For many of us, the 2019-20 summer marked a turning point for our awareness of climate change. Canberra, where I live, was cloaked in smoke for most of December and January. Over the Christmas period, my partner and I existed in a perpetual crepuscular gloom, unable to step outside. This, combined with the heat, left us wondering whether we will be able to continue living in Australia.
Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined the phrase ‘solastalgia’ to describe the homesickness brought about by environmental destruction, particularly climate change, that is a legacy of the Anthropocene. The term Anthropocene denotes the way humans have completely colonised the earth, leaving the marks of industry everywhere in the form of contaminated soil and waterways, atmospheric pollution, biological degradation and changed weather patterns. Albrecht contrasts solastalgia with ‘nostalgia’, the original definition of which referred to homesickness, which could be cured by returning home. With solastalgia, a return home is not possible. Instead, we have to radically reorient our way of life to transform the Anthropocene into what Albrecht terms the ‘symbiocene’: a new period of human history which “has its origins in the idea of the companionship of life” and “offers the possibility of complete reintegration of the human body, psyche, and culture with the rest of life.”
Artists play a critical role in imagining this new world into being. In a prescient programming decision taken in the middle of 2019, Tuggeranong Arts Centre, in Canberra’s south, made solastalgia its theme for 2020. The first three exhibitions on show are bushfire photos by SMH photographer Nick Moir, landscape paintings by Tony Curran and Waratah Lahy and a video work by Indigenous artist Hannah Bronte.
Moir has been photographing fires and natural phenomena for most of his 25-year career. The pictures on show were taken throughout the recent national bushfire emergency and capture the destruction in places including the Blue Mountains, Bundanoon and Green Wattle Creek. They are eerie and exude such fierce orange light you can almost feel heat radiating from them. One shows a rowboat burning; another, a group of firefighters under ember attack; others capture the behaviour and weather systems of the fires, including a flammagenitus cloud.
One day in early February when the fire in Namadgi National Park was threatening to encroach on the ACT’s southern suburbs, it gave off a picturesque plume of purple smoke, with a slither of orange sky visible between it and the horizon. Canberrans flocked to photograph the beauty that fires exude when you’re observing them from a distance. Many parked on the sides of main roads to snap away with their smart phones. Some, criticised by police as ’disaster tourists’, went as close as they could to the fire zone. At the time I was panicking about the possibility of falling embers and was consumed with disbelief and irritation at the number of cars pulled over, the glow of mobile phones visible at the windows.
So, when I viewed Moir’s photographs, I was initially torn. Was he unnecessarily putting himself or fire crews at risk or glamourising the disaster? When I considered his images in light of Albrecht’s concept of solastalgia, however, I came to see them as an essential record of the effects of climate change. The photo of the burning boat, in particular, is iconic of the crisis defining our historical moment.
The work by Lahy and Curran remind us where can redirect our energy in this time of crisis. Lahy’s work centres on everyday magic, drawing our attention to the objects and experiences that are hidden in plain sight. Her paintings of houses are recognisably Canberran; boxy, brick veneer dwellings with a front window granting the outsider a view into someone else’s living room. These three bedroom-one-bathroom affairs are one of the things I loved about Canberra when I moved here from Perth, where the McMansion is ubiquitous. They represent a time when life was less explicitly consumerist, and children could play outside without being overcome by bushfire smoke.
Other paintings more overtly illustrate the effects of climate change, including Playing In the Apocalypse, which depicts a small child kicking a soccer ball against the backdrop of a red sky. On previous visits to and from the Arts Centre, I had witnessed children at cricket practice in the nearby playing fields. Such scenes had cheered me, evoking childhood innocence and the comfort of domestic routine and the familiar, known world. But that red glow does not depict an ordinary sunset, and this summer, many children were unable to play outside.
Lahy also exhibited light boxes inspired by nineteenth century ‘magic lanterns;’ small wooden boxes each framing an illuminated painting of a house or front garden. I was drawn to these miniature pockets of light; up close the cosiness gives way to an uncanny evocation of a disappearing way of life. I used to know this place, I thought to myself as I made my way around the exhibition.
Curran’s work, grounded in algorithmic techniques, is popping with colour. He often works with red, blue and green, the colours that make up pixels. This is a link with Curran’s work more broadly, in which he seeks to draw attention to the ways in which our attention has been colonised by technology and by capitalism. His work, including the aptly named Horizontal Attention Machine, draw attention to the way technology and devices limit, rather than expand, the possibilities for living. A number of his landscapes deal with the transition of light and colour across gradients, which bring to my mind dawn and dusk, also periods of transition and reflection.
The idea of the archive is also present. In previous portrait work Curran has undertaken using an iPad, the software has recorded his brushstrokes, allowing the work to be reconstructed. Similarly, in the solastalgia exhibition, digital works shown on iPads rearrange themselves, conveying the idea of a landscape in flux. While Moir’s photographs document the destruction that characterises the Anthropocene, Curran’s work prompts us to imagine new possibilities.
Bronte’s video work, Umma’s Tongue Molten at 6000°, is modelled on music videos and references hip hop culture in its contemplation of the themes of retribution and atonement. Lyrics are performed by women of Pacific, Aboriginal and African descent, and explicitly link the impacts of colonisation on women of colour with our collective assault against the earth, personified as mother nature. The women performing the lyrics are superimposed over diverse backgrounds that show the natural environment, a burning city, rubble, and a pit mine. Unlike some of Bronte’s other works, such as Heala (2018), which portrays the innate healing powers of women, Umma’s Tongue explicitly suggests that a revolution is needed; while our earth mother may have given us everything we need, her ‘own children are the curse’ and not much is left ‘once you’ve devoured your mother.’
The works on show document the impact of climate change and challenge distinctions between the categories of natural and man-made. Taking the concept of the Anthropocene to its logical conclusion, we should no longer apply the term natural disaster to bushfires. Along with a framework for thinking about how we might create the symbiocene, the exhibition also provides a space for the community to grieve. In an era when paying attention is a political act, it also reminds us that we can work to create a better world.