Material Place and The Gas Imaginary
At UNSW Galleries in Sydney, two exhibitions speak to ways in which artists, and humans in general, abstract the earth and extract from it. Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes, curated by Ellie Buttrose, features a number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists who use raw materials and technology to consider the landscape, while Drawing Rights (2018), a video by Rachel O’Reilly, makes up the second exhibition.
The trigger for O’Reilly’s video, and for The Gas Imaginary 1 (2014) and The Gas Imaginary 2 (Gladstone, Post-pastoral) (2016) – two sets of Risograph prints featured in the main exhibition – was the birth of the unconventional gas industry in Gladstone, Queensland, where she grew up. Another trigger was family deaths that occurred alongside this event. In Paternity Moderne, the opening print in the first series, the mineshafted layers alternate between “new mine” and “dead daddy” before dropping off the page. The view is elevated, the form of the prints somewhere between scientific diagram, architectural plan and Surrealist poem.
People in these works mostly appear cut off from each other – ungrounded to the landscape they inhabit. They are controlled from above like figures on a board game. The world revealed to us is strange, one that gives the feeling of being in a dream or on the verge of waking up from a reality that we misunderstood to be a dream.
The Tower of Babel came to mind – the biblical story of humanity’s attempt to reach heaven only to be frustrated by God, who makes its builders speak different languages so that they cannot understand one another. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The (Great) Tower of Babel (1563), the painting through which I know this story, depicts a building in frantic construction – screwing its way upwards while at the same time sinking into the ground. O’Reilly’s work deals with the corporate edifice, that machine of self-interest that erects towers towards heaven as its underground projects use the “shallowness of land law” to create an ecological hell.
Drawing Rights, a video made with Rodrigo Hernandez and Pa.LaC.e. (Valle Medina and Benjamin Reynolds), adopts computer graphics as well as drone footage to shed light on recent unconventional mining and dredging operations. It tracks between colonisation and the establishment of Torrens title – the system underpinning land ownership and so much of the world’s real estate industry – and current fracking arrangements. At the murky intersection of Indigenous land rights, surface ownership and mining permits are “coexistence agreements”. Land grabs rely on the limited availability of information.
O’Reilly critiques corporations and opportunistic legislation through a language that might be used to promote them. Were it not for the “totality of contingency and violence”, told by the voiceover, we could be watching an ad.
O’Reilly’s work is less the bedfellow of Land Art, the movement that returned art and landscape back to the physical environment, than a timely extension of those interests. Her excavations bring to mind Hans Haacke’s investigations into artistic provenance and New York real estate holdings – “institutional critiques” he developed alongside Land Art in the 1960s and 1970s. And yet the poetic convoluting of personal and corporate affairs takes O’Reilly’s work somewhere else entirely, reflecting back to us a specific state of being – one of disorientation and powerlessness – induced and necessitated by those corporate behemoths and abuses.
The tone of Buttrose’s exhibition is more materially focused. Implications bubble below the surface in a group of works that carefully place destruction in the context of human curiosity, without bringing too much emphasis to the former.
On a canvas painted by Yukultji Napangati, beaded white and yellow lines glow above a ground of red ochre and black, their waving patterns bringing to mind a topography of rippling desert sand or a choir of dewdrops. The painting hangs a few metres from a sculpture of the interior of a termite nest under a fluorescent light, its network of tunnels forming one component of Nicholas Mangan’s Termite Economies (2018). Beside the sculpture a Trinitron monitor shows drone footage of termite nests in situ, giving us the sensation of being aboard an insect, gazing down at the insect equivalents to our skyscrapers. The loitering and sudden panning and pouncing movements of the drone emphasise the calm authority of Napangati’s marks.
The catalyst for Mangan’s work was a CSIRO study into whether termites might be able to detect gold deposits. Extractivism, the process of mining natural resources for profitable export, isn’t exactly a theme in this exhibition but it is what one comes away thinking about, particularly alongside O’Reilly’s work and our recent election, partly decided by hidden assets.
The unfathomable space between Napangati’s marks and Mangan’s drone gets filled by amplified scraping and grinding noises coming from the floor. Robert Andrew’s kinetic sculpture, Touching Pindan (2016), offers an accelerated maquette of seismic activity while hinting at colonial struggles and an economy built on mining. Across a rectangular grid of commercially cut bluestone tiles, roughly the size of a grave, three rocks from his Yawuru family’s country shift and jostle along electromechanical cables, their sharp edges gouged into a thin layer of red sand, or pindan.
It might be Pilbara sand and clay we see in the neighbouring space, in Brodie Ellis’s The Crystal World (2016). The compilation of open-source video footage of mine explosions – low-resolution clips showing the earth’s viscera bursting through the top layers of ground like a soldier’s body succumbing to a mine – elicits wonder, firstly in that body we call the Earth, secondly in the awesome ways we destroy it, and finally in the idea of human self-destruction as a form of entertainment.
The slow-motion clips provide an absorbing show: billowing clouds of dust and dirt have us glimpsing crystals and entrails while a very particular strumming noise – part of a delicate and suspenseful soundtrack – took me straight back to adolescent afternoons watching Wheel of Fortune.
Crystals and fossils have become something of an obsession for my four-year-old daughter, Elise. On an expedition with her a couple of weeks ago we marvelled at sparkling crusts and tiny fern leaves imprinted into rock strata. The purplish red layers of rock peeled away easily, like pages in a book, but the impressions we were reading were more than 200 million years old.
The wonder of that day, spent crouched among rocks on one of Sydney’s northern beaches, had clouded when a woman passed by on her morning walk. Seemingly alarmed by our actions of hammering and splitting, she pulled out her phone and took pictures of us. It was as if she was witnessing a crime. Her face had the heavy, tired look of somebody who hadn’t slept; she didn’t return my questioning look, her eyes entirely focused on my hands.
I wondered if what we were doing was illegal or whether our actions were seen to be disrespectful or had simply tapped into personal or climate-related anxieties. Sensing my panic, Elise began asking me what was wrong. “Everything is fine, sweet pea,” I tried to reassure her. A few minutes later I looked over my shoulder and saw the woman sitting on a rock. With her knees held to her chest she stared out to sea with an expression that could only be read as grief.
The comparison feels a bit crude, but buried in O’Reilly’s layers and diagrams – her riffs on corporate obfuscation and ecological tragedy – is a very present-day grief. The helplessness associated with Australia’s land and water grabs – both histories etched into and overlaid in these works – occurred alongside very personal losses for O’Reilly: after the death of her father, a fisherman on a harbour suddenly at risk of contamination, came that of her uncle, followed by a cousin lost to an accident on a road suddenly swamped with trucks.
Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscape is an exhibition that deliberately avoids placards and the language of emergency. Through its conversations and ruminations, we are led to consider the economic dreams built over those of the First Peoples and well beyond. These are exhibitions that help restore curiosity towards physical substances, while having us appreciate the precarity and absurdity in only viewing those materials and processes in terms of short-term gain.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Assault of the earth". Subscribe here.