’ [poet’s spacing]. Amid the turbulent aestheticisation of changing climates, biodiversity, colonial legacies and land management, Araluen cautions us to ‘…not touch the de’ [poet’s emphasis]. The rapid adoption of “eco-critical” and “post”-colonial curation, making, staging and writing, in recent times, manifests in work that leaves us with an ecological feeling, a subtle gesture or zephyr. The process of decolonisation, however, cannot simply linger in the air, resting in the conceptual world. Nor can the “eco‑critical”. There is little room for the metaphorical rendering of these material challenges. The relationship between anticolonial projects and environmental consciousness is pervasive, and the health of Country mirrors the health of peoples. The theft and degradation of land always follows in colonialism’s footsteps: Violence inscribed upon the land is inscribed in both minds and bodies.


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Eco-anxiety and affect: Jacobus Capone and Emily Parsons-Lord

In addition to the well-known effects of climate change—melting ice caps and rising sea levels, the increasing frequency of natural disasters, drought and dangerous heat—there are more subtle, psychological affects: feelings of anxiety or dread while thinking about the future, exhaustion and fatigue when reading news stories about the climate emergency, or a churning stomach when trying to come to terms with our limited agency in the face of this capitalism-induced climate crisis.


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Eco-Art in the Adelaide Hills: The Heysen Sculpture Biennial

Leading up to the first sculpture exhibition held in the grounds of Hans Heysen’s 132-acre property, The Cedars, in March 2000, the area around the shady pool, the site of one of Heysen’s iconic paintings, had slowly been cleared of the head-high broom that covered much of the estate. The back-breaking working of cutting and swabbing the weeds was undertaken by a group of volunteers headed by environmentalists Trevor Curnow and his partner Helen Lyons as the group Trees Please! (an offshoot of Trees for Life), established in 1998 to support the preservation and regeneration of the remnant bush at The Cedars. The late Helen Lyons was a local Hahndorf artist, and her connection with The Cedars landscape inspired her idea of holding an exhibition of installation-based artworks in the vicinity of the shady pool. She had previously founded The Artist’s Voice collective in 1997 and had artists ready and willing to be involved in the venture. The Artist’s Voice members exhibited regularly at the Hahndorf Academy’s upstairs gallery, but some members were open to Lyons’ vision for a non-commercial, experimental exhibition at The Cedars focused on environmental principles. The Cedars’ long-term curator, Allan Campbell was also supportive, and Lyons invited the twelve participating artists to make works in direct response to the landscape, making use of materials found on the property. This inaugural exhibition, A Homage to Nature was the first of many, now known collectively as the Heysen Sculpture Biennial, a series which can be considered a visceral response to the environmental art movement that emerged globally in the 1960s.


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Tjukurpa – handle it!

Tjukurpa – handle it. These are the words stencilled above the door into the Wati (Men’s) Studio at Mimili Maku Arts Centre in the remote community of Mimili on the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands. One of Robert Fielding’s early geopolitical interventions, these aerosol words mark a threshold into the space where Fielding makes art. Placed high on the lintel, the letters herald the power of the studio and acknowledge past grandmasters, as Fielding calls them, and those to come of the Mimili art movement...


Yarning with Cairns First Nations Curators’ Collective

In recent years, Cairns has blossomed as a centre for First Nations artists and curators, many of whom have migrated from Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands. Along with the growing success of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, there are increasing opportunities to show work from Far North Queensland. Artlink invited members of an emerging curatorial collective to share their insights and experiences with Hamish Sawyer, Artistic Director of NorthSite Contemporary Arts...

Ben McKeown and the films of Mark Street

Like genealogies, archives hold and hide information. They ask as many questions as they answer. In 2011 in Artlink’s Beauty + Terror issue, Daniel Browning profiled Ben McKeown’s practice when, as an emerging artist, he was awarded the Victorian Indigenous Art Award. The work in question Untitled (2011) presents a strong young man in a singlet wielding two hardwood fighting boomerangs. His Aboriginality is inferred, but his personal identity is deftly masked by the weapons. There is a sparring session underway, a flirtation, a provocation, a staging in which humour and menace play equal parts. The image entreats interpretation and deflects it. As Browning wrote, its ‘enigmatic, a question mark. But what is it trying to say?’...

