Caught in a time where information is increasingly fragmented and footage of the earth’s demise is absorbed in social media algorithms; where our resources are so abstracted and their controllers so expansive that we cannot comprehend the full extent to which we are complicit in our own destruction; where the very places that we gather information, organise and strategise also enact and reproduce neo-liberalism; how do we navigate the tricky terrain of coloniality[1] and its institutions? How do we continue the struggle for a future different from one where processes of “progress” and “development”, insatiable economic growth, excess and accumulation currently threaten to lead us?

Disguised behind what seems to be a cool, easily-consumable, curatorial style, the latest exhibition at UNSW Galleries, ‘Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes’, is a container of seething urgency that attempts to navigate these issues. It does so by facilitating transversal dialogues about how the earth’s survival is intrinsically tied to delinking from colonial and ‘extractive’[2] ways of thinking about the land. Each work is an examination of the position of the artist within coloniality and challenges the audience to take account of their own locations – softly but firmly offering the onus of futurity and of survival to the viewer. This self-reflexive criticality, evident in the works and the show at large, does not attempt to absolve any party – the institution, the gallery, the curator, or the artists – of complicity, but instead asks: how can we individually use the tools at hand to start chipping away at the systems of coloniality?

Lu Forsberg’s work, Downstream (Mount Morgan and Mount Oxide), demonstrates that Google Earth can be one such tool. Forsberg’s digital exploration of open cut mining sites not only examines the literal toxification of land, but also reveals a toxic politics of digital opacity hidden under a fiction of transparency. Projected on screens in the gallery foyer, the careful investigation of the cursor over the land – pausing and zooming in on a particular section, clicking on and off specific functions – conveys a sense of real-time and control. However, in reality these satellite images are outdated by about 5 years, during which time conditions have not improved.[3] This information throws into question the democracy of readily available data and the illusion of control, bridging the immateriality of technology and the tangibility of the environmental consequences of mining. However, there is an implicit tension in Forsberg’s use of familiar technology to make accessible ‘true’ representations of Australian land. This tension is balanced on the global economic and ecological devastation necessary to feed our naturalised use of technology – our laptops and smart devices[4], that make tools such as Google Earth easily available. The tension that Forsberg evokes between the beauty and horror of post-mining landscapes is not only aesthetic but deeply permeates and subtly defines the work.

Lu Forsberg, Downstream (Mount Morgan and Mount Oxide), 2018. Installation view, ‘Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes’, UNSW Galleries, 2019. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

Similarly, the delicate Risograph prints in Rachel O’Reilly’s Gas Imaginary Series 2 (Gladstone Post-pastoral) are almost disturbingly understated. O’Reilly’s work is a response to the horrific poisoning of marine life that saw masses of fish, dugongs and turtles dead and diseased in Gooreng Gooreng waters in and around her hometown of Gladstone, in Queensland. The toxification of the water, which was a result of the dredging of the harbor for the installation of LNG’s unconventional gas extraction (fracking) facilities, severely impacted her community’s livelihood and wellbeing. Going to meetings with members of the Gooreng Gooreng people and local fishing industries, revealed a severe privatisation of water monitoring and a detrimental opacity in the officially documented ‘scientific’ reasons behind the toxic water. The aesthetics of the printed and filmic elements of O’Reilly’s series mimic the optics of official documents, engineering diagrams, geological stratification mapping and corporate advertising, in order to rupture their illusion of transparency. By adding handwritten poetic language, sometimes crossed-out, often rough, O’Reilly both intervenes in the aesthetic of officiality and reveals the farce of its authoritative impenetrability and finality.

It is important to note that the research for this work, like the water monitoring of Gooreng Gooreng waters, is conducted at the expense of various institutions. However, as a means of countering the privatisation and opacity of information, the data accumulated from The Gas Imaginary Series does not simply stay in the art institution but is shared with the communities it benefits – that is, in Gladstone and in other areas around Australia effected by fracking. The Gas Imaginary Series, then, is not simply a pedagogical exercise for art-goers or a gratuitous means of interrogating official procedures of collecting and publishing information. Rather, it is a medium with which to assist real decolonial resistance.

Rachel O’Reilly, with Pa.LaC.E (Valle Medina and Benjamin Reynolds) and Rodrigo Hernandez, Drawing Rights, 2018. Installation view, ‘The Gas Imaginary’, UNSW Galleries, 2019. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

As O’Reilly and Forsberg’s work indicate, the presentation of work in a way visually palatable to contemporary art trends in ‘Material Place’ does not prioritise art as an institution, but as a vehicle for doing and disseminating important decolonial research. In Megan Cope’s Foundations II, a diverse range of oyster shells are embedded in small concrete blocks neatly gridded on the gallery floor. The work critiques the conditions of the ‘concrete city’ that imposes itself on Country, only making a perfunctory allowance for the irregularities of the land and life contained within it. The information and action embedded in Foundations II predominantly derives from, belongs to, and serves Quandamooka peoples. However, well-developed Indigenous systems of knowing the land, without ‘fetishising’ or ‘abstracting’ its resources,[5] remove the need for ‘contemporary art’ to convey this information. The necessity of restoring and regenerating native oyster reefs for the survival of waterways, recognising middens as important Indigenous infrastructures (rather than lime deposits for mortar), and understanding the damaging effects of silica mining on land and life is not theoretical knowledge to be acquired through contemplating art. Rather, it is gained from lived experience.

