Visual Art

Nicholas Mangan explores the tension between capital and dwindling natural resources, and how they come together in the grim story of asylum seekers held on Nauru. By Patrick Hartigan.

Nicholas Mangan’s ‘Limits to Growth’

Nicholas Mangan’s ‘Nauru: Notes from a Cretaceous World' (2013)
Nicholas Mangan’s ‘Nauru: Notes from a Cretaceous World' (2013)
Credit: Courtesy the artist; Sutton Gallery, Melbourne; Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland; and LABOR, Mexico City, D F. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

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Limits to Growth, the title of Nicholas Mangan’s exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) until September 17, refers to a 1972 book – The Limits to Growth – commissioned by the Club of Rome, a cohort of international scientists, politicians, diplomats and other public figures. It explored the relationship between humans and the planet, namely the exponential growth of a human population at the mercy of finite resources and the ways in which this calamitous situation might or might not provoke change. As with the debate today, the report focused on technology, asking whether technological progress alone could solve our problems.

One of the very interesting conclusions the report reached was that “while technology can change rapidly, political and social institutions generally change very slowly. Furthermore, they almost never change in anticipation of social need, but only in response to one.” Formerly a sculptor, Mangan now develops multidisciplinary works that explore relationships between humans, the environment, technology and money; several recent works refer to and anticipate future social needs by adopting self-sustaining systems for their presentation.

Equal parts geologist, anthropologist and sleuth, Mangan digs the historical, economical and political substrata around materials to create complex visual essays. The subjects he explores are likewise about extraction: the phosphate rock that briefly made Nauru the second-wealthiest per capita nation in the world, the coconut biofuel produced in Bougainville during the 1970s following clashes between locals and Rio Tinto, and, most recently, the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

In something of a site-specific work, Limits to Growth (2016) presents a bitcoin “mining rig” in the museum’s basement. The process requires a clutch of nondescript machines – easily bought on eBay for a couple of thousand dollars since the currency’s partial collapse – and a huge amount of power, in this case supplied by the university. Presented via closed-circuit television in a room upstairs, the bitcoin mine gets read for precisely what it is: an elaborate and charged fabrication. The proportions of the basement, made skew-whiff by the tower of hardware standing in the centre, and the presence of steps – a ladder disappearing into airconditioning ducts, the ghost of a staircase removed from a wall – complete a picture that speaks to the darkness and futility of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Tower of Babel (c. 1563).

We assess the level of artificiality in this scene while hearing breathing sounds from a second video, directly behind, showing an underwater diver approaching a large Rai disc – the heavy stone currency of the tiny island of Yap in the South Pacific, still used in traditional transactions – lying on the ocean’s floor. Directly outside the room sits a collection of life-size, large-format photographs of Rai “coins”; the prints are produced as funds from the bitcoin mine become available. Of the six works in this exhibition I found this meditation on scale and the speculative nature of capital – that which “must circulate continuously or die”, according to economist David Harvey – to be the most compelling. Hovering between zones of bewildering abstraction and materiality – both currencies are products of earth resources – it’s also a strangely visceral work; the downstairs labour and resources involved in pushing out the coins bringing to mind a body’s pelvic floor discharging excrement.

Nauru: Notes from a Cretaceous World (2013), an earlier work comprising a narrated video, a vitrine of documents, a print developed from a newspaper cartoon and a limestone coffee table, operates somewhat more conventionally. The print, crudely depicting a cage on a square metre of sand, pithily captures the human and environmental tragedy – slowly fading out to the laps of a rising sea – that is Nauru.

Highlighting the confusing switchback of a word like “rich”, the history of this 21-square-kilometre South Pacific island provides a cautionary tale for Australia. After strip mining 80 per cent of its land – the phosphate sent to invigorate soils afar – the nation spectacularly busted in the 1990s before becoming a tax haven for Russian money launderers. It was then alleged to have been paid by United States intelligence to participate in Operation Weasel, whose purpose remains in dispute and whose existence was denied by the US government – before providing the stage for Australia’s Pacific Solution in 2001, the sequel to which is currently playing out under the equally filmic title of Operation Sovereign Borders.

The coffee table, produced from a pinnacle once adorning the entrance to Nauru House, the 52-storey building in Melbourne built during the mining heyday, makes concrete the outlandish plan for Nauru’s economical recovery by its president Bernard Dowiyogo; as he lay bankrupt and dying on a hospital bed in Washington, DC, he had a vision of exporting ancient coral coffee tables to the US. Looking at Mangan’s interpretation, the idea seems a rather neat one but this luxury “good” is unsettled by its materiality; an ideal support for hefty publications, this table comes to symbolise the inhospitable distance separating us from a ravaged island of imprisoned asylum seekers.

Progress in Action (2013) is another work that cleverly exploits its resource muse. It focuses on, or rather obliquely references, a clash between the Papua New Guinean army and the Bougainville locals who were at no point consulted about Rio Tinto’s plans to turn their island into a massive open-pit mine. Mangan has re-created the improvised form of power generation that occurred following the closure of the mine – repurposing left-behind equipment to produce biofuel from coconuts – to power the film projection.

There’s an interesting physicality in this work by way of the smell and glowing sheen of the coconut oil, but it left a funny taste in my mouth. I think this lay in its affectation of a haphazardness born of the desperate circumstances of a community cut off from mainland supplies. This action of miniaturising makes me aware of the qualities I find bothersome in certain examples of anthropological art-making. The first is tokenism, by way of aestheticising and in some ways recolonising postcolonial subjects, and the second is the overvaluing of decipherability – the central currency of both anthropological museums and universities.

Didacticism in art has the precariousness of a seesaw: say too little and the plank doesn’t move, say too much and the exercise becomes dull. I was curious to note my hesitation around whether to view the works in this exhibition before or after reading the explanatory pages. The challenge facing works of art engaging intricate histories and relying heavily on research seems to lie in the maintaining of a teetering tension between information and materiality. In certain cases this is achieved by the co-opting of local time and space as opposed to the freezing and resolving of time and space from afar. Excreting its surplus of issues and questions, Limits to Growth (2016) is a strangely comical work that takes materiality to “meta-reality”; it grows from a structurally sound and tangible proposition into something utterly fugitive and mysterious.


1 . Arts Diary

CINEMA Indian Film Festival of Melbourne

Various venues, Melbourne, until August 21

OPERA Lucia di Lammermoor

Theatre Royal, Hobart, August 17-21

VISUAL ART Francesco Clemente

Carriageworks, Sydney, until October 9

THEATRE Shadowland

State Theatre, Melbourne, until August 14

Frankston Arts Centre, August 16

MULTIMEDIA Nicholas Mangan: Limits to Growth

Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, until September 17

VISUAL ART The Artist & the Botanical Collector

Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, until November 20

Last chance

VISUAL ART Beard and Influence

Castlemaine Art Gallery, Victoria, until August 15

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2016 as "Currency exchange".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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