My friend Lorraine Shannon once described dark times as these moments ‘when ethics, tenderness, and the embrace of earth others are being trampled on’. Lorraine is a fellow member of the Kangaloon Group for Creative Ecologies, a ‘fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’. I keep coming back to her words because they so clearly draw us into realms of vulnerability, love and participation in our lively planet, and so vividly express the violence that rages against life in its fullness. In dark times we need words of witness. We need to share insights with each other, and we need to be reminded that what is passing for ‘normal’ is actually a full-frontal assault on life in both the present and in the future.
Just this week the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to invite world leaders to a climate change summit in response to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and scientific warnings about the consequences are becoming ever more vigorous. At the same time, the new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot continues his charge into the heart of darkness by abolishing both the Climate Commission and the Climate Change Authority, and by getting rid of senior public servants who have served the nation on matters of climate science and the future.
We know the climate change issue well because it has the greatest profile, but of course it is just one big part of a much wider set of entwined events that include the great mass extinction event now in process, the acidification of the oceans, the accumulation of plastic waste, the loss of soils and fertility, the loss of rainforests, and of course the rampant consumption that fuels the work of tearing up and wrecking planet Earth. And then there is the wreckage of denial: the insistence that these trampling assaults are really just business as usual.
Isabelle Stengers, one of the great continental philosophers, holds that the lure of contemporary darkness is like sorcery – we are bewitched, or ensorcelled, by the seductions of darkness. To break out of the spell, she says, we need antidotes. Not just rational arguments, although they matter too, but other kinds of conversations entirely. We need spell-breakers.
A few weeks ago I immersed myself in a powerful spell-breaker at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, Victoria. The Director Victoria Lynn has mounted an exhibition called ‘Animate/Inanimate’ which includes the work of leading contemporary artists, including Janet Laurence and Louise Weaver from Australia, Allora & Calzadilla of the USA, Amar Kanwar of India and Lin Tianmiao of China. All the work explores impacts on earth life of global economic assaults, climate change and direct human violence. The works are haunting in their beauty and intensity, and include sculptural works, sound installations and video works. Dr Lynn writes (in the catalogue) that the artists in ‘Animate/Inanimate’ are not communicating ‘about life’ but rather are imbued ‘with life’. This is the spell-breaker: the reality of encounter that artists offer us; the seeming magic of how they enable us to see and understand more deeply and strongly.
The gallery space is wonderfully generous. We move slowly, almost as in a procession, through works that take our breath away, knocking us sideways, if not totally off our feet, with their power, beauty, energy, passion, commitment, care, concern, drama, tenderness, and their calmly contained but implicit desperation. I was especially thrilled to spend time with the installation produced by Janet Laurence (there will be more about the other artists in future posts). She is a Sydney artist, and another member of our Kangaloon group. Her work has been described as occupying ‘the liminal zones or meeting places of art, science, imagination and memory’. Last year the philosopher-artist Jim Hatley (another Kangaloon member) and I visited her in her studio, and also spent time with her large work ‘The memory of nature’ in the Art Gallery of NSW.
Janet gives witness to violence by working with its effects in the lives of plants, animals, and habitats. Her work becomes an ethical call to the vulnerability of others. It speaks into dark times without in any way becoming consumed by them. Jim wrote about ‘The memory of nature’:
‘Her works are inhabited by a loving tenderness for the living world, which, we are called to acknowledge, inevitably is also the dying world, indeed, the world become dead. Memory reminds its viewer how the distance between the unborn in the womb and the recently living being rendered back into earthly elements is not so far. Laurence would have human-beings enter into the liminal space between death and life, not in order to renounce earthly existence and all its chthonic mysteries, but in order to become fully acquainted with it and them. (Wednesday, September 5, 2012)
The TarraWarra installation is called ‘Fugitive’. It addresses itself to the precarious place where life and death, both for individuals and for species, hover at the brink of disaster. The space is divided into a number of veiled areas which Janet calls cells. The veils overlap so that one can pull a section aside and enter the cell. There the visitor is brought into intimacy and empathy, and into new possibilities for caring and concern.
In ‘Fugitive’, as in other recent work, Laurence unsettles the visitor with veils, lighting, sounds and motion. She writes (in the catalogue): ‘Within the gallery space I want to bring us into contact with the life-world. With a focus on the animals and their loss, I think about the loneliness of the last one of a species. What was their death? I wonder about their umwelt, the unique world in which each species lives.’
Along with the veils, there are also screens on which images are projected in ghostly beauty. And always there is a dimly mysterious light, invoking the haunting sense that, in Richard Flanagan’s evocative words, ‘We live in the twilight of some terrible moment, the meaning of which we can only grasp at’.
The burden of living in a world dominated by humans becomes disturbingly tangible. There are mirrors, and one sees oneself as part of the story. One starts to sense the incommensurate gap between our capacity to harm and our capacity to avert all that harm. The astonishing tenderness of her work is syncopated to a slow rhythm of breath. We slow down, adjust, breath in, breath out; we are stunned by the fragility of it all. We walk amongst veils, we go in, we go out, and as we breathe again, and remain within the world of the living, we experience the unassailable kinship with all those whose breath may never come again.
In Laurence’ work we see ourselves living now at a threshold of generational transition in which future life will either collapse or will flourish. We bring to the exhibit our knowledge that the zombie politics of darkness are dedicated to ruthlessly squandering the possibilities for earth life. And we are struck more forcibly than ever with the realisation that artists are among the great spell-breakers of our time. They are our magicians, our messengers who return from places of deep truth with visions of transformation.
Artists bring meaning alive for us, they catch at our minds and hearts, they enable us to become part of the work that refuses ‘business as usual’. Breath is the movement of life, the exhalation, and in-spiration. Artists are those who take our breath away. And artists are those who help us breathe again, re-inspired and transformed, as Ross Gibson has so vividly explained.
Artists return us to awe, love, wonder, joy, grief – all those encounters that fill our hearts without requiring justification – that simply are, as they erupt in our lives. All those encounters that grab hold of us without our asking, that take us out of ourselves, that remind us of the great and mysterious beauties of life, and return us to our humble place as part of the on-going story of life.
©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)
Ross Gibson’s article on art and breath can be found in Humanities Australia
Catalogue: Animate/Inanimate; TarraWarra International 2013. Published by the TarraWarra Museum of Art.