Cope’s work, then, uses the language of post-minimalism, informed by Indigenous genealogies, to infiltrate the top tiers of cultural value and educate a predominantly settler audience.[6] The way in which the concrete blocks seamlessly blend with the concrete floor of the gallery does not seem accidental. Instead, it seems to imply a degree of complicity – the gallery, too, reproduces coloniality and is made of the very materials mined from Indigenous lands. However, although art as an institution remains deeply embedded in the systems of colonial-capitalism, Cope’s work reminds us that prevailing art historical frames, while essentialising and neutralising on one hand, also allow potent works of continued resistance to hide in plain sight.

Megan Cope, Foundations II, 2016. Installation view, ‘Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes’, UNSW Galleries, 2019. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

As the presence of Yukultji Napangati’s untitled portrait of the Gibson Desert rendered in intricate Pintupi style reminds us, this mode of strategising has not developed in a vacuum, but rather, follows a legacy fugitive work. In art, settler representations of Australian landscape were and remain weapons of epistemological violence as a means of both ‘art-washing’ the violences of settler colonialism and erasing Indigenous presence, management and sovereignty over the land. Landscapes are iconically “Australian”. They are the images we export to the world and attach to the nation-state identity – a move to ‘settler nativism’,[7] making a claim to the land through entirely different (neo-liberal) value systems and the (ongoing) logic of terra nullius.[8]

The materialisation of visual culture at Papunya Tula in the early 1970s using mediums associated with Western art was a political act. It was a deliberate and strategic move to insert Indigenous presence and sovereignty into a nation systematically trying to erase Indigenous peoples. Further, the popularity of these works was not accidental but rather a result of an aggressive national and international marketing campaign instigated by the Aboriginal Arts Board (chaired by Charles Chicka Dixon and directed by Gary Foley in 1983).[9] Though this momentum was quickly shut down and Papunya Tula work was appropriated and exploited by ‘carpet-bagging’, unsolicited appropriation and undercutting, it ensured that Aboriginal presence was woven into the fabric of Australian culture. While the settler-state continues to hang these legacies of resistance in the foyers of banks and corporations built on the exploitation of Indigenous lands, [10] as the activation of Napangati’s work in the context of this exhibition testifies, it is important to remember that they never signify complicity or assimilation. The intimate knowledge of the Gibson Desert contained in each horizontal stripe of colour – blood-red ochre, black and sandy yellow – is an assertion of sovereignty. Each precise, pointed, application of paint is a labour of care, resistance and history-making.

Installation view, ‘Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes’, UNSW Galleries, 2019. Pictured: Yukultji Napangati, Untitled, 2011, Tully Arnot, Holobiont, 2019 and Robert Andrew, Touching Pindan, 2016. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

Art institutions are certainly not perfect. Like banks, courthouses, prisons and schools, they too are built on the exploitation of Indigenous land and life. Like social media algorithms, they too obscure environmental devastation and (re)produce idealised narratives of Australian land. They are also funded by government and (often harmful) corporations who attempt to exchange a small percentage of profit for a certain superficial cultural absolution.[11] It is no wonder, then, why the arts can often feel like just another cog in the machine of colonial-capitalism. However, as this exhibition reminds us, art institutions can also be fugitive spaces to (re)appropriate and redirect economic, social and cultural capital. As the curator Ellie Buttrose, the artists in the exhibition, and the participants in the associated public programs demonstrate, people in the arts have a wide reach, the means with which to gather diverse knowledge and the tools to make important information accessible. ‘Material Places’ is not only a refreshingly radical, necessary and relevant re-reading of “Australian landscape” it is call to organise, strategise and prioritise; to utilise the tools at hand in order to dismantle coloniality and ensure a future for our world.

By Aneshka Mora, the recipient of the 2019 Kudos Gallery Emerging Critics Award.

‘Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes’ is at UNSW Galleries 21st June – 7th September.

References:

[1] Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (March 2007): 168–78, https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380601164353.

[2] Macarena Gómez-Barris, “The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives.” Presented at the UNSW Art & Design Research Forum. UNSW Art & Design, July 16, 2019.

[3] Lu Forsberg, LU FORSBERG on Transboundaries: Art + Connection, 7 April to 3 June 2018 at QUT Art Museum (QUT Art Museum, 2018), https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=10156129687481885.

[4] John Vidal, “How Developing Countries Are Paying a High Price for the Global Mineral Boom,” The Guardian, August 15, 2015, sec. Global development, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/aug/15/developing-countries-high-price-global-mineral-boom.

[5] Joe Collins in “Panel Discussion with Rachel O’Reilly, Lu Forsberg, Jo Collins, and Livia Rezende.”  Presented at From Site to Place Symposium. UNSW Galleries, 2019.

[6] Andy Butler, “Safe White Spaces,” Runway, no. 35 (December 3, 2017), http://runway.org.au/safe-white-spaces/.

[7] Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.

[8] Irene Watson, “From Site to Place Symposium: Keynote Address.” Presented at the From Site to Place Symposium. UNSW Galleries, July 22, 2019.

[9] Ian McLean, ed., How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: Writings on Aboriginal Contemporary Art, 1. ed, Australian Studies in Art and Art Theory (Brisbane: IMA, Institute of Modern Art, 2011).

[10] This can also be read as a ‘settler move toward innocence’. See: Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.”

[11] Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster, “MAPS OF GRATITUDE,” A Centre for Everything, 2019, http://www.acentreforeverything.com/maps-of-gratitude.; Mel Evans, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (London: PlutoPress, 2015).

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