Tag Archives: Janet Laurence

Lively Water

Jila is a place of ‘living water’. It identifies fresh water that never dries up. Often unprepossessing, perhaps the water is secreted deep in a well that has been dug and maintained for generations, perhaps it is a spring that bubbles up quietly, or maybe the water forms a pool that remains after the flow of a river or creek has disappeared. Jila, the place of living water, commands respect and care; it gives life and thus is a source of life. Here on the driest inhabited continent on earth, knowledge of living water can truly make the difference between life and death. Living water is cherished; it is a blessing.

Native well, South Australia
“Native well”, South Australia

If water is living, can it also die? Is water caught up in precarity, is it vulnerable? Is water, like life, variable and diverse; in this time of ecological loss, is it threatened? The great Sydney artist Janet Laurence says ‘yes’ to these questions. Water, she wants us to understand, is fragile and complex, precious and threatened. This message was offered in her recent installation ‘H2O: Water Bar’, set up in the Paddington Reservoir. Janet’s stated aim was to bring people into appreciation of water’s variability, and to raise questions in their minds about its fragility.

Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)
Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)

In the 1860s the city of Sydney built an underground reservoir to augment its water supplies. Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century. For decades it was used for storage, then part of it collapsed. Finally in 2006 part of it was redesigned as a sunken garden and part of it was preserved as an historic site; it is only open to the public on special occasions. We were there on a very hot evening. The reservoir was cool and elegant, and beautifully peaceful; the city seemed to evaporate. The arches woke up memories of Roman water construction. We breathed the moist, earthy garden air, and in spite of the solidity of the construction materials, we felt surprisingly buoyant.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

The water bar, gleaming with glass and mirrors, was set up at one end of the enclosed area. There were shelves of vials, each containing a different water, and each carefully labelled both for origin and for trace elements and pH factor. Janet’s assistants, wearing lab coats and managing all the vials, beakers and shot glasses, offered us water and engaged us in conversation. We were invited to taste and compare, to bring our own bodily sensorium into encounter with water’s diversity and charms. I was particularly taken with spring water from Mt Warning (in NSW). This volcanic water contains fluoride, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, cyanide, silica, sodium and copper and is pH 7.3. Its taste on my palate was lively, with a bit of zip (cyanide, perhaps?).

The best art works a kind of magic, bringing us to experience the world unexpectedly. Janet’s water bar, with its hints of alchemy and its commingling of quantification and qualitative experience, transformed a glass of water from everyday necessity to precious experience. Without having to say it, the water bar reminded us that all too often we take for granted this glorious, life-giving flow; we forget its individuality, its relationships with place, its flowing nature.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

My friend Luke Fischer organised an evening of readings on ‘The Language of Water’ to coincide with one of the water tasting events at the H2O bar. The aim was to honour Janet’s work, and to bring words into the celebration of water’s liveliness. I was invited to speak, and I drew on my experiences over many years with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in order to address this question: if water is living, does it have a voice and does it have a face?

The area where I lived in the Territory was in the catchment of the Wickham River, a tributary of the great Victoria River. This is monsoon country, where rivers flow episodically and the extreme aridity of the dry season is counter-balanced by the massive downpours of the wet season. Across the course of a single year the extremes are enormous. And of course there are larger fluctuations linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Sun and Rain, dry season and wet season, each have their moment. Sometimes they balance each other well, but in many years the usual extremes became even more wild. This past wet season the monsoon failed and life became very tough. Heat and humidity were intense, and the blessed relief of rain was largely absent. When it came, though, it was caused by a cyclone, making sudden, localised floods that killed people. In other years, though, the rains go on and on, floodwaters rise everywhere, communities are evacuated, and it takes most of the dry season for the country to dry out enough to be able to travel off road even in four wheel drive.

Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)
Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)

The great seasonal forces are for Aboriginal people expressions of the power of on-going creation; they are part of the eco-cosmology. Wet season and Dry season: Rain and Sun. The great life-shaping powers wrestle back and forth, Rain and Sun, Sun and Rain: living beings have learned to live with extremes, from the desiccated aridity of the late dry to the swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people do actually die.

