‘The Shape of Things to Come,’ by Sophie Allan

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Rosemary Laing, The Paper, Tuesday, 2013.

Climate has features but is not an object. And it changes, so time, and particularly seasonal time, is integral to climate. It is also space – the cleanliness and composition of atmospheric space that is one of the important and, until very recently, the more obviously underrated aspects of climate. Climate is both concretely historical—the chemical composition, the affects of real forestation, desertification, mountains, ocean currents—and fundamentally constitutive. Climate is space and time. It weathers everything.

— Ruth Irvin, Climate Change and Philosophy: Transformational Possibilities

On the table in front of me sits a plate with two pears and two plums in a pool of bunched, white drapery. A lamp shines onto the tableau, throwing the shadows of the fruit sidelong onto the plate. It is the first class of a nine-week oil-painting course, and we are starting out with the basics of sketching. Clean sheets of paper and pencils of varying shades are at the ready.

We have spent the beginning of the class creating a five-panel scale of grey, going from the very lightest shade we can make with the lightest pencil, and gaining heaviness with each panel until we make the darkest shade with the darkest pencil. And now, as we look at the fruit, we are to see it in terms of these five shades, to apply each shade to the paper to match the light and darkness of the shapes of the arrangement on the table.

From where I sit, I see the pear from below: it has a gathered, woody bum and it rises up to the stem away from me. From this angle, I’m not really looking at a shape that resembles a pear at all; I see no hint of the classic pear’s lower bulge, bar the reflection of light where it narrows. That light suggests the bulge but the bulge is not, as such, visible.

I say out loud: It’s funny, I feel like I know what this pear looks like because I know what pears look like, but if I want to draw it realistically I have to forget what I know about the shape it should be, the shape I understand it to be, and just draw where it’s dark and leave where it’s light. Draw what I see and not the object I know. As though sight is a purely sensory thing.


Late one autumn morning, soon after that painting class, I set out on the Eastern Freeway towards Bulleen. The clouds are low, dark and fast moving, and intermittently cool sunlight shines from a blue window and spangles on the rain-soaked freeway foliage. The car is warm, the radio is on, and I eat mandarins as I drive.

I am on my way to visit two exhibitions that have been curated as part of the Art + Climate = Change festival: one at Heide Museum of Modern Art and one at Tarrawarra Museum of Art. This festival of art, film and discussion comprises twenty-five exhibitions, three keynote lectures, a program of films at ACMI, and several other public events. The idea is that art provides an entry point and a stimulus to discussions about the reasons for, potential effects of, and action in response to the anthropogenic climate change that we on earth are staring down the barrel of.

I ignore this feeling for the moment; it’s the wrong one to have.

“Art can show us where we have been, where we are now, and where we might go. Art can be a call to action. Art can be a catalyst for change.” When I read this statement on the festival website as I navigate the program, I am surprised to feel a closing inside me, like a lowering roller door. I wholeheartedly agree with the notion of the statement, but I find it didactic; there is something of the arts grant application in its tone. I ignore this feeling for the moment; it’s the wrong one to have. I concentrate on my excitement about the roster of Art + Climate = Change events I am scrawling into the next few weeks of my diary, and I am open to the idea that the art I see might change me, as it has countless times in the past. I try not to follow the familiar cynical or perhaps bratty instinct to explore a reaction contrary to the one I think I am being expected, asked or manipulated to have. (While I admit to harbouring a basic distrust of authority and of most people who benefit significantly from capitalism, the emergence of this instinct in this circumstance is confusing and shame inducing. I decide to keep it to myself.)

I think a lot about the psychology of climate change. I puzzle and anguish at the messiness of our country’s relationship to climate science (a Commissioner for Wind Farms? I feel like I’m going crazy). And yet it is hard for me to comprehend the sort of shift that must occur in our culture in order for us to digest the information presented to us about what is likely to happen to our planet in the next forty to seventy years. As I drive out to Heide I watch the life around me—the people working, the rain falling and the sun shining—and the disconnect between this scene and what I imagine the apocalyptic effects of climate change to look like is practically unimaginable. In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein writes about the way we understand (or don’t understand) this predicament we’re in, “…maybe we look—really look—but then, inevitably, we seem to forget. Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right.”


The works that I am at Heide to see are by Rosemary Laing, a Sydney-based artist whose practice is based in photography. Two series of photographs are presented in this exhibition: The Weather, 2006 and The Paper, 2013. Although I am not particularly moved by the former (images of a woman suspended in mid-air amid a cloud of tumbling paper pieces), in response to the latter I have a palpable physical reaction.

The Paper comprises three images of the forest around Bundanon in New South Wales, the floor of which has been covered with newspaper, as though a giant patchwork quilt had been laid down for a picnic. The newspaper has bleached to a dusky pinky green, which tones with the pale bark on the tree trunks. The topography of the ground appears fabricated like a mini-golf course, and the muted natural light that reflects up from the paper makes the forest glow. News stories are written on the earth; the chaos of information.

