Radical Ecologies is an unfortunately titled show, and there is a critical response to be had of the premise and artworks in relation to this ostensible thematic. Beyond this, however, there are a number of works that are impressive on their own terms and despite their place in the show.
The problems with the branding and apparent thematic of the show can be drawn back, I would suggest, to Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. Although the text is extensively critiqued for its proclivity to overly optimistic politics, it does have at its heart a wonderful definition of the form of the important French art of the 1990s: that relational ‘form’ emerged as a movement away from ‘material form’ and its spreading out into the whole scene as opposed to the isolated object. The end of Relational aesthetics, though, is what interests me. There, Bourriaud brings up Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies as a potential directive of how to rethink our relationship to art and the world. It is based in Guattari’s proposal to develop an ‘ecosophy’ between three ecological spheres: the subjective, the inter-personal and the environmental. Guattari suggested it was only by realising a nascent subjectivity, a constantly mutating socius and re-inventing the environment that we could avert environmental catastrophe. (As we watch from the other side of dark clouds that already seem to be filling the horizon that separated Guattari from our own time, this seems imbued with a similar unwarranted optimism that has come to define Bourriaud’s position…) Relational Aesthetics seems intended, being framed in this way, to be an argument for the art of the ‘interpersonal’ part of this formula. Even though the text is politically optimistic, it is not simple, nor inappropriate, and turned out to be very, very timely. Principally, it is the definition of the form of Bourriaud’s example works that seem necessary to bring up: their extension out of their material form. It was this movement that led to artworks that take inter-subjective relations as their subject and form, and for artworks that did this to be named the quintessence of relational artistic practice. It is also where the relationship to an ecosophy begins to take shape–the extension of form enabled a reconsideration of our social relations, and beyond this, our environment and subjectivities. The definition of ecology being situated in the relations between things, this makes sense. It is also what is arguably the most ‘radical’ part of Bourriaud’s text: the consideration of art beyond a material outcome, and this as a form of resistance. As Phillipe Parreno, one of Bourriaud’s exemplary relational artists states: ‘it’s exciting when the content overflows the form or the other way round. It’s the irresolution that is interesting. The dynamic of fluids is interesting because they question equilibrium…Is an object always the end of something? does everything really always start with a scenario and end with an object? Should there always be a happy ending to everything?’
Leading on from this, there is a fairly simple criticism I want to direct at this show: why call it what it is clearly not? Especially living as we are in the shadow of Relational Aesthetics, which has as its conclusion precisely the consideration of something that may as well be termed a “radical ecology”. This is not to suggest that objects, sculpture or video cannot be radical, and although no claim can really be made that a certain form is more radical than any other, a contrary demand must be made about why the possibility of something radical being made in a form outside of these discreet things is not present in this show. The second consideration of why there is nothing radical within the discreet objects and videos must also be thought through.
Having said this, there is one work that is a clear exemplary stand out, and that provides an interesting counterpoint to the otherwise object-oriented or discreet video works in the show, and that is Mike Bianco’s bed of bees. It is the only work that seeks out this legacy, this extension of the work outside the isolated object. His painting is also (strangely enough) part of this dynamic – mostly by being seemingly unintended for human view, standing so far above the groundas to be inconvenient to view. Apart from his strange woodcut (that was odd, but charmingly beguiling) his work is the most clearly interested in moving out of being a discreet object or video result and into the relationship between things, including the gallery, the viewer, and living organisms.