The North Australian monsoon region is its own thing, but it also needs to be said that Australia is its own thing! Water in Australia is governed ecologically by the reality that this continent is the ‘driest, flattest, most poorly drained, and in fact largely inward draining land on Earth’, according to Mary White. Most of it is arid; rain is wildly variable, as I’ve said, and global warming is almost certain to exacerbate the unpredictability of water. Here in Australia ‘normal’ is already a set of extremes, and it is hard to imagine what may be coming.

And still, water flows through everything.

It flows through you and me, through soils and trees and rocks, through all creaturely bodies and through its own ever-shifting pathways. And everywhere it goes it is connected with life. When the rain falls, living beings respond: plants and other creatures liven up and new generation are begun.

Aboriginal eco-cosmology is expressed in the medium of kinship, and conveys the underlying knowledge of connectivities. Across all the big players like Sun and Rain, across species and landforms, across seasons and generations, patterns of connectedness reproduce bonds of enduring solidarity. One big social division in the Victoria River area is based on the Sun/Rain dynamic. People are born into one or the other: either Sun, along with earth, ground, the dry season and associated animals; or Rain, along with light or dark rain and associated animals.

I was privileged to be incorporated into the kinship system, and the perspectives I know best involve my close kin: dark rain, along with the flying-foxes (Pteropus alecto) who hang upside down over the water.

Dark rains are fierce and erratic. They can come as thunderstorms, sometimes they come as cyclones. They descend on the land, they fill up the billabongs and move into the underground waterways and aquifers. They get the rivers flowing, often get them running bankers and flooding far out across the land. And then they go away, and sometimes they don’t come back for a very long time.

Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area
Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area

Sun and Rain wrestle it out, and where they meet and join, there you see a rainbow. Pattern and connection: out of difference comes something new and powerful. The Rainbow Snake is the great being associated with all water: all rains, all rivers, but most of all with every permanent spring and waterhole. The fact of permanence is living proof that something powerful is there. That ‘something’ is the Rainbow Snake. Furthermore, the Rainbow snake embodies the idea that water is both a powerful presence and an ethical subject. What I mean by saying that water is an ethical subject is that it is enmeshed in, and responsive to, calls for care and responsibility.

Aboriginal stories really draw this out. Let’s go back to those flying-foxes hanging down over the water. Late in the dry season, when country is becoming almost unbearably hot, they come to camp above permanent water. Why do they do this? It is pretty dangerous – one false move and you become dinner for the hungry crocs that patrol up and down beneath the pandanus trees. One reason is that they need the humidity to counter the heat stress they experience as the Wet season (summer) approaches.

Eucalyptus flowers
Eucalyptus flowers

Another reason is told through Aboriginal story: they are calling out to the Rainbow Snake, telling it to bring rain. The people who taught me said that they are ‘mates’ with the Rainbow, and their calling out is a central part of the relationship. There is a pattern that works like this: flying-foxes live by following the successive flowering of Eucalypts and Corymbias. The flowering starts in the higher country away from the river and works its way across the land until it reaches the river banks. Flying-foxes follow the flowers, and when they get to the river they have reached the last of the blossoms. It is late in the dry season and there will be no more flowers until the rains come and renew the country. So they call to their mate, the Rainbow, urging it to get up and get going, and bring the rain. Others join in: the frogs shout their crazy chorus, waterbirds come flocking in, cicadas are shrieking. It becomes very noisy, there is heteroglossia to the max, and most of the time the Rainbow Snake responds. Across this continent of heat, dust and fires, the rains do come.

Flying-foxes over permanent water
Flying-foxes over permanent water

Water, I am saying, has a face, using the term as developed by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his studies of ethics, to have a face is to be an ethical subject. Ethics arrive as a passionate call for connection. The flying-foxes call to their mate the Rainbow, and the Rainbow responds. Those responses bring life. We ourselves are expressions of water. All the creatures who live because of water, from frogs to birds to turtles and flying foxes, to you and me, all of us bear witness to water’s gifts of life.

