2020 Exhibition Launch by Mandy Martin

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Due to Covid restrictions, the Listening in the Anthropocene exhibition, originally planned for the HR Gallop gallery at Wagga Wagga, was presented online. It was officially launched via Zoom webinar by Mandy Martin at 6pm on Thursday, August 27. A video recording of Mandy’s speech, which included a generous review of the exhibited items, is available here. The transcript appears below. Pic shows Mandy Martin (right) at the Zoom launch with with Alexander Boynes.

Tracy Sorensen: We are absolutely thrilled to have Mandy Martin launch our exhibition tonight. Mandy is one of Australia’s most acclaimed artists. So we are extremely honoured to have her here with us tonight and also to be participating in the symposium tomorrow.

Personally, over the years I’ve loved seeing Mandy’s work in real life at both the Orange and Bathurst regional galleries, it has been such a treat to see these monumental works in our own local regional galleries. Mandy has held numerous exhibitions in Australia and internationally. Her works are in many public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia; the Australian National University and other state collections and regional galleries. In the USA, she is represented in the Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Nevada Museum of Art Reno and many private collections.

She does live right here in the Central West and is Adjunct Professor of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University. Also, because it’s relevant to the theme of our exhibition and symposium, I’ll add that she has had a big role in the organization known as Climarte, which is about artists for a safe climate. In that capacity she’s presented artwork, given public talks, curated an exhibition in Melbourne and has also been developing artworks which she will be talking about to tonight and through the Symposium, the ‘luminous relic’ work with Alexander Boynes, who’s sitting next to Mandy. Hello, Alexander. And thank you also for generously being involved in this project, and, thanks to MIT.

Mandy has also done a lot of work with Indigenous groups and people throughout remote Australia – I would like to introduce you to Mandy Martin. Over to you, Mandy.

Mandy Martin: I’m incredibly impressed by the exhibition and website. I spent a large part of today looking at it and I thought I’d never make it to this evening, because there’s so much material there. And it really is so beautiful and there’s very impressive artists doing a whole range of work, really there’s such a variety of techniques and it’s like reading through twenty-five PhD thesis proposals.

It’s very complex and really difficult to look at the Anthropocene. It hasn’t officially been acknowledged yet as an epoch or is it a geological era? But you know the term has really gone into very wide usage in literature, film, art and the media. But then when you actually go back to what is geologically meant by the Anthropocene – five things really prescribed a new geological epoch and Jan Zalasiewicz, the chair of the Anthropocene working group says, this classification of a new geological era is geological in pace. It’s one of his worst jokes.

So in 2016 they started trying to actually declare the Anthropocene a geological epoch. Nonetheless, I think the categories are really useful. And you know that what describes an epoch, and this is true for them and the Plantocene and so on; and so ‘changes in the atmosphere,’ which is really obvious one; Mass extinctions; and new species/new pathogens that sort of thing; and new materials and chemicals; and then new layers of sediments and strata, or the creation of what we now know of as techno fossils. And then things like changes in the temperature; and the chemistry and acidity of the oceans; and as I looked through everyone’s work today, I thought that this exhibition falls into most of those categories. Anyway, you’ve all really thought and studied what the Anthropocene means and those changes that are being manifested now, that we’re living, and we’ve lived in a very, very real and frightening way this year.

The use of new materials and chemicals and technology was an obvious one to look at. First of all, in terms of the work in this exhibition and people like Claire Baker, for example, with her ‘Broken (n)aimless’ using things like foam packing sheets and Velcro dots and glass splinters. I mean, they’re all anthropogenic materials, which also refers to the fragmentation in broken environments. Some of the characteristics of the Anthropocene are made very manifest in the materials that you’ve chosen to use. Also, Linda Fish in ‘Tree Hugger’ talks about the casting in bronze but uses the plastics and the polymers and the contemporary materials that we’ve made from chemicals; which is another way of an artist reflecting on the use of those new materials.

