Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Environmental Artists coming out of the Shadows

Vicki West's words made from dodda vine hover above the thousands of people whose focus is the main stage of the Marion Bay Falls Festival. This is art that embraces it's location and, if you are open to it, introduces interesting discussion and insight. The punters may not understand the meaning of the words lome merker (deep water) leaturi (wave) gunta (earth) and karnelare (echo), but this work can be appreciated as it is suspended against the backdrop of the hills, bush and coastline. There is a lovely layering and irony about these Aboriginal words hanging so comfortably above the land that was once inhabited by another and is now covered in a swarm of music lovers.
Vicki West's Water Waves Earth Echoes

Ralf Haertel's very tactile &
 luscious Earthpoles

Unlike the safety of a white walled gallery, the paddocks, waterways and trees of the Marion Bay property that accommodates the Falls Festival does not have the usual cues that guide the audience. Aboriginal artist, Vicki West is one of 12 environmental artists who produced artwork that sat in and around the 15 000 festival goers. Such festivals were once purely music, but in the last 5-10 years they have incorporated an arts program with performance, visual arts and installations.

The challenges in developing art that can be included in such events must be huge. The OH & S issues alone could stimey most, but then there is the added acknowledgement that the majority of individuals attending these events are tanked on alcohol and drugs. This represents a huge issue for artists wishing to engage with individuals within the crowd without encouraging the destruction of artworks. How do they do it and what is the intention? And how does environmental art fit into this context? It's one thing to develop an artwork that is bright, shiny and engaging, but does message laden and conscience driven art have a place at such events.

A refreshing quality in many environment artists I have encountered, is their philosophical approach to producing and installing work at festivals and their consideration of how people engage with the work, which is at huge risk of theft, damage or decay. On the night that Linda Barker's Dragonflies, made from bark and wire, were installed in the nearby creek at Marion Bay, 3 were taken. She seemed unconcerned and slightly revelled in the thought that 'someone must have really liked them'.

Are the sculptures taken for mementos or to capture and destroy? It is a strange relationship between the audience and the artist. What remains at the end of a festival, when the crowds have gone is a sea of abandoned tents. Tents that are claimed and recycled by the same artists who have had work damaged, stolen or used as a urinal. Abandoned tents from the 2011 Falls Festival became Tent Dreams; flags created by Martin Cole and Karen Austen at this year's event, joyfully greeting the thousands of cars entering the festival site. There is something amusing and lovely about this and suggests there maybe scope for both the artist and the audience to benefit from this symbiotic relationship.

And this, it seems, is the lovely nature of how the Shadows collective works. These artists are unpretentious, unassuming, but absolutely committed and passionate about their work. Martin Coles's Longing was created 3 years ago when the first Shadows program was included as part of the Falls Festival. It is a large circle of found branches recovered from the property and wound together to create a beautiful circle that has quite an ethereal quality about. The work has been sitting on the land, greying and knotting into itself. Until recent trips to the site to start planning his new work, Martin was unaware as to whether the piece was still in position or if it had been pulled apart or burnt. How refreshing this attitude is; the ability to let go and explore new opportunities from what is left. This recycling and reconstruction is a familiar theme used by many of the artists involved in Shadows and is common in the field of environmental art. Well known British artist, Andy Goldsworthy makes site specific work that is designed to decay into the environment. It is partly the ephemeral nature of such work that gives it a beauty and edge that resonates with the viewer. And I can see this in the way the Shadows Collective work.

I remember stumbling across Jo Anglesey's Rainbow Trees as I walked the Art Trail at the Jacky's Marsh Forest Festival in 2012. I felt that this magical environment set within a secluded patch of bush had been created just for me. Who would think that wrapping trees in rainbow coloured satin could evoke such emotion and sense of tranquillity. And who would think that this could be recreated in a completely different context at this years Falls Festival. Instead of seclusion, Jo chose to wrap part of two trees in a very open and public space near the main stage. The intricately wrapped trees created a refuge and peace from the chaos and noise. Individuals sought the trees out; to lay beneath or lean against them.

There are risks with this pattern of recycling and reconstituting. Artworks are reconstructed and some repositioned from festival to festival. Each location reconstruction would need to be seen in isolation to ensure the realisation of a new piece is successful. Generally, I think this is done very well by the collective. The installation of Sonja Hindrum's Pleiades was the most successful I had seen this work. It was installed on the side external wall of the main stage, greeting the thousands who trekked from the beach or camped. It sprawled over the wall and lit up at night through the use of fluorescent paint. Vicki West has also proven her skills in reinventing her works. She pulls apart and redesigns work that evolve into new pieces that resonate and connect with the audience.

Other works are less successful and definitely have a lifespan. This is particularly the case for those artworks that are included as is, without any or minimal changes. If there is not capacity to change or redesign the actual artworks, it has to be about the positioning of them. Artists who are faced with this challenge include Linda Barker's Dragons Fly Away and Sandra Lancaster's Sea Flower Strays that potentially have a limited lifespan.
Sea Flower Strays by Sandra Lancaster

This is an issue that co-curator of Shadows at Falls Festival, Ralf Haertel, is very aware of and there is an unofficial understanding that works have a lifespan of around 3 years before new works are to be developed.

Over the last 3 years I have witnessed the increased inclusion of environmental art in fringe as well as mainstream festivals, including the Jackey's Marsh Forest Festival; the home of huge forest protests in the 1980's, the Queenstown Project 2012, a new festival that housed site specific installations in the moonscape of West coast Tasmania and recently the Marion Bay Falls Festival; a major festival that attracts more than 15 000 people. It is not the first time environmental art has been included in these festivals, but the quality of the work and the prolific nature of the artists is drawing greater attention, or at least perhaps it needs to.

I can see that many of the works are successful pieces. They can be thoughtfully created and engage and delight the viewer. Of course, they don't all work, but the balance between the message and the making is an interesting process that deserves further exploration and I look forward to the next iteration of Shadows that will provide greater insight into this accomplished group of artists.

More information about the Shadows group is available at

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