2020 THE YEAR OF THE UNPRECEDENTED
Arboreal Narratives 2020 showcases works by sixteen artists from the Tree Veneration Society Inc. – an environmentally – focused artist collective that honours the beauty, power and the importance of trees (https://treevenerationsociety.com). Each of the works featured in this 2020 multidisciplinary exhibition at Sheffer Gallery, Sydney, draws on the lived experience of these contemporary artists since last year’s exhibition and seeks to invite reflection on the current status of our natural world, and the world of our future.
Our artists, just as everyone else in Australia, experienced the living hell of our 2019-2020 Black Summer – an extended summer season of terrifying and devastating bushfires. Although it was unprecedented in so many terrible ways, our Black Summer was not unexpected. Twelve years ago, in 2008, Australia’s federal leaders were warned by economist Ross Garnault’s comprehensive review of research (The Garnault Climate Change Review, 2008) – of the more intense and prolonged fire seasons that could be expected in Australia by 2020, unless immediate action was taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Black Summer fires were the result of those 12 years of inaction and an underpinning denial in circles of influence of the reality of global warming and climate change, and our impending existential crisis. They burned an estimated 46 million acres of land (much of which was forest and bushland) and emitted an estimated 306 million tons of additional (greenhouse gas) carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and killed trillions of animals – including at least 181 million birds and 60,000 koalas. Trees and their understory plants, and even soil, burned. Hundreds of species of plant life were pushed into near extinction and in some cases, extinction. Now, almost 12 months later, the charred and silent landscapes in eastern Australia that were left behind, bear no resemblance to their previous original biome and despite some regrowth, many may never achieve their former biodiversity. These apocalyptic ‘landscapes’ are the legacy of our Black Summer and 12 years of the considered choices made by our leaders.
It seems that humankind needs to be reminded that the health of everything on this planet depends on healthy trees and forests, and they are now needed more than ever. It took millions of years for the atmosphere, climate and edible resources to develop to the point of being able to support life on earth – made possible by trees and plants, and which are still fundamental to life in so many ways. They are often referred to as the lungs of the planet, since through the mechanism of photosynthesis in daylight, they release oxygen into the atmosphere, and absorb carbon dioxide – a respiration process that is opposite to that of humans and all other animals. Trees and plants also absorb other harmful gases – carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and remove them from our atmosphere. In each tree, tons of carbon dioxide and other gases are sequestered, and are mostly retained within the earth upon its death – harmless even as coal (the result of ancient, compressed trees and plants), unless burned. Trees and plants release moisture through transpiration – en masse, providing microclimates that are moist and cool, and generating clouds and rainfall. In the heat, they cool the environment.
Trees and plants provide the habitats essential for wildlife to survive – the healthier and less fragmented the better for biodiversity. Humankind also needs to be reminded that it evolved in dynamic relationships with plants and other animals, and that we are all dependent for our survival on biodiversity. So aside from the ethical considerations that other animals are due in their own right, we have a shared existential crisis. Neither of these realities are played out in the ongoing shameful deforestation that takes place in Australia, through several mechanisms. The euphemism of ‘land clearing’ applies to the officially sanctioned removal of (habitat) trees on private agricultural land – primarily for grazing by cloven hooved (non-native) animals, such that 20 million acres of land were ‘cleared’ in Australia between 2000-2017. Also sanctioned, are logging of old growth forests and grazing of cattle within old growth forests. Australia has the highest national rate of extinction of its native mammals – primarily due to land clearing. Scientists continue to report on our environmental crisis and have described the situation that is affecting Australian threatened plants and animals as a national disgrace.
Black Summer was followed by the international pandemic, Covid-19, which found its ways to our shores in March. The ensuing lockdown was something that none of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes. Aside from the personal stresses that it caused and continues to cause, our limited freedom of movement put significant constraints on any environmental action that the population could undertake – such as tree planting for wildlife habitat restoration and protection, necessitated by the Black Summer fires and superimposed on pre-existing needs. Sadly, our governments cynically used the lockdown as an opportunity to change land clearing laws and approve more coal mines, more logging (including old growth trees) and more development, and sought to compromise the process and outcome of the current “Independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999” – to the detriment of the natural environment.
The Tree Veneration Society, in line with several other environmentally-focussed groups, has the implicit aim of redressing what can only be described as a suicidal estrangement from nature (John Macdonald, 2013). Arguably, the root problem here is a delusional anthropocentrism – the belief that humans exist separately from other nature – in control and in charge of everything. This belief is often referred to as the nature-culture binary. It leads to a false sense of autonomy from nature and of having agency over it, and is the basis of short-sighted capitalist economy-driven activities that incorporate wanton destruction of habitat, of economic rationalism pitted against scientific reason, and of the prevailing approach of the current leadership in Australia, under non-governmental yet powerful negative influences. Notably, Australia’s leaders abandoned a ‘green stimulus’ initiative in 2013, but continue to spruik coal for power production and exporting, and now increased gas exploration.
In stark contrast to the government’s stance, the Tree Veneration Society accepts science as reason and respects and admires the natural world. It is a registered charity – acting as a conduit to promoting trees as part of the world community, promoting understanding and care of the environment through exhibitions and public workshops. Its 2019 Arboreal Narratives multi-disciplinary art exhibition explored aspects of trees as key constituents of the arboreal ecosystem – their importance and their imperilled status via lectures and workshops as well as a gallery exhibition. The context for Arboreal Narratives 2020 is that of an ongoing global pandemic, with its inherent constraints on gatherings – in the aftermath of Black Summer. But rather than dwelling on eco-anxiety, the artists show us the loss, by demonstrating their acceptance of the facts and in doing so, guide us toward active hope.
The works in this gallery exhibition, speak to loss and humility towards what has been lost, recognition of the ability of trees to survive against the odds and the need for greater respect and protection of trees and ecosystems. With a focus on loss, Elizabeth Gervay’s installation of a burned tree trunk confronts us with some of the reality of the bushfire legacy; Jane Green’s clay works serve as a memorial to lost trees; Jade Gunn’s photography serves as an ecological memento mori, though of objects not very still, but giving us time to ponder; Liz Perfect’s silkscreen prints have captured the trauma meted out on our forests by the Black Summer fires as a forensic record; and Amanda Farquharson’s assemblage of the various found burned objects following the fires, reminds us of our integration with nature.
Several of the works speak to the ability of trees to survive against the odds, providing us with hope: Hobart Hughes’s video reminds us of the use and abuse of trees as a commodity, and of their perseverance; Melinda Clyne’s sculpture pays homage to ironbark trees surviving after Black Summer; Jan Garben’s charcoal drawing of a scribbly gum tree encourages close looking and provides documentary evidence of its survival to date; Sally Reinhardt’s painting of a woody pear burst open with the promise of new life, reminds us that many of our tree species can survive; Miho Watanabe’s photographs of street trees printed on silk highlights the fact that each tree is isolated from its kin, and surviving on an uncertain water supply and Adrienne Hunt’s painting of scribbly gums shows them as hollowed out, hanging on to life but embossed with scribbled messages of inspiration to keep trying.
We are prompted toward a greater respect and protection of trees and ecosystems by Kassandra Bossell’s broken pottery repaired with gold and expressing a process of repair to damaged ecosystems, for bird habitat; Paula Broom’s leaf wing sculpture invites interaction with the viewer as an empathic performance; Jean Burke’s prints of mangroves show them as biodiverse and important ecosystems; Margaret England’s assemblages put us in the space of reflecting on our dire situation while giving us a clear message that there is hope and Louise Fowler-Smith’s plant sculptures show us exactly what we might lose if we don’t make the required changes. The ecocentric focus of all of these works translates as an expression of ecological empathy – the opposite of apathy and the dispassionate stance of economic rationality. Ecological empathy is applied in this exhibition to the past, present and to the future, projecting beyond the human lifespan.
It is said that each work of art has the capacity to provide new sensations and stir new behaviours by the responses engendered (Elizabeth Grosz, 2008), leading to new beginnings and future hopeful possibilities. So what might be the tree veneration change that is needed in Australia? What do we need to do to safeguard the future of humans and other animals? The explicit and implicit aims of the Tree Veneration Society are more relevant than ever before, and we must concede that we cannot put blind faith into systems to address the problems or expect external agencies to do so. We must individually and collectively apply our imagination to forge change, to stir a desire for a change in policies, but more than that, we must promote an empathic and respectful focus on the natural environment, and all of its inhabitants.