No one really tackled the changes in atmospheric pressure, as the atmosphere CO2 and emissions being now at 405 parts per million. But it’s implicit in a number of works which deal with fire and catastrophic fires and smoke and I’ll get to those in a minute…

The largest number of the works in this exhibition reference mass extinctions. It was almost like you had had a lot of workshopping, or maybe because you live in the Central West and in New South Wales, in large part, and very aware of the environments. Certainly Listening: Listening to a number of the recordings and looking at the number of videos; that felt exactly like the landscape I live in, I recognize the silver eyes, the eastern froglet, various other birds, frogs, cicadas and so on. There were many of you that really referred to listening.

Wendy Alexander’s ‘Regent Honeyeater’ or as she ironically called it the ‘Regent Money-Eater’, and her ‘Barka Menindee Fishkill’ were two examples of where environmental decline and extinction, were of prime concern. The River Yarners are quite a mob – seven of you in the group and working in an archival or feminist manner, certainly in now using carbon neutral materials: using all re-crocheted or re-found woollen materials to yarn your works with, which protect and raise political issues at local government level. I hadn’t seen your great big 80 metre work that can be rolled out – it was pretty impressive with the trees with the hope banners wrapped on them. It’s a wonderful work and a wonderful traveling work that would be good to see in other parts of New South Wales. I’m sure I’ll catch up with it somewhere soon.

David Sargent also picks up on extinction theme as well but takes it into the sort of new and dangerous technologies – his laser digital prints, which you can lay over any environment – it felt quite dangerous to me anyway. It was certainly another take on the landscape and the way we view it.

Donna Caffrey’s reflections on birds and cats – beautiful collage montages of the animal we all love but you need to hate, that’s a really terrific series. And Jack Randall with his ‘Why Look at Animals.’ I thought that was a splendid work. I don’t know if he works at Dubbo zoo or exactly what his relationship with it is, but they are certainly very, very perceptive works. His comment that the images are “multi-valent” and are “inter subjective” and that’s a privileged viewpoint, which might not be valid at the end of the end of the Anthropocene, I thought was very interesting, because we are so anthropogenic – we see things from the point of view of people so much of the time. And I know that one of the themes of this symposium is listening to the voices beneath and listening to other voices, listening to the landscape; of listening to the environment and I think his work really brought that particular commentary in – I thought it was terrific that he picked up on it.

Jackie O’Reilly’s beautiful work – ‘A Bird’s Got to Sing’, it sort of just felt like home, for me, but obviously with her beautiful voice over the top gave it a whole level of melancholy and pathos. And Jan Osmotherly – a very appropriate name for looking after Australia; and ‘Searching and Gasping’ was terribly prescient for what we all saw in our own backyard this summer with fire-smoke and fire on the horizons, it was once again a really moving work.

Karen Golland and ‘Your One Wild and Precious Life’ which we just saw a little bit of before with the floral kangaroo tributes on the side of the road, which is sort of quite mad, but very joyous and terribly, terribly sad, because their Memorial is a sad memorial to violent extinctions. A lot of extinctions are slow extinctions these days, but the slaughter on our roads, like the slaughter that occurred with the summer bushfires was so violent and extreme – so visible that I think it really affects us and creates a level of grief that we need to deal with and she deals in an almost Mexican way really, like the last day of the dead. It’s quite difficult to inject humour and irony and joy into climate change and Anthropocene discussions these days and the yarners certainly do that in a fantastic way. It’s just bursting with hope and joy, which is quite a rare thing.

And then another thing which distinguishes the Anthropocene – new layers of strata sediments, techniques and new technologies, and a number of you touched on that. Barbel Ullrich – with a post-apocalyptic work which speaks strongly of place – but also no place in the world. And so apocalyptic – they could be from anywhere they could be from an explosion in Beirut – a few weeks ago – could be from the Blue Mountains – after the bush fires or it could be from any apocalyptic post, post human habitation site really.

Claire Baker’s throw-away fragments also add to that sort of inner history which will be very much a characteristic of the Anthropocene – these five Geological categories which define an epoch.

