Artists head to ‘Europe’s most divided city’ in Kosovo...
ABC radio national (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Listen to the interview, aired on Wednesday 27 July 2022
@ 1:30 — 24:24
Manifesta 14, “It matters what worlds world worlds: how to tell stories otherwise”
by Cathryn Drake,
Art Agenda, 29 July 2022, Manifesta Pristina
For its 14th edition, the nomadic European biennial Manifesta has taken up temporary residence in various cultural institutions and derelict spaces in and around Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, where creative mediator Catherine Nichols invited artists and practitioners to explore modes of storytelling across cultures. As a contested nation state, Kosovo embodies many of the most pressing and complex issues facing society today. When is a country a country? How many people have to say it is for it to be? Who has the authority to declare a territory as a nation? Does the population need to be homogenous? Who is nationalism good for? How can we all live together and be free? