Jamie North, Remainder

Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

Small orbs made from industrial detritus, such as cement, coal ash and marble waste dot the concrete floor in Jamie North’s exhibition Remainder at Sarah Cottier Gallery. Their fractured and pock-marked surfaces are breached by tiny native Australian plants, which have made these orbs their unlikely home. Scattered across the gallery floor they resemble asteroids that have landed haphazardly, giving the exhibition a science fiction-like quality. The globe shaped sculptures, which are also titled Remainder, highlight the ability of plants to reclaim or even re-colonise an environment after human intervention. The colonisation of nature, which expanded with industrialisation, alongside Enlightenment ideas of dualism between human and non-human worlds, is reversed in these works. Native plants become active agents able to survive in precarious circumstances, rather than passive objects to be used and exploited. The work addresses ecological concerns, which are timely considering the looming threat of environmental crises. The emergence of plant life on these dismal and otherwise barren surfaces inevitably suggests the aftermath of some human-caused catastrophe, such as global warming, making them appear to be relics from the future rather than the past. The use of materials such as coal ash points to the unsustainable and still expanding capitalist economy of fossil fuel exploitation.

At the back of the gallery stands a crumbling column, Drifting to Void (2016), which utilises bricks also cast from mottled cement and industrial by-products, bringing to the fore the romantic orientation of North’s work. The column recalls the follies or faux ruins that decorated 18th century gardens and were overrun by nature. Its hollowed interior is planted with native flora, adaptable to harsh and rocky environments, suggesting a precarious balance between resilience and fragility, erosion and transformation. Although the work is not activist, it is suggestive of the need to protect biodiversity and create a more sustainable socio-economic order; one that differs from the current status quo of environmental destruction, driven by the desire for short term profit. The work recalls the first wave environmental art in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, in which artists attempted to repair damaged habitats and de-graded ecosystems. These works include, Alan Sonfist’s, Time Landscape (1965-1978-present), the Harrison’s, Portable Orchard: Survival Piece #5 (1972-73), Hans Haacke’s, Rhine Water Purification Plant (1972), Bonnie Ora Sherk’s, The Farm (1974), and Agnes Denes’s, Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982). These artists attempted to produce viable alternatives to industrial or destructive forms of land use through works that are more socially engaged than North’s. Nevertheless, one of the strengths of North’s work is that by combining native plants with industrial waste, the work appears to oppose dualistic ideas, in which the human and natural are considered completely distinct. Nature, in North’s work is not ontologically discrete or separate from the human realm, but instead persists intertwined with the detritus of human industry, complicating what we view as natural.

Accompanying North’s sculptures is an atmospheric series of large scale silver gelatin photographs, titled, Moving Mountains (Dearborn) (2016). Highly detailed, the photographs document mountainous heaps of slag, a by-product of steel manufacture. With smoke rising from their dark peaks, the temporary mounds look more like volcanic rock or sublime natural imagery than industrial waste. Resonating with the theme of industrial decay, Dearborn is a suburb of Detroit, where these works were made as part of an ongoing series of photographs taken by North of slag heaps around the world. Historically Detroit was a major industrial city, based primarily on automobile manufacturing; the city has seen substantial economic decline and population losses in recent times, leaving many buildings abandoned and falling into disrepair. Since the 1950s Detroit’s population has shrunk from 1.8 million to just 700,000. It is symbolic that industrial detritus and native plant life are brought into such close proximity in North’s work, as environmental alteration, put into effect by industrial modernity is increasing temperatures globally, causing plummeting agricultural yields, droughts, wildfires and flooding. Although polluting industries have moved geographical location, they certainly have not gone away, and when they do move they tend to leave plenty of toxic ‘remainders’. The concentration of greenhouse gases has been growing in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, largely a by product of fossil fuels. By imagining industrial decline intertwined with native plant growth, North exposes a utopian impulse and shows the way that environmental concerns are inextricable from social, political and economic issues.

Jamie North, Remainder, 2016. Installation view, Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney.

Jamie North, Drifting to Void, 2016. Cement, coal ash, marble waste, living Australian plants, 240 x 67 x 67cm. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney.

Jamie North, Moving Mountains (Dearborn #1), 2016. Silver gelatin print on Ilford cotton rag, 112.5 x 142cm (framed). Edition of 3 + 2AP. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney.

Jamie North, Moving Mountains (Dearborn #2), 2016. Silver gelatin print on Ilford cotton rag, 112.5 x 142cm (framed). Edition of 3 + 2AP. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney.