The fragility of human flesh and the fragility of the environment—two distinct concepts—are more closely aligned than many of us may care to admit. The flesh of the earth breaks, bleeds, groans and shifts in a constant process of renewal, just as our own flesh weeps, wilts and finally submits to the whims of nature. Nature (and its whims), creator of chasms and cataclysms, is also found in the curves and folds of our bodies, conditioned by biological systems too abstract to be fully understood.
So as we hack into the natural world we inhabit, tearing into its surface and pumping its lifeblood with toxic bile, we scratch and scrape into our own bodies, only we don’t notice because of the constant noise of our lives pummelling our ears. It’s poetic justice really. As we force all life on earth to a crisis point, the hands—our own hands—around our throats become tighter and tighter.
It is this encroaching sense of asphyxiation that underscores the collective endeavour of five Melbourne artists, Sarah Field, Jennifer King, Nadia Mercuri, Jasmine Targett and Bethany Wheeler. Their craft art pieces address, in a variety of ways, the breaths and whispers of our body-machines, as exponents of a wider natural ecosystem that is being broken down and modified to suit our own ends. Their objects align avenues of thought to bend and probe the strangely sinister habitat we’ve unwittingly created for ourselves.
In approaching the ensemble of pieces we have a sense of being both within and outside each work; they speak of and through us, and a certain amount of melding takes place, hinting at deep rooted biological connections we can neither compute nor fathom. A degree of anxiety comes to bear. There is little here to provide comfort, but rather we become aware of subliminal acts of violence committed against ourselves and our environment, and of a hushed rustle as the fabric of the world gently unravels.
Sarah Field leads this charge. As author of an installation of cast petticoats suspended from industrial hooks and pulleys, she neatly surmises the touchstones of purity and danger found within the work of anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas. Indeed, there is a persuasive undertone of theory and philosophy driving these pieces, grounding them on the shores of human thought. But our encounter with each piece is nuanced—not nullified—by the presence of this academic prose. To wit, Field’s petticoats seem to claw at the space around them. They are the product of a visceral exchange between physical materials, and of a rupture in memory and tradition.
A theatre of competing agents, of seduction spliced with disgust, leads Field’s exploration of consumption and excess that well earns the title Abuses. The treatment of the subject, crucially, has the casual passivity of a victim impact statement so that we must fully absorb the psychological gravitas of the presentation ourselves. The only clues to actual events are the scars and traces of human residue—echoes of a now distant exchange that evoke the still-perilous position of women in domestic environments.
Bethany Wheeler states, “I am concerned with what I perceive to be a lack of compassion and empathy in society”. Wheeler’s concern, as many would agree, is likely well founded, and she addresses her apprehension through the creation of glass-based installations. In the Dew of Compassion, she presents a rope that hangs from the ceiling, hovering above a flame-worked glass hook and fused glass puddle. For Wheeler, glass is the means of connecting and bisecting the natural world within us, as it lives, breathes and flows through our bodies. Here, it demarcates contested territories as a pool of liquid—a bodily spill or a rising discharge—that has instantly ignited claims of ownership. The poised rope, as a means of containment, at once separate to and part of the mirrored surface below it, awaits further instruction. Are we to act here as societal forces dictate, or merely observe the silent unfolding of events?
A dynamic exchange between micro and macro-scale systems both subverts and informs Jennifer King’s practice. The reality of impending disasters—notably those posed by nuclear industries—becomes cosseted in the rapture of domestic agencies. In her earlier work, Three Minutes to Midnight, King built a doomsday clock from dinner plates, glowing green with nuclear radiation. By measuring nuclear disaster within her work, she makes further reference to nuclear cataclysm through glass objects that present as both delicate and deadly. The work is permeated by the approaching shiver of doom: do we hibernate within the materialistic follies of culture or directly engage? As King demonstrates, perhaps we can do both. The cultivation of object fetish becomes a portal to crystallise and evaluate our position and anticipated response to the developing nuclear drama.
Jasmine Targett is similarly versed in environmental catastrophe, though her hybrid objects and imagery take their cue from the opposing polarities of cause and effect. Casting aside any tactical melodrama she diligently conjures works that, when fully appraised, quietly suck the air from our lungs. Targett achieves more than a mirror to our sins. She implicates contemporary cosmological meltdown within the guise of an “art work”. It is here, by giving form to aesthetic impulses, that the self-described “techno-romanticist” extrapolates our worst fears for the environment through an effect not unlike being hit with a brick wrapped inside a pillow. We are drawn to her Smoke Signal, only to discover that the billowing clouds beneath the iceberg are not just for poetical effect; they were created by Australian bushfires in 2014—the hottest year in recorded history. That the iceberg which sits above like a glittering orb melted in that same year, so creating a powerful visual and conceptual cohesion, does little to relieve the uneasy tension within the work.
Uneasy tensions develops into full-blown paranoia in Nadia Mercuri’s Trust No-One. We encounter a glass and wood cabinet filled with objects of curiosity, each with a seeming connection to UFO culture and surveillance practices. Like the keepsakes of a conspiracy theorist, the objects seem to align with a material aesthetic rather than actual mementos of an alien abduction, nevertheless the strange airs and graces of this wunderkammer attest to systems of illogic that threaten to overturn accepted convention.
In preparing for the present “time of emergency” in which the flesh of both our bodies and our environment are under attack, we are, mercifully, not obliged to forfeit beauty, charm, humour or craftsmanship in the objects we take for comfort. That the objects in question undermine as well as comfort is of little consequence; holding them dear they become our seers into the new world in which we must step.
Simon Gregg is an artist, writer and curator currently based in Sale, Victoria. Currently curator at the Gippsland Art Gallery, Simon is the author of several books on Australian art, including New Romantics and Australian Odyssey, a biography of Nicholas Chevalier. His current project is a book and major exhibition surveying the history of art in the Gippsland region.