Mulanmali (to do over and over): Indigenous custodianship practices at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

The expanding praxes of Indigenous curatorial and conservation roles in Australian art museums is shaped by an active response to, and challenge of, power imbalances, along with the tension between who is writing history, which artists are collected, and how both are talked about and displayed in the present. We write this essay as Aboriginal relations from the Southeast region, from Ngiyampaa territory in the northwest of New South Wales (NSW), to Bundjalung and Yuin Country within the northern and southern coastal areas of NSW. We also write as a Blak curator and conservator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at one of the country’s leading and largest collecting institutions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW)...

Linga yarren yilwarraya dam warna-warnarram: We remember forever that from long ago (ngarranggarnin)

In August 2023, we (Ethel and Madeline) travelled to Sydney from Gija Country in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, where we met with Cate Massola whom we have worked with at the Warmun Art Centre and known for many years since. Our trip was to introduce and welcome a suite of paintings, by four generations of women in our family, to the John Olsen Gallery. The exhibition Nyoorn-nyoorn boorroorn daam bandarran (Country to canvas), consisted of works from the Estate of Madigan Thomas, made many years ago, alongside more recent paintings by younger members of the family. Through the exhibition, the past and present converged, making us think about the ways we work together...

Curtis Taylor and Natalie Scholtz: A close reading

The exhibition Past Their Flesh marked a first-time collaboration between Perth-based artists’ Natalie Scholtz and Curtis Taylor. The gathered works, primarily collaborative mixed media paintings on canvas, presented roving yet condensed post-colonial fever dreams, pulling signifiers from a locus of personal-political histories and the settler-state of Western Australia. Past Their Flesh is an encounter with the ever-morphing contours of race, gender, human and non-human beings, an imaging of the messy, fleshy spaces within shifting complexes of identity. While Scholtz has worked primarily as a painter, and Taylor as a filmmaker, multimedia and installation artist, both artists have a knack for working with potent symbols drawn from Australian imaginaries—the visions, desires, projections and containments therein, and the various escape routes that visual art might plot out. Across these works they appear to doubly-condense the embodied self within wider political and relational schemas. What follows is a close reading of several selected works from the exhibition...

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Ngurra Bayala (Country speaks) in the Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (BMCC) has a long relationship with artist, educator and curator Leanne Tobin. She has been part of the art scene in the Blue Mountains prior to the Cultural Centre opening in 2012, and Rilka Oakley, Artistic Program Leader, and the BMCC team have worked with her on multiple projects as both an artist and curator. When the idea of working with the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) Sharing the National Collection initiative was put forward, alongside bringing First Nations video works into the World Heritage Interpretive Centre at BMCC, Tobin was invited to co-curate the project. She knows the Blue Mountains community and its First Nations artists; she understands First Nations practice at a local and national level and has personal connections with the artists selected...

An Aṉangu Western

Indulkana, the most eastern community in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, has a strong history of engagement, experimentation and innovation. The first wave of Iwantja’s senior artists—many of whom were among the first generation to see colonisers— expressed aspects of Aṉangu culture from before, during and after frontier conflict. Now younger generations of artists are rearticulating their culture amid the new frontier of western social influence. And hence, a new western emerges...

Culturally ambitious: Moving with the times
Joanna Mendelssohn on the Australia Council’s latest strategic plan.
The aesthetics and ethics of landscape design
Margot Osborne on the practice of Taylor Cullity Lethlean
Red mud: Art and the post-mining landscape
Amelia Hine, Philipp Kirsch and Iris Amizlev on building sustainable landscapes and land shapes from post-mining space
Relational acts: Art, commoning and sustainability
Linda Carroli on creative practices that contribute to ‘the commons’
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