I realise I have stopped breathing in response to the suffocated forest floor, the way you do when someone in a movie you’re watching holds their breath.

Staring at the large, white-framed photographs, I notice my breathing has become laboured. I put a hand to my chest and puff it up with air to be sure my lungs are working. I realise I have stopped breathing in response to the suffocated forest floor, the way you do when someone in a movie you’re watching holds their breath. It is a feeling that contains traces of claustrophobia, of panic. It is in sympathy for the forest floor.

An image flashes in my mind of Germaine Greer bombastically extolling the virtues of slime mould at an eco-feminist conference I attended last year. Her long arms flailed, she peered over her glasses and boomed something like, “We can stand to LOSE the rhinos, but the biodiversity of soil is utterly indispensable!”

As I exit the gates of Heide, I think of a line said to one artist by another in Emily Bitto’s recent novel The Strays, a story in part inspired by the Heide Circle, who lived and worked on these grounds in the middle of last century: “An artist is someone who sees the structures of order and recognises them as arbitrary.”


I start the car and head off towards Tarrawarra, and my mind turns (as it does more or less daily) to the ideas of feminist and environmental philosopher Dr Val Plumwood. Dr Plumwood, who, after a divorce, took her surname from the mountain where she lived, was one of the founders of a group called Environmental Humanities. This group’s concerns are “to re-situate humans within ecological systems, and to re-situate non-humans in ethical terms.” I wonder, as I pull out onto the road, if there are many structures of order more pervasive, or more basically responsible for the damage we inflict on the non-human world, than those that dichotomise people and nature. These structures (social, economical, cultural) are steeled in language and thought, and to speak or think beyond them requires creativity and imagination. As Plumwood argued, it requires us to have “…the courage to question our most basic cultural narratives.”

Honestly, if crawling for hours through a swamp with crocodile bite wounds to the legs doesn’t get you reconsidering your anthropocentric outlook, I don’t know what will.

After being attacked and death-rolled thrice by a crocodile in Kakadu in the eighties, Plumwood’s appreciation of her place in the ecological system around her was altered significantly. Honestly, if crawling for hours through a swamp with crocodile bite wounds to the legs doesn’t get you reconsidering your anthropocentric outlook, I don’t know what will. She said retrospectively of the experience, “During the encounter I had a sense that it was all a dream, that it wasn’t really happening. But I now think it’s ordinary life and consciousness that is the dream. We don’t understand ourselves as ecological beings that are part of the food chain – we’re still fighting that knowledge.” (Nature in the Active Voice. In: Continuum Studies in Philosophy: Climate Change and Philosophy: Transformational Possibilities, 2010.)

I arrive at Tarrawarra to see the Earth and Sky exhibition, which comprises works by John Mawundjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu. The rarrk, or cross-hatching, style of Mawundjul’s paintings brings to mind the geometric shapes of the newspaper floor of Laing’s forest. But here the palette is black, red and white, and many shades of ochre. The paintings are done on pieces of bark, the unique shape of each of which stretches and shrinks the lines, naturally distorting the pattern, morphing and curling it.

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Gulumbu Yunupingu, Yarak, The Universe, 2008.

Yunupingu’s work uses repeated small crosses, each dotted in the middle, to represent the stars, the universe. With a denser clustering of crosses and dots, the texture and ripple of galaxies is created. “We are just like the stars,” the artist statement printed on the wall says, “All gathered close together. We are really as one, like the stars.” The intense subjectivity of this statement, and of the paintings to which it pertains—the acknowledgement within them of connection and reciprocal responsibility—makes me feel like I’m falling backwards into something soft. It is a sensory reaction, a sense of home.


I sit at a table outside of a bar in Carlton with a ceramicist friend, and mention Art + Climate = Change.

Him: “Oh yeah, I’ve seen posters for that festival up around. What’s it about?”

Me: “Well I think it’s pretty straightforward. The name sort of says what the festival is, what it’s trying to do.”

My friend is a quiet man, one of those people who takes their time in replying, and when he gets around to it he has always found the most pertinent point to question or reiterate. He’s taking longer than usual, though; I see that although he wants to say something, he’s holding back.

Me: “Would you go to something like that? I mean, from what you know?”

Him: “Probably not.” A pause. “I guess I feel like I’d come away with a problem.”

His reaction fascinates me in a bent way. I’m half thrilled with his confession and half deeply disappointed with his wilful ignorance. (The thrill comes, of course, because I realise I am not alone in flinching; the disappoinment applies to us both.) My friend is not void of compassion for the environment he lives in—he loves to be by the ocean, in the bush, to walk by the creek—and yet he felt that by engaging with this festival he was going to be saddled with a problem of which he considered himself, so far, to be free. Of course, one of the festival’s main aims is to get people to talk about what we are collectively doing to the planet that supports us, and to take responsibility for it, and so as my friend and I converse, the festival’s work is in motion. However, the extent to which the name and/or marketing of the festival had managed to alienate not just one but both of us (albeit in slightly different modes) makes me consider that there is something about the way it is being sold that is missing the mark.