Earth has been a watery planet for 3.5 billion years, and in all this time the relationship between water and life has been symbiotic water sustains life, and life sustains water. And yet, the liveliness of water is not faring well. Eileen Crist writes vividly that ‘human beings have taken aim at the very qualities that define the living planet, dismantling, with an intent that seems paradoxically both blind and demonic, the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life on Earth.’

We are water creatures, all of us. Life evolved in salt water and stayed there until about 400 million years ago when plants and animals ventured on to land. Terrestrial mammals such as ourselves recapitulate this history, floating in our own little sea of amniotic fluid until being thrust out and required to breathe. We are 78% water as babies, and drop to 65% (give or take) as adults. Many plants are 90% water; other animals vary around 60%. Even in the driest places, where living things have become incredibly adept at living with minuscule amounts of water, the story is still the same: no water no life.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

The voices of water are around and within us, and they are passionate. The appropriate response is to join in. To celebrate and protect water, to taste and treasure its diversity, to delight in and defend the creatures who call on water, to be awed by water’s power, and to cherish the connections: this is the work of life; this is the work that really matters.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

A beautiful account of jila places can be found in the book by Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike: Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert, published by Magabala Books. I learned about the sacred qualities of living water in my work on Aboriginal claims to land throughout the Northern Territory; a great many of the sacred sites we visited were water sites.

A description of ‘H2O: Water Bar’, and a video of Janet talking about the work, is available online (visit here). I have written about her work in other essays, for example ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’. Jim Hatley has an absolute ripper of an essay online (visit here).

A brief description of ‘The Language of Water’ can be found here. To learn more about Luke Fischer – poet, scholar, writer and organiser – visit his website (here).

To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.

The quote from Mary White is taken from her book Running Down: Water in a Changing Land, published in 2000.

The relationship between flying-foxes and heat stress has been the focus of several essays, for example ‘Climate Change and the Question of Community‘, and ‘Lethal Heat‘.

The quote from Eileen Crist is from her essay ’Intimations of Gaia’ in a book she has edited: Gaia in Turmoil, published by MIT Press in 2010. This book contains an excellent essay on water. Numerous websites offer facts and figures relating to water problems; a good start is with the WWF (visit here).

Dingo Nation

September 21, 2014 is the first-ever National Day of Action for Dingoes. The date is well-chosen: it is the International Day of Peace. The General Assembly of the United Nations has dedicated this day to strengthening the values of peace ‘both within and among all nations and peoples’.

Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)
Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)

Of course one assumes that ‘nations and peoples’ means human beings. But as the war against nature acquires ever more violence, and as those who practice violence become ever more intransigent, it is clear that we need to include animals, plants, ecosystems, oceans, atmosphere, soils and much more within our concept of the nations with which we (humans) need to be making peace. As Henry Beston wrote in relation to animals (and I think his point is widely relevant to all creature-worlds): ’they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

NDAD has taken up the challenge in relation to Australian Dingoes (Canis dingo). According to the message on the NDAD Facebook page, the National Day of Action for Dingos was born from the advice of Dr Jane Goodall DBE at a recent meeting in Melbourne with a small group of dingo protection advocates. The objective of the event is twofold:
– to unite groups and individuals with a common goal to help dingoes
– to send a clear, united message to the Australian government about dingo protection.

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray

My role in the emerging action has been to organise and film a conversation between myself and my friend Arian Wallach, facilitated by my friend Jane Ulman. We met the studio of our mutual friend Janet Laurence to discuss the question: ‘Can the War Against Dingoes be Stopped?’ (view here) I won’t summarise the conversation; it is fascinating and deep, and well worth the investment of 27 minutes of time.

