Words By: Danyon Burge
Radical Ecologies is latest exhibition at PICA, showcasing new works from a broad selection of Western Australian artists. As the title suggests, the blurry boundaries between humans and nature are the thematic spaces in which the bulk of these artworks operate. Radical Ecologies proves these spaces to be expansive, as there are mediums and messages aplenty here that remain coherent and impactful when set amongst each other.
Upon entering PICAs main room, a hanging fibre sculpture over a pile of leaves and a subtle video projected onto a large cloth screen encompasses my field of view. It is Decolonist by Katie West, an installation which reflects upon the trauma of colonisation from her personal perspective as a Yindjibarndi woman. With meditative attentiveness to the poetry of inhalation and exhalation, it softly works to establish a form of decolonised Australian identity with its roots in Indigenous tradition. It is peaceful, yet critical and thought-provoking. This is a fine first impression of Radical Ecologies, maybe less ‘radical!’ than expected, but establishing a contemplatively political mindset in which to experience the rest of the art, which is all, somehow quite fittingly, behind the large cloth screen.
The other works in PICAs main room are immediately notable for their variety and experimental edge. Many of them document a performance or imply a significant process beyond the art objects themselves. A mysterious hexagonal photomontage by The ‘Cene artist group documents the performance of a religious ritual which centres around the dyeing of cloth with flowers, affirming an eco-spirituality appropriate for an epoch of anthropogenic environmental meltdown. Tim Burns’ image of an exploding television is dystopian in monochrome brown, simultaneously evoking the violence of mining processes and highlighting the superficiality of mainstream media. The beauty of Andrew Christie’s woodworking honours the sacredness of the mourning times he intends his string instruments to be played in.
I particularly like Perdita Phillips’ Tender Leavings, a nearly three by five meter black panel that suspends reassembled fragments of termite ravaged romance novels. The product of two species with irreconcilable differences coming together and being resolved within an aesthetic context like this fascinates me.
In what could be something of a save-the-best-for-last tactic by the curatorial team, the most interactive and intense works are installed in the smaller rooms at the end of the gallery. Grabbing my attention first, the Ecosexual Sauna by Pony Express is a surprisingly intimate little getaway from the rest of the gallery’s expansive space and echoey acoustics. The privacy provides an ideal atmosphere in which to read and listen to the confessions of self-identified ecosexuals, which are scrawled in invisible ink on the walls (lit up with UV torch) and played quietly over a speaker, respectively. These confessions stimulate a too-much-information response deftly, at once poetic, funny, confronting and disarming in their honesty.
Next to the sauna is Mike Bianco’s Bee Bed, a wooden platform with a hive of living honeybees underneath, complete with holes so you can hear and smell them as you lie down. Overcoming naughty initial thoughts of this as some highbrow Fear Factor Lite, I find lying horizontal, with a little beehive roof over my head, the smell of honey in my nose and a scratchy buzzing in my ears to be equal parts scary and relaxing, like nothing I’ve felt before.
Peter & Molly’s video series, The Superior Animal, questions human hierarchy over animals with a set of emotive performances by the duo, incorporating octopi, leeches, and an oyster containing a pea crab. Displayed in darkness over three big screens in a concave orientation, it dominates the senses more than anything else in the exhibition. This intense presentation adds to the impact of the violence at the centre the artwork’s concept.
Lastly, Stelarc’s performance, Re-Wired / Re-Mixed: Event for Dismembered Body presents the human body extended, distributed and de-synchronised by robotics and live streaming technology. The renowned artist performs in the gallery wearing goggles that stream video from London, headphones that stream audio from New York and an impressive robotic exoskeleton on his right arm that is controlled by viewers with a touchscreen. With an upturned spotlight enlarging his shadow and illuminating the shiny, intricate arm, the performance is a sight to behold. Initially, controlling Stelarc’s arm from the touchscreen without him being able to see or hear me is a great deal of fun, especially watching him respond to its movement with the rest of his body (‘dance Stelarc, dance!’, I thought mischievously), but the experience soon turns sinister. The artwork might be giving a preview of the kinds of domination from dislocated sources that could arise as technological development accelerates, with its products becoming ever more powerful and unknowable. The dramatic shift in emotions here, from fun to serious, makes the performance memorable for me.
This exhibition succeeds because it pushes its theme of through a spectacularly diverse compilation of approaches, without compromising coherence. The range of emotions and ideas on offer here are complimentary to one another, aggregating into something greater than themselves in isolation. I recommend going to see Radical Ecologies. If you do end up checking it out, give yourself a good chunk of time to absorb and contemplate these artworks. I came away from PICA with an energised appreciation of our interactions with nature and one another.