Are we still here? Do people still see those working with issues of environment in this way?

I ask around a bit more, explain what the festival is, ask people what they think, whether they would go. My housemate, an artist, says it makes him think of dreadlocked dudes who study environmental science and shake their clipboards at you on the street. Another friend says they’d run a mile, invoking the image of a fire twirler. Are we still here? I’m thinking. Do people still see those working with issues of environment in this way?

When I mention to another friend the ceramicist’s fear of coming away from the festival with a problem, he says, “Well yeah, I mean the name of the festival is actually a problem, in the mathematical sense of the word.”

As I have already admitted, my initial reaction to the festival confused me and didn’t make me feel proud. I don’t believe that I would have gone to the festival either, had I not been commissioned to write this article. And that is a pretty difficult thing to say, seeing as I publish art and literature that explores the cultural, social and physical relationships that people have with place and environment. My work and that of the organisers is so closely aligned, and yet, at first glance, I felt unwilling to explore this festival because I was having a psychological reaction to the way it was speaking to me.

I began to wonder if the same lack of agency was being granted to the environment that those running the festival were setting out to save.

There are many different contexts and tones in which to explore ideas about climate change, about environment, about capitalism, and I have always believed that pointing the finger when it comes to the ways we have these discussions is unnecessary, destructive and distracting. So my initial disinterest in the festival was something I didn’t like the feeling of, and I observed this internal conflict, took it seriously. After a lot of thinking, I worked out that I was indeed, as I had first thought, resisting the preconceived reaction that I was being told I would have to the art, lectures and films of the festival (= Change), but that maybe there was more to be learned from this resistance than the fact that I’m a brat and a cynic. As an element in a formula, I was not being allowed agency in this experience, in the subtle shifts in my reality that certain works of art might catalyse. I began to wonder if the same lack of agency was being granted to the environment that those running the festival were setting out to save. I began to wonder if I was resistant because I was sensing my own objectification as a festival-goer, as well as that of the environment.

As it happened, the works of art that I saw (which included the exquisite photography of Ansel Adams, and much more), did create sensory and emotional reactions that shifted things in me, deep down, subconscious, sublanguage. Maybe these shifts will get me closer to the abandonment of seeing ‘nature’ as other, from objectifying it. And so I say sincerely that I agree with the festival organisers that art creates change.

But despite my respect for the vision of this festival, for me the way it framed the conversation—its mode of communication—worked to re-enforce the idea that our responsibilities to the environment we inhabit present us with a “problem”, to quote the ceramicist. If we are seeing a problem, we can choose to engage or to ignore. A problem by its very nature is a static and ossified object; the agreed-upon point to which a solution corresponds. To approach issues of climate (the all-weathering space and time of the above epigraph) seeing a problem is wrong-headed, crowds out the potential for nuance, and sets us in motion towards mismatched solutions. If we keep sketching that thing we think we know, reproducing it over and over, we will not see the light and dark of it.


We have known about and had the chance to act on climate change since the seventies. In many ways it’s too late for a lot of things we might have once had the power to do. William L Fox, a visiting curator from the Nevada Centre for Art + Environment, said in his brilliant keynote lecture at the festival that he thought humans would survive as a species but not a civilisation. When I repeated this to Debbie Symons, an artist involved in the festival, she agreed, and added, “But I think that for a lot of the species that share the planet with us, it’s already way too late.”

The conversations we have while we are coming to terms with the practically unfathomable realities that face us as the climate changes will be messy and of varying levels of productivity.

It is difficult to know where the answers we seek will come from as we face a future of altered climatic conditions; it is difficult to know which questions to be asking. But very little will alter for the better without the interrogation of the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of our culture that lead us to treat non-humans as instruments to be used at our convenience. And this task— which involves looking beyond the “arbitrary structures”, the known shape of things, and instead seeing the shades of meaning—is largely on the shoulders of those of us with vision: our artists, writers and philosophers. It’s through the stories they tell that we feel changes in our reality and come to deep emotional understandings of new ideas and concepts, with agency and as subjects.

Postscript

The conversations we have while we are coming to terms with the practically unfathomable realities that face us as the climate changes will be messy and of varying levels of productivity. While I personally feel obliged to be honest about my reactions to these conversations (even when I’m ashamed of them, and when they aren’t what I want them to be), and to question the underlying assumptions on which they are based, I believe every single word of every single discussion to be important, or, further to that, vital. And although the muddy and imprecise thoughts I express in this piece may be reluctantly critical, I don’t want that point to be lost.

When, at that oil painting class, I made the comment about the different way I needed to use my sight in order to sketch the pear, my teacher smiled and agreed with me, graceful and interested like all good teachers. “Yeah wow,” he said, nodding. Then, looking at the blank drawing pad on the table in front of me, he added, “You know what though, the important thing is to just make a mark on the paper. Once it’s there you can shift it so that its character is true, but the important thing is to get it down.”


Sophie Allan is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Chart Collective.