Within the sort of category of strata and sediments there’s this whole notion of deep time coming to the present and a few works which referred to the erratic glacial boulders. I hadn’t heard about them before, but it’s great, great story. And obviously, it’s moved a number of you considerably, and it has occurred in a few works. Such as Jan Bervin’s work and ‘A Published Event’ with Margaret Woodward, and Justy Philips; and Margaret comes back to it in other work as well about the erratic boulders with the inspirational words inscribed in them. It makes a sort of sub text right through this collection of work. Also obviously the work by Jan Bervin, ‘Kindness’, would sit within that Anthropocene – new layers of rocks and sediments.

And the final thing that would define a new epoch would obviously be changes in temperature, chemistry, acidification of the oceans, and the sort of chemical changes that are happening in our atmosphere with carbon emissions and so on. Marg Leddin and her ‘Cicada Dance Lines’, is the one of a few people who deal very specifically with fire and the ability to rejuvenate. Her work, certainly talks about particularly native forests getting hotter and hotter and lightning strikes and for everything to self-combust and the temperatures just go bananas, really. I felt her work was about that.

There are a lot of works that tell us different things about the Anthropocene, but also Anthropogenic change, and a few people talk about ‘anthropogenic’ and you’re all so learned on this subject. But there is a difference between anthropogenic – you know things which have been people-centred and the Anthropocene, which is more specifically talking about a geological era which, as yet, as I said, hasn’t been declared.

David Sergeant certainly addresses the notion of anthropogenic quite specifically in his extinction digital prints. He also examines themes around communication, understanding, and acceptance of anthropogenic degradation. He’s placing the responsibility for the degradation that has occurred right back in the court of people.

Jackie O’Reilly talks about anthropogenic science of hope and positivity also. A lot of people were thinking beyond the simple scientific or environmental aspects of the Anthropocene to how we as humans have either created the Anthropocene, or how we as humans contend with it and deal with the into the future. As I mentioned, Jan Bervin with ‘Kindness’ and her inspiration words carved on erratic boulders is portentous, prophetic and fundamentally human.

Jenni Munday and her ‘Postcards from the Asylum’ – in one sense, that’s sort of less to do with the Anthropocene in some ways, but totally to do it in other ways. It’s of course absolutely anthropogenic and she talks about the Anthropocene starting from colonizing years of Australia and talks about it in terms of Beechworth’s history. The Anthropocene Working Group would generally acknowledge the Anthropocene geologically started from the radioactive dust from the US Army’s Trinity test in 1945 – it’s the Golden Spike of when the Anthropocene started. Geologists always have golden spikes where they can identify one geological era changing to another. In geological terms that’s the spike, but in humanitarian terms Jenni Munday puts it earlier than that and I think probably I would too. As someone who has looked really closely at colonization by second settlers of Australia, South America and other countries, certainly the point at which industrial imperialism began in Australia was a radical and destructive moment and hasn’t lasted terribly long – let’s face it, you know, it’s not going to last much longer.

Lisa Robertson and Leanne Lovegrove in ‘Lunar Time’, their living data library – it’s definitely once again an anthropogenic project, preserving threatened Indigenous languages and culture. The Country with a capital C that culture protects and maintains. This is a really important aspect of environmental and cultural degradation that must be fairly and squarely put into the Anthropocene. Louisa Waters in ‘Listening Burning’ also follows through the theme of recording and listening to and preserving Indigenous culture, knowledge and country. Fire burning, or fire work as it’s referred to in Arnhem Land and Northern Territory. These are really timely and great reminders to have not only this year, but within this exhibition.

Michelle O’Connor, ‘Sounds a Significance’ is another anthropogenic work which reflects on the effects the atmosphere will have on the silencing familiar natural sounds around this very moving recording. It’s just so familiar, but it’s only when things are gone, sometimes you realize they have.

And then finally Nancy Kuhl and Margaret Woodward refer once again to the Babson’s boulders – I’m going to have to find out a lot more about that – it’s very intriguing and the erratic-ness of contemporary times. As I said – deep time talking through the moment and future.

One of the other things I’m involved with, right at the end of the corridor at the Fenner SCHOOL OF ENVIRONMENT and SOCIETY is the CLIMATE CHANGE Institute at ANU. It’s just a couple of rooms, but incredibly impressive individuals work there. Will Steffen works out of there, for example, and Mark Howden and Jamie Pittock and many other really valuable voices at the moment – some of the few independent ones. You probably all saw the article this week about the twenty-five scientists who took the federal government to task over the gas-led recovery – that’s got an argument going this week with the chief scientist Allan Finkel.