Grosz, Elizabeth A. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008
McDonald, John. “Louise Fowler-Smith,” in The Macquarie Group Collection: The Land and Its Psyche, ed. Julian Beaumont, Felicity Fenner, and John McDonald (NewSouth Publishing, 2013)
The Garnault Climate Change Review, 2008. Free download per section is available at: https://www.rossgarnaut.com.au/climate-change
Artist: Kassandra Bossell
Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”) is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with gold. By repairing these bass relief bird sculpts using the kintsugi process, I aim to conjure a metaphor for our ‘broken’ ecosystems.
Birds are among many species who maintain interdependent relations with trees and are subsequently affected by deforestation. Their extinction rates may trigger what environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has called solastalgia, an emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change. Instead of letting this emotional state lead to inaction, humans can act to value the damaged environment and transform it to make something treasured.
My use of kintsugi is a call to maintain the rage and fight for our dwindling ecosystems.
Artist: Paula Broom
Title: Tree Guardian
I am a Sydney-based artist working in expanded photo media. I explore the intersection of art, environment and health, both autobiographical and collective, especially with regards to trees and the health benefits they provide human societies.
Covid-19 has brought the health and psychological benefits of nature sharply into focus, whilst demonstrating what can happen when we ignore biophysical risks. On top of that, the recent bushfire season in Australia, and the current one unfolding right now in California, have left some with a heightened sense of urgency that our socioeconomic systems recognise and respect nature and its many life-sustaining benefits. We need to make a fundamental shift in perspective from our “business as usual approach” that is driving climate change. A failure to address this, I fear, will result in not only the continuing extinction of millions of non human species, but also the extinction of humankind itself.
My sculpture, entitled Tree Guardian, is a recognition of the importance of trees to the continuation of life on the planet. Made almost entirely from tree parts – sticks and leaves – its message seems even more starkly relevant this year. Its leaves hand sewn together with white cotton and fashioned into a pair of wings, the installation is given life only when the audience interacts with it, and its true purpose unfolds. Viewers are encouraged to take a “selfie” in front of the leaf wings, as though they are their own wings, and post the photos to Instagram using the hashtag #treeguardian.
Merely by participating, the audience undertakes an unspoken pledge to plant trees, grow trees and protect trees.
It is my hope that people who undertake this pledge will really take it to heart and endeavour to plant more trees or, at the very least, to protect them into the future.
Artist: Jean Burke
Title: Mangroves in Barramatta country
Mangroves are marvellous. When I first met them I became an explorer in gumboots, a scientist with metre string, an artist of their curving branches. I learnt that mangroves are good citizens of the estuary, on the borders between land and water, salt and freshwater, sheltering new-born creatures.
In this hand-painted collagraph print, the complexity of mangrove environments is shown in layers, with roots going into and emerging from mud and river, breathing through air and water. There are embossed eels in the lowest layer of the artwork, who begin their lives in these amazing ecosystems.
In Barramatta country, around Parramatta, mangrove forests are safe breeding places for fish and eels. First Nations people exhort us to value, respect and care for country and all its trees and creatures. Barramatta itself is named after eels (barra) and headwaters (matta)
Artist: Melinda Clyne
Title: Ironbark Resurrection
This ‘icon of resilience’ was created in response to the sight of the bush recovery, since the devastating inferno last summer. Whilst documenting the changes in a badly charred forested gully, I noticed that seemingly lifeless trees sprouted an orange/pink- tinged, green ‘fuzz’ along their lower trunks, as tender shiny new leaves emerged from deep within the burnt bark. These ironbark eucalypts were showing incredible signs of recovery, and when backlit by the setting sun, they emanated a spell-binding glow which I captured through photos. These became the reference material for this work which attempts to capture those moments in a sculptural dimension. It includes a piece of ironbark wood that was spared the fire, collected from the gully on my regenerative farming property near Goulburn.
Medium: cast acrylic (artist- cut and -molded), aerosol enamel and acrylic, found ironbark fragment.
Artist: Margaret England
Title: The Last Leaf of the Old World (detail)
This assemblage of found objects refers to the story of Noah and the Ark, when the dove brings the first leaf of the new world, a sign of hope and survival.
Now the trees’ burning and drowning leaves are giving us signs of dire warning.
