Subliminal art pieces address the greatest challenge of our time – climate change

By Christopher Ringrose
adams_clearing_winter_storm

Nature/Revelation | The Ian Potter Museum of Art

As part of the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2015 festival presented by Climarte, Joanna Bosse has curated a thoughtful exhibition, Nature/Revelation, featuring work by nine artists from Australia, the UK, the Netherlands, the US and Mexico. The exhibits suggest with a cumulative force not only the effects of industrialisation and technology, but also the impossibility of conceiving the human and nature as separate states.

In fact, only one full human figure features in the exhibition, and that is a rock climber wearing a dark suit and trilby hat, who inches across the sheer cliff in David Haines’s massive dual video installation Day and Night. Beneath the climber, waves crash on to the rocks; on the other screen next to him, clouds roll ominously in a night that is either falling or lifting. The challenge this human faces seems both insurmountable and interminable, as the sequence fades only to repeat. He seems insignificant against the huge rock formations, although the exhibition as a whole explores the effects of the dominance of his species and the geologic period of the Anthropocene, in which human actions have had a massive impact on the world’s ecosystems.

Rather than being overtly activist by urging visitors to turn down the central heating, become vegan, vote Green, walk to work and support the fossil fuel divestment movement, Nature/Revelation takes a step back from those practical actions, allowing art to manoeuvre the viewer into feelings of awe and respect.

Elsewhere, the exhibition’s purpose is to invoke the human race in its absence, and to evoke awe in the face of the sublime, prompting viewers to experience a new sense of the systems of which they form a part. Rather than being overtly activist by urging visitors to turn down the central heating, become vegan, vote Green, walk to work and support the fossil fuel divestment movement, Nature/Revelation takes a step back from those practical actions, allowing art to manoeuvre the viewer into feelings of awe and respect. Such emotions may of course, have eminently practical consequences.

Jonathan Delafield Cook’s monumental life-size charcoal depiction of a sperm whale dominates the second room, just as Haines’s video commands the first. It is hard not to look at this image – a massive, and reproachful outcome of Cook’s painstaking labours – without respect, and a mute apology for centuries of whaling. The whale’s surface is a map of scars and shadings, on which one can trace wounds, continents and clouds. As with a number of other works, like Susan Jacobs and Andrew Hazelwinkel’s video in which sunlight is focused through a crazed lens of melting ice, scale and time are significant.

Mel O’Callaghan’s Moons form a haunting trompe l’oeil triptych, in which circular images of phases of the moon become, on closer inspection, photographs of mining sinkholes taken from below. The daylight, as it descends, discloses strata and patterns. The human and the natural, the close-at-hand and the distant, are all part of the shared mystery.

Two of the theorists presiding over the exhibition are philosophers Edmund Burke, whose concept of the sublime is interrogated throughout, and Timothy Morton, whose relentless questioning of the scale and meaning of the natural, and the need for a new way of thinking about what he has called the world’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event.

Metaphors and paradoxes abound; Gabriel Orozco’s hypnotic video of a large smooth pebble, being endlessly manipulated by a human hand, challenges viewers’ sense of hard and soft, vulnerable and invulnerable. Jamie North’s replica ruins – made of steel slag, cement and marble waste – speak of worn-out civilisations. His hemispherical constructions, resembling hatched giant eggs or broken globes, are colonised by native plants and Spanish moss that find them hospitable, turning the sculpture into a testament to survival.

Yet the apparent invulnerability of the wilderness is an illusion, as the exhibition reminds us.

On loan from the National Gallery of Australia, Ansel Adams’ magnificent gelatin silver photographs of the American wilderness, taken between 1935 and 1978, occupy three walls. This pioneer of American conservation documented the magnificence of Alaska, California and Arizona in images of great purity and stillness. The date of each photograph is carefully documented, although the images seem timeless. Yet the apparent invulnerability of the wilderness is an illusion, as the exhibition reminds us.

In its quest to nudge us to assume deeper responsibility and humility, Dutchman Berndnaut Smilde’s digital prints of artificially induced cloud formations inhabit a series of vivid, stark, empty interiors, with arched windows and angled cornices. In another context, one might read Smilde’s images differently, but here they have been placed by Bosse to test the hierarchy of the human and constructed, as well as the natural and seemingly random. Which is more permanent, finally, they seem to ask – the human monument or the evanescent vapour?

It is a tribute to Nature/Revelation that there is not one piece that does not gain in resonance by being placed in contact with the others, and not an artist who does not open one’s eyes to the sublimity and pathos of the natural world in the 21st century. It offers a glimpse of the richness that may yet be preserved through artistic and political actions, large and small.

Nature/Revelation is showing at the Ian Potter Museum of Art until 5 July 2015. Find out more here.

Caption: Ansel Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California.

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