The background to any question about peace must ask: what manner of creature is trying to make peace? We know a lot about human creatures in all our diversity, complexity, and apparent lack of capacity for holding onto peace. We know less about dingo creatures and their capacities. Thankfully, scientists like Arian Wallach and others are teaching us a lot. The research consistently reveals a complex family structure (known as a pack), collaborative care of the young, cooperative hunting, territorial defence, limits on family size and structure, individual personalities, and other features that indicate highly social animals with strong loyalties and a deep sense of duties and responsibilities. Their ability to harmonise together is a lovely indicator of their sociality, as I discussed in an earlier essay (view here).

Dingoes and other canines live within kin-based family groups. A standard anthropological definition of kinship is that kin relations are bonds of enduring solidarity based on descent from shared ancestor or formed in order to produce a new generation. These bonds of enduring solidarity are emotionally complex in animals, as indeed they are in humans; amongst all kin groups there is the work of raising the young, and work of dealing with loss. Social animals in kin groups are deeply invested in each other, and so it follows that the loss of a member entails grief – that is, the experience of irreversible loss of those with whom one’s own life is entangled is both felt and shared.

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)

Recently, an instance of dingoes grieving was documented in the ‘wild’. It is unlikely that anyone who knows dingoes or who understands kinship will be surprised by this fact, but apparently there has been a dearth of scientific documentation. Rob Appleby, an ecologist at Griffith University in Brisbane documented a dingo family responding to the death of one of the pups. Their behaviour was similar to that of primates and other animals that grieve, such as dolphins, according to the report  by Joseph Bennington-Castro. In his words:

“The dingo family consisted of a mother and five pups about 3 months old. When Appleby stumbled upon the family, one of the pups was dying — it was lying on the ground, where it occasionally lifted its head, whimpered and sometimes convulsed. The pup’s mother and littermates roamed around nearby, returning to the pup to sniff him and whimper every once in a while. The pup died within half an hour, but Appleby continued to periodically observe the family over the next two days.’

This report includes a brief bit of video footage of the mother moving her dead pup when Appleby got too close (view here). In Appleby’s words: ‘there was a lot of distress on the part of the mother’. She moved her pup three times, staying near it, not wanting to leave it. The surviving pups also changed their behaviour, becoming more subdued when they got close to the dead one.

Other fascinating reports about the emotional lives of dingoes show beyond doubt that it is possible to make peace with dingoes.

More than that, they show that peace actually has the potential to become precious friendship. The long history of alliance between humans and canines means that some canines may on occasion include humans in their family groups. Indeed, the Dingo Nation can be understood as a great multispecies group with many clans and families, some of whom include humans and some of whom do not.

Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)
Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)

A short but compelling report about John Cooper’s ‘love story’ offers a beautiful account of family interactions. John Cooper is a landowner with the duty of controlling dingoes on his property. He took the novel approach of making friends with the pack on his place, and leaving it to them to control the dingo population. The video of this extraordinary man shows him interacting with and the dingo family that allowed him to become part of the pack (view here). It includes a glimpse into the den where the mother dingo is nursing her pups, giving us a rare view of what Appleby has called ‘an enduring mother-infant bond’. Few things on the web are as totally delightful as John Cooper playing harmonica accompanied by a dingo.

Tehree Gordon also had an awesome experience of being incorporated into the family. She and her husband Hamish own the Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary – Dingo Conservation Centre, and she told her precious story on radio national’s ‘bush telegraph’ program. Shortly after the Gordons bought the Sanctuary the senior dingo died. There were about a hundred dingoes on the property at that time, and the loss of the matriarch was felt by all of them. As Tehree described the day, the dead dingo was down in the valley and the living dingoes sat quietly on a nearby ridge. Slowly, in groups of three, they went down to their dead mate and sat with her. One sat at her head, and one on each side. They stayed for about ten minutes and then, giving her a final sniff, they moved away and another group of three took their place. Tehree was not sure if she fit into the ritual at all, but she took a place further down the line, and when the time came she moved down the hill accompanied by two dingoes. She sat at the head, the other two took the sides, and they all remained there for ten minutes. Then she touched the dead dingo’s head, the others sniffed the body, and they all moved back up the hill.