As the Austrian artist Hundertwasser said in 1991, “Only if you love the tree like yourself you will survive.”
Artist: Amanda Farquharson
Arboreal environment on the NSW east coast woodlands was devastatingly impacted with firestorms early 2020.
This was followed by extreme flooding that disgorged charred trees and remnants to sea, uprooting seaweed, sponges & shells, deposited each tide to the turbulent shores.
Regular marine encounters with logs in the waves and curious arboreal forms ashore, lead to my amassing a collection of these charred tree elements- a sculptural resource in venerating trees.
Artist: Louise Fowler-Smith
Title: Critically Endangered
Australia has been named as one of the worlds worst performers on biodiversity. There has been an increase in de-forestation and businesses such as mining, logging and development have won, at the expense of our natural unique environment.
According to the Department of Environment and Heritage, more than 60 Australian plant species are now thought to be extinct, and over 1180 are threatened. Clearing for agriculture and urban development, hard hoofed animals such as cattle and sheep, altered fire and grazing patterns, changed drought and flood patterns, and the introduction of weeds, feral animals and diseases have affected the survival of many plant species.
Scientists state that plants account for 70% of Australia’s national threatened species list with 1,318 varieties considered critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. According to The Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel, 471 plant species were identified as needing urgent management intervention to support recovery from the 2019-20 bushfires. The plants span a variety of vegetation types and include rainforest trees and shrubs and plants from subalpine vegetation. Some of these plants, that were already threatened before the fires, are now at risk of extinction.
Extinction. Exterminated, dead, gone forever.
Scientists have called the situation that is affecting Australian threatened plants and animals a national disgrace and that we are experiencing an environmental crisis. We have the ability to save species from extinction, but we fail.
In this exhibition I have included two sculptures of plants that have been listed as critically endangered.
1) Caladenia patersonii var. hastata : CRITICALLY ENDANGERED due to the construction of an aluminium smelter on its only known location in Victoria.
2) Ricinocarpos gloria-medii: Glory of the Centre. CRITICALLY ENDANGERED due to wildfires.
Artist: Dr Jan Garben
Title: The Fine Line
Natural history drawing demands dedication. The artist must closely observe their subject matter, taking time to appreciate and learn its structure and habit. Careful drawing requires sustained focus and patience, allowing time for contemplation and meditation. The quest for faithful representation becomes an act of veneration.
In this spirit, I’ve drawn a scribbly gum, growing where suburbia meets native bush at Sydney’s fringe. Its charred and hollowed heart is a legacy of bushfires past, revealing damage so severe it’s a wonder it survived. Yet it thrives, the result of millennia of evolution, able to both withstand the destructive force of fire and embrace its regenerative potential. It embodies the fine line between destruction and survival, fragility and resilience, the precarious balance common to all ecosystems and their constituents. For now, for this tree, the needle tips towards the side of life.
We know this balance is shifting, with more frequent and ferocious fires due to human-driven climate change, and our insatiable encroach. We look to the future with trepidation.
This drawing is to honour and cherish a scarred, but so-far resilient survivor, and to memorialize this poignant moment in history.
Artist: Elizabeth Anne Gervay
Title: Transformation and Renewal
“And when all that was left was ashes, she would again clothe herself in flame. Rising from the dust of her past to rekindle the spark of her future. She was a Phoenix, her own salvation; rebirthed, renewed, resurrected.”
Material : An exposed tree trunk
Dimensions: 1.8m (h) x 45cm X45cm
Artist: Jane Green
Part of a larger body of tree works in clay, ‘1:46:37.29’ is a timed moment of focus, where trees lost from our natural world are memorialised.
Artist: Jade Gunn
Title: What you do not change, you choose
2020 has demanded from many that we surrender our illusions of control and embrace an unfamiliar presence of self.
Isolated from the norm, a rare opportunity for collective reflection has manifested across the globe, calling for a deeper exploration of the demands we place upon ourselves and our natural environment.
My art practice strives to explore the realm of the possible and celebrate the ephemeral and unknown; to create awareness around our freedom to change and to question the narratives that hold us in place.
