Review “In the balance: Art for a changing world” MCA, Sydney

1 11 2010

The recent exhibition, In the Balance: Art for a Changing World at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney focuses on artists and artworks that respond to ecological concerns. This exhibition features works that address a spectrum of issues including sustainability and recycling. There is also a focus on future solutions as well as addressing past events and changes over time.

Natalie King’s essay Accumulation: the aesthetics of waste and recycling opens with a quote from Douglas Huebler “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting: I do not wish to add any more.” As an artist I think this is an enormous challenge as still in many areas of fine art training, the emphasis is squarely on the production of objects, destined for a market based art economy. My concern about the consumption of art and the object economy was one of the reasons I moved towards the use online media as well as installations where I could reuse objects in different arrangements.

Aside from the above mentioned focus on reuse and recycling, issues of sustainability, preservation and social action are explored in this exhibition. There are so many works worth discussing, but I will focus on the works that had the most impact for me on a personal level.

It is an eerie experience to walk through Lauren Berkowitz’s installation Bags, which is composed of over 600 plastic shopping bags. As you walk through the two parallel walls of air filled bags, they gently move and rustle. In the catalogue essay by Rachel Kent, the walls are compared to a large set of lungs that “heave and sigh gently as people wander between them”. This recreation of a 1994 work is timely given the attention that plastic bags have been given as a waste issue in recent times.

Andrea Bowers work focuses on the activism that has taken place in Alaska, focusing on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill at Prince William sound in Alaska. Banners, photos, drawings and posters appear in this installation that reflects the community sentiment of people whose lives have been affected by this catastrophe. I was impressed that such a work was included as part of the exhibition as there has often been distaste in contemporary art towards work that could be defined as didactic. In her artist statement Bowers comments that

In my project I investigate the complicated politics of dealing with the landscape genre in our contemporary moment. It reflects my struggle to make sense of the uncomfortable relationship of predominately Eurocentric environmentalists traveling the globe in attempts to collaborate with locals to fight against climate change. Almost without exception, the most endangered places are filled with poor people and people of colour. Human rights, corporate sponsorship and the green movement struggle with compatibility.

This quote is a succinct analysis of the complex issues at stake when addressing environmental concerns affecting local and global ecologies. But in simplistic terms, there needs to be an alignment and an equal representation of perspectives as the people impacted most are the same people who have the least economic power.

Truchanas children at Lake Pedder, Tasmania. Photo by Olegas Truchanas. © Melva Truchanas

Truchanas children at Lake Pedder, Tasmania. Photo by Olegas Truchanas.
© Melva Truchanas

The Tasmanian wilderness is a common theme in the work of Bob Connolly, Peter Dombrovskis and Olegas Truchanas. A large slide and sound installation titled Lake Pedder by bushwalker, photograppher and conservationist Olegas Truchanas was used to educate people and community groups about the natural beauty of Lake Pedder before it was flooded in 1972 by the Hydro Electric Commission. Peter Dombrovskis was mentored by Olegas Truchanas and his photographs of the Franklin River were used by Bob Brown and the Wilderness Society in the campaign to save the river in the early 1980s. Bob Connolly’s Franklin River Journey photographs are well known as works used a propaganda to conserve the wilderness area. Glenn Barkley considers how this work sits uncomfortably in the context of a contemporary art museum and comments that “They do however remind us of the redemptive power of images, and the cameras very singular potential as a device with which to change the world.”

Bonita Ely’s work has focused on the Murray river as a theme since the late 1970s. The documentation of a performance work titled Murray River Punch from 1980 highlighted the dire condition of the river. Ely acts as a cooking show host where she mixed a deadly concoction of sulphur, nitrates and faeces  – all of which are evident in the river. Her work is an indictment of the catastrophic impact that human settlement has had on the Murray River.

GhostNet Gear Project is a wonderful series of woven dilly bags, baskets and turtles made from found fishing line. By utilising traditional weaving techniques with found materials, as a viewer I am confronted with the changing ecology of this region. Rising sea levels, overfishing and plastic waste have all impacted on the people inhabiting the Torres Strait and their way of life. Whilst the work is colourful, and fun, there is a another message that tells a story about a way of life that has been greatly affected by ecological changes.