It is one thing to witness rituals of grief, quite another to be included in them. And yet, as Tehree points out, there is nothing truly remarkable about all of this: ‘We all need to understand that anyone or anything who is close to something else has to grieve for the loss.’

Making peace would mean bringing an end to all the needless loss.

There can be no doubt that this is a time of immense suffering. Dingoes experience the physical pain of poisons, traps and bullets, and the survivors experience the grief and disorientation that comes with losing family and all one’s familiar ways of social and cultural life. The people who are working toward greater understanding of dingoes and a better future for them and for humans often suffer as well. I have visited some of these courageous people, and I will continue to visit and to write.

Dingo, Leo (CC)
Dingo, Leo (CC)

For now, in honour of the Dingo Nation’s canine and human members:

To all who suffer, and all who struggle to hold families together in face of on-going assault ~ Dog Bless!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

ndad

Resources:

The NDAD Facebook page is a rich site of information and lively action on behalf of the Dingo Nation.

In 2012 I made a short home video of a dingo family at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre in Victoria (view here). The Centre is one of numerous dingo rescue and conservation centres in Australia. Run by incredibly dedicated people who work non-stop to put an end to the war against dingoes, this and other centres are places where peace is lived out day by day in the most inspiring ways.

The ABC radio program featuring Tehree Gordon, Brad Purcell and myself can be downloaded (view here).

The Henry Beston quote is from his book The Outermost House.

 

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ ~ Janet Laurence

My friend Janet Laurence currently has a show at the Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide with the title ‘Residue’. When I saw the announcement, with its bold photo of the main piece, I knew I had to go and visit in person.

Janet-Laurence's-Residue-at-Hugo-Michell-Gallery-3

Laid out on the floor of the gallery, like a god on a bier, is the huge, broken, leafless branch of a white-barked gum tree. Here lies this recently living thing: perfectly tree, perfectly beautiful, perfectly dead. This installation is called ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’.

Adelaide is at the forefront of the heatwave weather that is becoming a key index of climate change in Australia. On January 16, 2014, this small city had the distinction of being the hottest city in the world. Other records were broken in Adelaide this summer, just as they had been during the previous summer, including eleven days of temperatures of 42°C or more (107.6F). The hottest days were 45°C+ (113F).

The weather became a participant in Janet’s work. While she was searching for a broken branch to bring into the gallery, Adelaide experienced a huge windstorm. Gusts of 100 kms (60 miles) or more knocked down heat-stressed trees all over the city.

The branch is about 9 metres (30 feet) in length and 6 metres (20 feet) at its widest. It is horribly disconcerting to see it as it is now – so large and strong, so vulnerable and lost. Janet bandaged some branches in white gauze, and she has installed tubes running from empty phials to a dead tree in gestures of forlorn life-support. Such green as can be seen is darkly dying.

JGP_7789

The great branch was placed on top of numerous sheets of mirror that were both reflective and stained. There were smears and drips, as if arteries had been cut into, and great gouts of blood had spurted through the area. And yet, almost everything here was white. This was a bleeding out that was desiccated, salty, bleached, and drained. It was beautiful, and it was scary.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

All these white smears and gouts spoke of death that depletes and does not renew. The branch, whose limbs still seemed to reach out to life, was fallen in the midst of desertification, salinity, acid sulphate soils, endless heat, endless sun.

I kept walking around the piece, seeing on every turn another element of this great white terrain of loss. There was bleached coral. There were animal bones, including vertebrae, jawbones with teeth, and the long thin leg bones of, perhaps, water birds. There were dried leaves and twigs, and there were powders, salts and stones.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

‘Blood and chlorophyll’ – trees and other plants, and the bones and exoskeletons of animals – is a desiccated deathscape assembled with the most loving care. Nothing here is ugly, nothing is out of place, nothing seems to be in pain. The vials and tubes testify to care, and the whole piece bears witness both to death and to those who live on after the deaths of others. It testifies to we who care, who mourn, who keep faith with life, and who honour death, even as we are becoming bleached out in the great desert of future-earth here in our part of this struggling planet.

