The skull bone experiment and Feral Experimental

The skullbone experiment: a paradigm of art and nature; Feral experimental: New design thinking
UNSW Galleries, Sydney
18 July - 30 August 2014

Reviewing landscape painter Philip Wolfhagen’s retrospective at Newcastle Art Gallery in 2013, Christopher Allen noted the artist’s predilection for the far horizon, for that point ‘where the eyes focus on infinity and everything between becomes a vast emptiness’. This long focus is unusual, given the familiar need to squint in Australian sunlight. (Wolfhagen lives in Tasmania where the light is softer.) In Allen’s words, the national protective reflex ‘makes us look at things close to us, (and) prevents the gaze from releasing into the distance’.1

The distance-killing squint offers a handy analogue for conceptualising our self-understanding of our own place within the landscape, and by extension, the natural world. As the belated, and guilty, recognition of continued human short-sightedness in the natural world helps to underwrite contemporary environmentalism, it finds an alternative model of the human relationship with place in Aboriginal art. Both help feed the renewed and ongoing interest in Australian landscape painting.

Two very different exhibitions recently in Sydney at the UNSW (University of New South Wales) Galleries mulled aspects of the human relationship with the natural world, The Skullbone Experiment: A Paradigm of Art and Nature and Feral Experimental: New Design Thinking. The former was conceived, in the words of environmental philanthropist and project supporter Robert Purves, to deploy art’s ability to function as a ‘connector between people and nature’, in order to foster the ‘engagement of the majority of the community’ that major conservation efforts require.2 Feral Experimental, on the other hand, focused on recent experimental approaches to design thinking, most of it in urban settings. It looked specifically at ‘strategies for negotiating significant contemporary challenges’, among them environmental degradation in its various manifestations. Despite the different language and orientation, the two exercises shared a sense of environmental urgency, as well as a belief in the capacity of art, and what might be called art-type-thinking—flagged by that ‘experiment’—to effect significant ameliorative responses.

The Skullbone Experiment, taking its name from the Tasmanian Landscape Conservancy’s Skullbone Plains preserve, comprised the work of eleven artists who had spent four days together on site, learning about the preserve which borders the Tasmanian Wilderness Heritage Area and is home to several critically endangered and vulnerable species. Co-curator Philip Wolfhagen acknowledged the challenges posed by the site, noting its austerity, its monotony and its lack of sweeping vistas. Responding to the tight horizons, he said many artists kept their gazes low, down with the sub-alpine heath.3

At first glance, the resulting exhibition looked very much like a conventional landscape painting show, but beyond this cursory impression lay a greater variety of treatment and response, indicative of the multiple ways that people and landscape ‘connect’ through art. Wolfhagen’s own twenty panel Skullbone Inventions (2013), for example, a suite of broadly rendered light effects and mood rather than topographic detail, was in marked contrast to the detailed, nubby gaze of Richard Wastell’s rendering of indigenous flora, or the gorgeous lyricism of John Wolseley’s downward looking watercolour treatment of a sphagnum bog. Other artists combined detail with the long view. Tim Burns’s Skullbone Plains, Lake Ina to Kenneth Lagoon (2013) unfurled a tapestry-like landscape studded with decorative shapes of ‘magnified’ detail, while Philip Hunter’s Lithosphere (2013), fused what looked like extreme foreground realism with explicit abstraction, the whole seemingly indebted to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s waving sweeps of pale line.

The project’s four day wilderness residency did not leave every artist feeling sanguine. Imants Tillers’s The Emergency of Being (2013), which includes the artist’s first ever self-portrait among the work’s twenty-four canvas boards, was produced in a state of what he called the ‘heightened anxiety and self-doubt’ produced by the site. There is similarly little comfort to be found among Joel Crosswell’s gold-on-black talismanic drawings.4 Janet Laurence’s Breathing in the Umwelt (2013), with its aggregation of tulle, mirrors, laboratory glass, video projection, and plant specimens, suggests less the life of the Skullbone’s organisms than its traces or remnants. Nowhere is the forbidding sense of place more profound than in Julie Gogh’s video Ode (2014), which recounts a tale of European settler displacement through the discovery of one decaying boot.

Elsewhere, implosions of scale recreate the micro/macrocosmic inversion anatomised by William Blake’s ‘world in a grain of sand’. Vera Möller’s images of ‘pseudo-fungal forms’, sculpted fictional organisms photographed in different Skullbone micro-environments, prompted both wonder and a sense of human superfluousness, while Megan Walch’s blasted gum trees in swirling oil and enamel evoked Gleeson-esque landscapes as readily as galactic or neural mindscapes. 