Janet Laurence’s works Cellular Gardens and Vanishing are both beautiful and evocative. In Cellular Gardens,  a series of glass vessels are housed on plinths made from steel and mirrors. From each of the containers is a medical tube, referencing life support systems and our own bodies vascular and respiratory systems. Inside the vessels is a juvenile rainforest plant in soil and water crystals, sprouting under the artificial light. The mirrors on the plinths create a myriad of reflected light patterns on the wall which are quite lovely. The message of this work is a warning, that we have created a world that can not sustain it’s own species without urther intervention. For some reason, I am reminded of Against Nature, of a novel I read whilst at university by Joris-Karl Huysmans, which challenged my ideas of society and the disconnention between nature and culture. The video work Vanishing creates a feeling of melancholy. The images are close ups of endangered animals, sometimes all you can see is the fur and the movement of breating. The colours are monochromatic, some sepia toned, which emphasised a feeling of loss and nostalgia. I feel sad, maybe it is too late.

Janet Laurence Cellular Gardens (where breathing begins)
© All rights reserved Janet Laurence. Image courtesy and © the artist 2005 Australia
stainless steel, mild steel, acrylic, blown glass, rainforest plants dimensions variable Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased 2005

David MacKenzie’s and Susan Norrie’s video work Korban Lumpur Project (2010) was heart rendering and a terse reminder of how broadcast media so often fails to present issues outside of the mainstream. In short, the work documented the continuing impact that the 2006 Lapindo Brantas oils and gas leak has had on the Sidoajo community in East Java, where boiling mud and poisonous gas still leak from the mine. What disturbed me most about this work was my ignorance of this terrible event and the aftermath. I vaguely remember the news report in 2006, but there has been nowhere near the amount of media attention that the Mexico Gulf oil spill has received. Why is one disaster more newsworthy? Is it because of the relative economic or global power? After all, Java is so much closer to us in geographic terms. For me, this work also underlined why it is so important that there are other communications channels – art, alternative media, viral media and social activism to raise awareness.

Writer and Curator Joni Taylor’s guided tour of the city, titled Wildlife of the City: Urban Wildlife Safari invites participants to re-imagine the the city from the perspective of the flora and fauna that inhabit the inner city of Sydney. A range of local experts including Professor-Emeritus Helen Armstrong, Diego Bonetto, Chris Lloyd, Dr. Peggy Eby and John Lennis shared their knowledge of the area.

Taylor’s blog states that:

The idea came about as a way to find the uncontrolled and untamed elements of urban nature, not the cultivated or the park variety. While these man-made spaces do all add to the greening of a city, it was more interesting to look for new urban ecologies that develop regardless and in spite of human intentions.

flying foxes

Taylor’s tour demonstrates that there is no neat line between the urban and wilderness as spaces or ecologies aside from what we create as a result of cultural understandings.

In conclusion, I walked out of the MCA feeling inspired, frustrated and challenged. As an artist, researcher, sometime activist and someone who works on a project focused on positive  and sustainable behaviour change (, I can see how necessary it is to join the dots. Nature and culture do not exist as separate entities – our culture and quality of life is totally dependant on the ecologies we are immersed in, every day. At LivingGreener our tagline is “It’s what I can do”, which is a sentiment we could act on.

Participating artists: Badger Bates, Lauren Berkowitz, Diego Bonetto, Andrea Bowers, Dadang Christanto, Bob Connolly, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Nici Cumpston, Peter Dombrovskis, Bonita Ely, Emily Floyd, Euraba Artists and Papermakers, Amy Franceschini and Futurefarmers, Jeanne Van Heeswijjk and Paul Sixta, Lucas Ihlein, Lyndal Jones, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Janet Laurence, Makeshift (Tessa Zettel and Karl Khoe), James Newitt, Mavis Ngallametta, Susan Norrie and David Mackenzie, Raquel Ormella, Cecilia Peter, Frank Petero, Catherine Rogers, David Stephenson, Joni Taylor, The Artist as Family (Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman and Zephyr Ogden Jones), theweathergroup_U, Angela Torenbeek and Olegas Truchanas.

Check out these blogs by artists in the exhibition about their works:
Environmental Audit by Lucas Ihlein
Food Forest by the Artist as Family
Weedbook and weedy connection by Diego Bonetto
Urban Wildlife Safari by Joni Taylor




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