There is a lot of synergy between Janet’s work and mine. In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote:

For some four billion years life and death have been working together, each finding its own level in relation to the other, and together sustaining a family of life on Earth, a family that is always changing, always finding connections, generating fit, seeking an always shifting balance in an Earth system that is itself far from equilibrium. We humans emerged in dynamic relationships with animals and plants; with them we share our dependence on water and air, and we share basic energy and basic substance: blood, and its plant counterpart chlorophyll.’

‘If we could hear the call of those who are slipping out of life forever …. We might encounter a narrative emerging from extinctions, a level of blood that connects us all.’

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

I have travelled through many of the bleached out deserts of Australia, and I have been made breathless with their beauty. In the early years of my travels, it did not occur to me that these white expanses of deeply arid desert might be the landscapes of the future. Janet’s work brings us this shock of recognition.

And yet – not only the weather, but tiny creatures also are participants in Janet’s work. Hugo Michell (gallery owner) and Ceridwen Ahem (gallery manager) told me that there were active ants in the tree. I thought immediately of borers or termites, but whatever they are, they are alive, and they are thriving. A couple of days ago Ceridwen wrote: ‘ANT UPDATE:   When I came in this morning there were lots of little piles of sawdust – the ants are working so hard that you can hear them at it.  The whole tree makes these little clicking noises – it kind of sounds like popping candy.  I am loving it!’

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ is just one of several pieces in ‘Residue’. The show also includes a lovely selection of Janet’s larger oeuvre. Those that worked most profoundly on my sensibilities as I sat in the gallery and contemplated the ensemble, are those that carried the theme of a salty heat-struck zone of violence and death. ‘Traded I’ from an earlier installation ‘After Eden’ has cast resin antlers, mirror, calcite, quartz, and the white pigment that I see as stains and smears – the aftermath of some unimaginable violence.

Traded I, from 'After Eden'
Traded I, from ‘After Eden’

Along the back wall there was a set of x-ray images (duraclear and inkjet on acrylic and mirror) of endangered species.

From 'Fugitive'
From ‘Fugitive’

Janet is famous for her work with lighting, veils, and mirrors along with scientific equipment and biological remains. The effect of mirrors is to require us to see ourselves in all these places of loss. Gauze, veils, and shadows cast by mysteriously ambiguous  lighting are intended to slow people down, to disrupt the everyday and the expected, and to help us to experience anew the precious qualities of life in the midst of the haunting miasma of all this loss.

‘Hauntology’ is Jacques Derrida’s term for the spectre of the past which confronts us as the future. Like many of his excellent ideas, it is more readily grasped through the work of scholars who have sought to put it to work in analysing the contemporary world. Nick Mansfield writes beautifully about haunting and the Anthropocene. He presses us toward the understanding that what we are facing arises out of our past and comes at us from the future. He writes that ‘the material violence of the past emerges, reincarnate, re-fleshed, in our future, and in a politics for which our last centuries of politics cannot prepare or even forewarn us’.

Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II
Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II

What politics cannot do, Janet and other artists are actually doing. They bring us into encounters and recognition, they hold us in that place where mystery and understanding mingle and overtake us. They bring us to our knees, astonishing us with awareness of our own mortality, complicity, grief, remorse, and unbounded love.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript ~ News from the Gallery: Ceridwen Ahern  writes that borers are now visibly active, as well as audibly active!

Insects at work in the gallery
Insects at work in the gallery

More news from the Gallery: The installation has been removed. The tree has been taken to a nearby park. The ants went with the tree. Life goes on.

Acknowledgement: All the photos in this essay were provided by the Hugo Michell Gallery.

Resources: Jim Hatley has written a beautiful essay on Janet’s installation ‘Memories of Nature’. Janet’s website contains a link to a video interview (view here) in her studio.

 

Art in Dark Times

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery

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.

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence,
TarraWarra Gallery

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’.

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence,
TarraWarra Gallery

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)

 

References:

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.