Artist: Hobart Hughes
This work began on the Greek island of Kefalonia. The video follows the path up the mountain of Enous to a sacrificial site that had been in use since before the bronze age. I became interested in the idea of time and sacrifice. It struck me that sacrifice is about time and being able to affect a future time by an action in the present. Where better to project than the top of a mountain. I wanted to render the sense of the passage of a sacred procession as a point of view of someone from ancient times witnessing the forest and becoming at one with the vibrant spring life of the mountain.
The underlying subject of the video are the Kefalonian pine trees that cover the top of the mountain. For centuries, these tree has been plundered by a succession of civilizations. Venice is built on Kefalonisan pine trees as were the ships of all the great Greek city states because their resistance to rot. The trees are revered and fiercely protected as you cannot take any wood off the mountain. In the animation, I used sand eroded from the mountain to render the opening sequences in, amongst other scenes, which individual grains of sand can be seen forming trees forming and dying.
I made a sacrificial sculpture from dead wood I found on the mountain that is seen in the video which I left at the site and is, for all I know, still there. I choose to represent a goat in the animation and in sculpture as the fate of the Kefalonian pine trees are indeed linked to goats. There are at present large herds of goats on the mountain eating newly shooting pine trees. No new trees are growing. I saw that offering a sculpture back to the mountain was my way of trying to affect perceptions of the relative value of goats to an ancient forest that once gone is gone for all time.
The music is sung by a Japanese collaborator Kasan whom I asked to go to a forest and record a vocal impression (along with battery powered keyboard) of how she would feel if this forest was dying.
Artist: Dr Adrienne Hunt
Title: Hanging on by a thread
Acrylic painting on board 460mm x 600mm
This painting is one of a series of iconic trees of Australia, each suggesting the physical human form and at the same time, evoking elements of our human struggle and engagement with ‘nature’.
The scribbly gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) is the subject of this painting. The ‘scribbly’ is named for the raised scribbled lines on the outside of the smooth silvery grey bark – made by moth larva tunnelling between the bark layers. Scribbly gums have an amazing ability to survive harsh conditions and fire, and are typically seen as being supported in life by a mere remnant of outer trunk. Their mysterious embossed scribbles serve as messages of inspiration, from them to us, for our troubled 2020 –
Artist: Liz Perfect
Title: Charcoal Trees
Charcoal Tree 1
This detail is one of a series of silkscreens on paper.
I wanted to portray the extent of the summer fires and the change they brought to our landscape around Bell in the Blue Mountains National Park, where thousands of hectares were burnt.
This series of burnt trees derived from frottages, taken by pressing paper onto charcoaled bark, leaving both marks and impressions. I developed the images with silkscreen to include the precursor – fire, and to further involve the viewer in this forest’s trauma.
Quite quickly the burnt eucalypts that survived either shed their bark or showed new grow. Festoons of new leaves, both green and red, rapidly appeared, wrapping around the remaining branchless trunks. Small clumps of flowers, baby banksias and other trees started to sprout up in the dead leaves beneath them
This sudden burgeoning should not however cloud the memory of this catastrophic event.
Artist: Sally Reinhardt
Title: Woody Pear
This Woody Pear seed pod comes from the tree Xylomelum pyriforme .Several of these trees grow on the rocky sandstone ridge to the south behind where we live.
They were burned when the terrible Gospers Mountain Fire ripped through this area last December 2019, and are testament to the extraordinary powers of survival that some Australian native plants have.
The hard seed pods of the Woody Pear Tree are beautifully shaped little things, with a velvety surface and a big smiling mouth with two paper thin winged seeds inside.The seeds in this Woody Pear have already flown away.
I’m attempting to document the life cycle of the tree, from the flowering stage in September to when the Woody Pear develops and remains on the branch, for maybe many seasons… perhaps waiting for a bush fire to make the pear burst open and release its seeds.
Artist: Miho Watanabe
Title: Awareness of Between-ness: Memory and Time -Street Trees from England
This work is a part of the research to discover the ‘between-ness’ between memory and time.
I came across these trees in the UK in September 2019.
I am grateful to have encountered the strength of these trees and their message to ‘just live’.
In the first half of 2020, the pandemic began and I was on lockdown in my home in Sydney.
These trees were there only five months ago, and it surely should still be there in England, but somehow it felt further away and longer ago in time. It was a moment of discovery. My visual memory did not take decades to fall into a similar atmosphere as my childhood memories; it could happen over a period as short as five months. Nothing is permanent, as the Buddhists say.