So Mark Howden’s the director of the climate change Institute. And earlier this year Arnagretta Hunter and then Mark Howden published an article which was saying, in quite a few publications, including the Guardian, ten threats to humanity surviving – identifying them in Australia. The ten threats that they listed were climate change, obviously, environmental decline and extinction, nuclear weapons, resource scarcity, food insecurity, dangerous new technologies, overpopulation, chemical pollution, pandemic and disease, and denial and misinformation. And looking at the densely packed material in the exhibition, a lot of you talked about those issues. There are some issues that people really didn’t touch on at all, not a lot of artists do. I mean, this is pretty new territory for a lot of us in the humanities. But certainly, some of you do. And thinking specifically of environmental decline and extinction, which, I said, so many of you dealt with, including Donna Caffrey, and Louisa Waters in ‘Listening Burning’.

Resource scarcity, which, I mean we all live in New South Wales and Central West and a lot of us live on rivers. I live on the Limestone Creek on the Belubula which flows into the Murray Darling and into the Lachlin eventually. It’s a pretty big issue for us all out here, and Nicole Welsh and Perdita Phillips are the two who deal with it most, but it was more in terms of tidal flow and estuaries, but beautiful works. I know there are a lot of people out there doing work about water and certainly the Yarners are working on water as well. But that whole issue, and it does come up in your work, Tracy Sorensen, the coral bleaching through the acidification of the oceans and the changing temperature of the oceans, but

right from the beginning of climate change discussions, I think people have tended to overlook the fact that acidification of the oceans was going to be one of the really massive outcomes of rising emissions and rising temperatures. There are a lot of artists who do work on that and if you’re reading any of the good books, for example, Footprints: in search of future fossils, by David Farrier or, this just hit my letterbox yesterday, Jenny Newell’s latest book with Kirsten Wehner and Cameron Muir Living with the Anthropocene. It also includes quite a few essays from an artist. There are a lot of areas that artists still can engage with, talk about and do so in a very visual way.

I mean, pandemic and disease – Jenni Munday is the one I suppose who gets the closest to really talking about that. Also, Tracy Sorensen in talking about cancers, and seeing cancer as related to climate change. One of the other aspects of the ten threats to survival that Mark Howden and Arnagretta Hunter were talking about was the denial and misinformation, which is a really difficult and tough thing to handle visually, but it’s really a topic that you’ve taken on Tracy in your ‘Listen to the Body’.

It’s interesting, the scientists were very quick to get out the front talking about climate change and the Anthropocene, and the humanities have come to these subjects slower and I know that we’re not illustrators. We’re not literalists, and the material has to be right for us at the right moment for us to want to engage with it.

I haven’t mentioned Ted Hendrickson and he also worked on Babson’s boulders – lovely, lovely photos – lovely work. It was great to see that. He certainly touches on the idea of new sediments and strata in his work. The only other person is Wendy Alexander, who really fits in with the destruction of environments and bird habitats in the Riverina,  extinction of species and to a certain extent the idea of creation of new species.

I think pretty well I’ve mentioned everyone. I knew some of your work some of you have made previously, but it’s a great collection of artists and it would have been fabulous to see it as a show. Congratulations to everyone and I look forward to hearing what you’ve got to say about it. I know I’ve got my own interpretations, but it will be interesting to see what you have to say. Alexander and I will join you in the morning, Tristan’s up in the Kimberley touring at the moment, so not quite the right time day for him and then he’s got other complexities to deal with.

So thank you very much everyone and let me declare the exhibition open.

Tracy Sorensen: Thank you so much. Mandy. That was unbelievable. I don’t think any of us were expecting you to go so thoroughly through the entire thing and comment on everyone’s work – that was just so generous and such a beautiful engagement with the work and with the themes of the Anthropocene; that has just set us up so beautifully for the conversations that we’re going to have tomorrow. So that was just wonderful. Thank you so much.

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