Long Read

Sensitising the Desensitised: The Science-Focused Contemporary Art Charming us into Environmental Altruism

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 3.20.58 pmThe climate change segment of the Rio opening ceremony enacted Drummond de Andrade’s poem- a flower sprouting in the middle of a city street. Image courtesy of National PR (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

An excerpt of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s definitive poem, A Flor e a Náusea (Nausea and The Flower), was featured in a commended segment on anthropogenic climate change at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics opening ceremony:

A flower has sprouted in the street!

Buses, street cars, steel stream of traffic: steer clear!

A flower, still pale, has fooled

the police, it’s breaking through the asphalt.

Let’s have complete silence, halt all business in the

shops,

I swear that a flower has been born.

It’s ugly. But it’s a flower. It broke the asphalt, tedium,

disgust, and hatred.

And, thus, Brazil advocated nature in the form of a small flower as the face of fierce rebellion. This message is beguiling, and somewhat original in the context of the common approach to inciting action upon climate change. In a world constantly hyping fatuity and under-reporting crucial information, such flair may be strategic in initiating desperately needed global environmental reform.

In exploring the year’s major exhibitions so far in Adelaide, a trend can be observed of artworks which similarly encourage a sense of cheek and charm in the face of impending environmental tragedy, in order to entice everyday people into genuine fervour for action against climate change – as opposed to deterring with messages of guilt and exasperation.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 3.20.12 pmTorn Red Shell, 2013 by Catherine Truman at her Art Gallery of South Australia SALA exhibition. Photo credit: Katerina Grypma

On a day-to-day basis, it may be observed that most people are stimulated by superficial, “lesser” obsessions which are bluntly of zero significance in comparison to the fate of the planet. SALA 2016 featured artist Catherine Truman blurs the borders between the material and spiritually satisfying. Her intimately small ornaments and pieces of jewellery simulate human organs and natural forms such as shells. Thus the bodily parts we require to function and other products of evolution (sometimes dismissed as ordinary or crude) are conceptually aligned to be equal in value to the man-made things we find precious. Amalgamation of the natural and manufactured suggests a lack of difference between them; Truman’s work may be seen as examination of the affinity between our tendency to desire objects, and our, at times, repressed will to care for ourselves and the ingeniously evolved natural world.

Becoming apoplectic in the face of people’s apparent disinterest in the critical environmental situation humanity finds itself in, while tempting and entirely understandable, is counterproductive. Participation in a democratic society entails the fact that the public cannot be collectively hauled into responsibility through blame. People cannot be forced to pay attention, and frustrated complainants are ignored.

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Pickle Powered Beacon, 2014 (right) and Spook, 2013 (left) by Tom Moore, images from Tom Moore online gallery 

The delightfully eccentric creations of glassblower Tom Moore bypass any inkling of frustration, alternatively attracting with nostalgia and wit. Tom Moore’s works were omnipresent during this year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Magic Object. His input ranged from inflatable sculpture Planktonic self on North Terrace during the biennial, to an intriguingly located installation in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, within the Botanic Gardens. Moore’s work appeals to the childlike wonder within us all, combining humour with luscious colour and silhouettes to explore a favourite theme of his; The triumph of nature over industry. The idea is conveyed through depictions of cars overgrown by plants and dreamlike creatures, or the substitution of the organic into the inanimate, as in Pickle Powered Beacon. Hence, Moore’s work bridges the gaps between plant, animal and machine in ways that advocate optimism and innovation – in his own words, he aims to “…defy gravity and to melt the coldest heart.”

Another detriment of the motivation-via-guilt approach is the fatalism it unintentionally activates. Although the situation of global rising temperatures is serious, the immense progress made to date along with the opportunities available to improve must be celebrated, not devalued. Rather than seeming to assert that current efforts may be relaxed, celebration would discourage licence for complacency: “What’s the point of trying to make the world a more beautiful place? People will screw it up, whatever you do!”

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We’ll Always Have Paris, 2016 by Beth Croce as part of the 2016 Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize. Image via The Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize Gallery 

The propensity to give in to such pessimism, and the subject of existentialism in the context of the environmental debate was explored in a number of works submitted to the 2016 Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize at the South Australian Museum.

The 200 hand-formed porcelain bones of Beth Croce’s We’ll Always Have Paris signify the UN representatives who worked together to establish a historic agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris late last year. The announcement on Saturday (September 3rd) of the United States and China to formally ratify the agreement is a promising signal the event symbolises genuine global commitment, as opposed to a beautiful memory of declarations made in the heat of the moment. The display of bones which combine to form a human skeleton denotes the participation from all needed to form a worthwhile, functioning result. The loss also evoked by the image of the skeleton communicates the grave consequences to come if adequate action cannot be committed to.

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Cerebral Nebula, 2016 by Laura Jade as part of the 2016 Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize. Photo credit: Katerina Grypma

Laura Jade’s Cerebral Nebula recognises the possibilities open to us for change, as well as the importance of preserving the things that make life worth living. Art and neuroscience both delve into the frontiers of human consciousness – Jade describes the process of etching individual neurons onto Perspex as allowing her to “contemplate the way my eyes and brain connect to see and experience the pleasures of the physical world.” If the mystery of life in all its diversity is what is most pleasurable about living, surely this is reason enough to protect it from harm.

In light of the ever-increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the like, the urge to nag is instinctive, but should be contained. Men and women are rarely stupid or heartless, but often feel harassed while trying their best to be decent individuals. As is being increasingly explored by Australian contemporary artists, the more unhelpful leanings of our emotions and minds can be taken advantage of: art in many glorious forms is helping to make important, factual news not only important, but captivating.

Works Cited

Alain de Botton. (2016). POP CULTURE: Taylor Swift’s Legs and Climate Change. [Online Video]. 20 July 2016. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R45wnNkeuCA. [Accessed: 26 August 2016].

Katerina Grypma

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