The variety of landscape connections showcased by The Skullbone Experiment found an analogue in Feral Experimental’s focus on a range of new design practices, a number of which look to art and art history in their own models of practice. In the words of the exhibition’s curator Katherine Moline, what she calls the ‘exploratory experimentalism’ of new design ‘describes open-ended research/approaches that pilot/s the transposition of new ideas, technologies, materials and processes to a context other than that in which it was generated’. She adds, ‘“Experimental” is commonly associated with science, but in this context draws from art history and the alternative practices of artists’.5

In addition to projects dealing with, among other things, efforts to improve mobility for seniors, design a searchable archive for the performance collective Circus Oz, and facilitate behavioural change in an adolescent drug rehab centre, two of the projects featured in Feral Experimental engaged directly with natural processes. Benedikt Groß’s speculative design Avena+ Test Bed: Agricultural Printing and Altered Landscapes algorithmically partitioned a test bed as an example of ‘agricultural printing’, to create a standard biomass/energy production field in southern Germany. Planted with a mixture of oats, flowers, and herbs, the field was subsequently harvested for biogas, showing how ‘digitisation in farming can support biofuel production, and sustain diverse habitats for native flora and fauna’.6

The photodocumentation of Groβ’s work showed a randomly patterned field tucked into Mitteleuropean greenery, a beautiful solution to a problem traditionally solved, but for the need to supply biogas, by the planting of hedgerows. As Moline notes, acknowledgement of historical precedent is a feature of exploratory experimentation in design, a methodology that ‘crosses the borders of art, design and other fields of practice’.7

This combination of disciplinary crossover and historical precedence in relation to the human experience of landscape was most evident in the Phenology Clock Project. Taking the form of a numberless clock face marked by a series of incomplete, coloured concentric circles, the work shows the annual sequence of ecological cycles in a particular location, with each colour representing the blooming, budding, fruiting and migration events of local organisms. Perennially flowering plants occupy the innermost circle, with the insects, butterflies, bees and moths that are dependent on these in the next surrounding set of circles. Succeeding circles show birds dependent on insectivorous resources, then local trees, with the outermost circle showing large biomass and habitat provisions.8

Phenology is the study of the relationship between environmental change and the cyclical development of living things as it unfolds over the year. When the Japanese began recording the cherry tree’s first bloom in 812AD, phenology was already more than a millennium old. A practice and a tool for farmers, gardeners and naturalists, more recently it has been marshalled for the purposes of larger-scale public documentation of climate change. In North America several initiatives using smartphone apps enable users to enter relevant data about local organisms into various databases. This information is then aggregated and made accessible via regionally specific websites.

As developed by Natalie Jeremijenko, Tega Brain, Drew Hornbein, and Thiago de Mello Bueno, the Phenology Clock is an open source software tool with a website detailing information for making your own phenology clock (additional plugins are in development).9 For its iteration in Feral Experimental Tega Brain incorporated Sydney species; at every installation the work reflects its specific location similarly. This is often done in a public, collaborative manner with the input of local naturalists and master gardeners. In this way the Phenology Clock functions like an experimental artwork obedient to the norms of site-specificity as well as situational and relational aesthetics.

Jeremijenko calls phenology ‘our most sensitive indicator of climate destabilization’ and says that with this knowledge, ‘we can redesign our collective relationship to natural systems’.10 This notion of re-design might be fantastic, until then re-imagining that relationship comes first. Against the possibilities of ‘agricultural printing’ and the old-is-new re-presentations of phenological apps and websites, perhaps it is worth considering to what extent those connections forged by more conventional landscape art might contribute to this necessary re-imagining. 

Benedikt Groß, Avena+ Test Bed, 2013. Photographer Florian Vogtle/ Stefan Eigner, Pilot Hermann Benkler, Image courtest the artist.

Imants Tillers, Skullbone Plains, 2013. Acrylic and gouache on 24 canvas boards, 152 x 142cm. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Arc One Gallery, Melbourne, Greenaway Gallery, Adelaide and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane. 

notes: 

1. Christopher Allen, ‘Distant vistas in the art of Philip Wolfhagen’, The Australian, 20 July 2013. See http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/distant-vistas-in-the-art-of-philip-wolfhagen/story-fn9n8gph-1226681474180 (accessed October 2014).

2. Robert Purves, ‘Foreword’, The Skullbone Experiment: A paradigm of art and nature, ex. cat., Tasmania Land Conservancy, 2014, p.3.

3. Wolfhagen quoted in Fiona Gruber

‘Tasmanian wilderness camp plants an artistic seed’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 2014. See http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/tasmanian-wilderness-camp-plants-an-artistic-seed-20140403-361cf.html#ixzz3IA6qsXSA (accessed October 2014). 

4. Imants Tillers, The Skullbone Experiment, op. cit., p.35.

5. Katherine Moline, ‘Dingo Logic: Feral Experimental and New Design Thinking’, Feral Experimental: New Design Thinking, ex. cat., National Institute for Experimental Arts, UNSW Art & Design, Sydney, 2014, p.9. Moline borrows this definition from The Experimental Art Foundation (Adelaide).

6. Feral Experimental, ibid., p.16.

7. Moline, ‘Dingo Logic…’, op. cit., p.9.

8. Feral Experimental, ex. cat., p.42.

9. The Phenology Clock was developed at xProjects and Farmacy, subsidiaries of the Environmental Health Unit at New York University, led by Jeremijenko.

10. Jeremijenko quoted in Feral Experimental, ex. cat., op. cit., p.42.