It is worth here also mentioning Laetitia Wilson’s response to the show in ArtLink. Her position is well stated, however I would challenge some of the results of her analysis–particularly in relation to Bianco’s work. She also argues that: ‘It could, for instance, have included more actual “life” in the gallery, as ambitiously pursued by Perth-based SymbioticA, who are world pioneers in embracing biological arts.’ While this argument is parallel to my own position regarding the lack of any radical extension of the form of the works away from their material, symbioticA is a bad choice of contrast. Even if they maintain the label of ‘ambitious’, we must admit their final works are as obvious and predictable as the controls they are allowed to perform them in. Their work suffers the same problem as that of Stelarc’s in this show, and who was part of their DeMonstrable show at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. His work here is theatrically powerful at least, yet the recorded live feed from London and New York and the audience controlled activity of his arm are entirely arbitrary and pre-determined, and become rapidly uninteresting. This would not be a problem if the subject of the work were not the possibility of this very interactivity (Bianco’s bed is equally predictable, yet also is always alive, always away, providing an ecosystem beyond the gallery, for creatures other than ourselves). There is no puzzle, or anything unpredictable here. It is, like much of the work that SymbioticA undertakes (though Stelarc is not directly affiliated with them), illustration–just with a living performer. It conversely seems inappropriate of Wilson to critique Bianco’s work, as the only work that does include some actual investment in entering into a biological reality, and extending itself away from its discreet object hood, or discreet ‘performativity’ in Stelarc’s case. Wilson claims that it is only putting us in ‘proximity’ as opposed to ‘intimacy’ with bees and that ‘proximity is one step towards intimacy’. Though it is definitely the case that the bee bed is not the positive nor mutual/intimate experience it is probably intended to be, the work is incredibly strong. Though I agree it does nothing to the line of radicalising intimacy with bees, it is one of the works most worthy of sustained critical engagement. It’s dedication to not ending up as an object, but rather something in the process of living, and exuding warmth and smell, makes it one of the few works with a direct investment in the world outside the gallery, and an experience that is not necessarily pleasurable, nor wholly directed towards us, or even our eyes.
I would contrast the work, and indeed the show, unfavourably with someone who is a master of ecological undertakings: Pierre Huyghe’s own work with bees – Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) [Reclining Female Nude], 2012, features a statue whose head is covered with them. The bees in this statue, originally found in a compost heap outside Documenta 13 are a strange combination of the living, the imagistic, and the inorganic – their open hive is also perceptibly dangerous. Along with the whole cavort of performative, living, active, and unprogrammed things that exist in his work, the bees were a testament to his dedication to a very radical rethinking of the exhibition and the viewer within it, and our own relationship to the environment. However, in this show, Bianco’s work feels like one of the few with a real engagement with what it might mean to be in any way radical, and rethink our relationship to the exhibition, and the bees that fertilise our world.
Decolonist Flag. 2016. Katie West. Install documentation. Photo: Ok Media
There are a few works that are very impressive in this show. Katie West’s Decolonist Flag, presented earlier this year at Perth Centre for Photography, is displayed here again. This time, with headphones, the meditative aspects of the work became more pronounced, the breathing of the narrator and their words took on a new importance. This iteration has allowed the work to shine. It is a wonderful piece–even more wonderful for the sense of peace that suffuses it. Rebecca Orchard’s drawings are worthy of attention as well, their delicate, pulsing surfaces among the most accomplished objects in the exhibition. While a simple optical effect, their intensity and interest was not diminished. Peter and Molly’s video works were technically and aesthetically impressive – the most interesting of their series of works featured leeches sucking the artist’s blood. The self-sacrificial and self-harming subtext was powerful and confronting – the inclusion of text was also a welcome addition to the work. However, beside this, the octopi-headdresses appeared somewhat ridiculous, the line from idea to execution being somewhere broken, and the comedy of the situation going unacknowledged. While impressive, there is an absence of self-reflection evident. Nathan Beard’s work was an interesting (though again, not particularly radical nor ecological) work. Here there is a strange relationship being developed: Four Buddha heads in the colonial-oriented British museum, collected from Thailand, though of unclear provenance, are re-created and then slip-cast and glazed with a variety of patterns, also taken from the British museum. The fact that objects, recreated from a colonial museum, are then re-presented in a western gallery context as objects to be bought and sold is a curious interpolation of a dynamic. It seems to be a co-opting of the regimes of a colonial nation. The fact that Thailand was never colonised also puts an ambiguous tilt on the work. The statues have the soft, rounded features of slip cast pottery, revealing the process of their creation. Like all industrial pottery-work, they suffer a loss of definition. However, the creation of slip-cast porcelain models in China, although drawing on a history of the industrial production of kitsch in nations with cheap labour, appears to capitulate to a system rather than co-opt it. The photographs from the British museum are the stronger part of the work for this – they are simultaneously simpler and also more evocative and poetic in their re-casting of colonial enterprise.
Oriental Antiquities. 2016. Nathan Beard. Installation documentation. Photo: Ok Media.
The principle reason the show is not as successful as it could be, is not because almost everything there existed to end up in an object, but because it seems to be constantly suggesting at something beyond discreet outcomes, but never going there. There are some amazing objects and videos in this show, that are very interesting artworks. However, it is the misnomer of the ‘radical’ and perhaps even ‘ecologies’ within the title and the framing of the work that does seem at odds with a critical understanding of what is happening within the actual artwork.
By Graham Mathwin