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 Expedition # 25, 2009, archival print from The Glacier Studies series—part of Singaporean artist Robert Zhau’s faux-scientific documentation of his expedition to the North Pole. Expedition # 25, 2009, archival print from The Glacier Studies series—part of Singaporean artist Robert Zhau’s faux-scientific documentation of his expedition to the North Pole.
“Yellow Vest Syndrome” first caught my attention among Jasmin Stephens’ recent curatorial projects. A Western Australian phenomenon, Yellow Vest Syndrome sums up being able to do whatever the f… you want as long as you are wearing the requisite gear: the yellow vest, symbol of Big Mining, engineering, maintenance and whatever else is necessary to the smooth operations of the extractive industries.

Apparently WA locals have such respect for the yellow vest they leave its wearers unchallenged—as first tested by Melbourne artist George Egerton-Warburton, practising grafitti otherwise naked, on a main highway, in the bright light of day. Nobody stopped. Nobody questioned the yellow vest. WA is one of the big mining states, home of Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest. It’s where Gina’s employees were given standardised placards and paid to protest Rudd’s proposed mining tax increases. The Yellow Vest and its Syndrome are very much a part of the mining ecology—so naturalised in the landscape they’re taken for granted.

This earlier project, Yellow Vest Syndrome: recent West Australian art (Fremantle Arts Centre, 2009), was already, in part, a response to the notion of non-natural hybrid ecologies, the point being that originary or natural worlds and their so-called pure ecologies, reflective of a state of non-human intervention, are at best either extremely rare or a mythic ideal. Novel Ecologies Cross Arts Projects in Sydney’s Kings Cross takes as its starting point the idea that the actions of the human species are radically transforming notions of ecology. If ecology is an interrelated system of networks and webs of relationships among living things and elements on the planet (we tend to think of grass, sky, water and the animals on it as a living system), most of the world’s natural systems are now so compromised by the human presence that few ‘natural’ or ‘original’ ecosystems remain. Rather, we now inhabit a world of emerged and emergent, hybrid ecologies.

The recurrent theme of this exhibition is “ecosystemic thinking.” Perdita Phillips, artist-in-residence at Cross Art Projects, researched Sydney’s largely unknown fairy penguin colony at Manly, a population currently inhabiting a hybrid or breached ecology. Her work, penguin anticipatory archive, reveals a war zone as the penguins combat owners of expensive yachts. Ugly newspaper reports, sympathetic to bashed penguins, argue on the penguins’ side against the rich yachties’ perceived right to do what they want, flaunting their big money as they pollute and trample on the penguins’ habitat rights. Who would have thought? The penguins’ plight resonates as an allegory of local ecologies (farms, nature reserves, national parks) under the threat of big mining (Yellow Vest). How many Sydneysiders are aware of the fairy penguins and local ecology under threat?

Perdita Phillips, , .--. / .- / .- (penguin anticipatory archive), 2013, mixed media, drawings and digital prints (work in progress) Perdita Phillips, , .--. / .- / .- (penguin anticipatory archive), 2013, mixed media, drawings and digital prints (work in progress)
courtesy the artist
Viewers explore loose leaves in the archive box—poetic metaphysical meditations and drawings, photographs of penguins and Manly locations, harbour maps, representations of water and tides, scientific reports and descriptions of penguin life, newspaper clippings of shocking disturbances and maltreatment. To one side sits a pile of neatly stacked handkerchiefs which visitors are invited to take in exchange for signing a pledge to reflect on the penguins’ plight, opting to agree to one or more of the following:

“In exchange for a handkerchief I will: 1. ask “what does a penguin want?” and do something practical about it; 2, volunteer 3 days a year for a hands-on outdoor environmental project; 3. swap permanently from using tissues to using handkerchiefs; 4. other.”

This part of the work is titled “doing so that (tie a knot in it, the world is a handkerchief, a pile of promises).” The handkerchief gifts are embroidered in ‘penguin speech,’ an artistic envisioning of how penguins might negotiate this bargain—if they could.

In this respect Novel Ecologies shifts the emphasis from an anthropocentric worldview to one closer to Timothy Morton’s object-orientated ontology—non-human species and things. Philosophically, the shift can be traced to the reflections of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty: “thing-being” (Heidegger) and the reversal of the gaze such that ‘things’ are looking back at us (Merleau-Ponty). On behalf of the penguins you are invited to shift your role from viewer-archivist to humble addressee and contract, through acceptance of the gift, to reflect on their plight. Relational aesthetics and its contract of gifting or exchange—Bourriaud’s famous remark: the artwork is a handshake—extends that contract to the world of non-human beings. It’s a cannily inclusive strategy within ecosystemic thinking.

Rounding out the show, the faked photographs of Robert Zhao Renhui/ The Institute of Critical Zoologists reflect on the hybrid state of so-called ecologies of the wild. George Egerton-Warburton’s video of pristine beach ecology is disrupted when a headset booming aggressive urban rap is donned. In the unlikely medium of fantastical fine charcoal drawings, Tori Benz puts the microscope on the rampant microbe ecologies inhabiting the surface and interior of the pregnant human form.


Cross Art Projects, Novel Ecologies, curator Jasmin Stephens, Sydney, 28 Sept-26 Oct, 2013

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 54

© Ann Finnegan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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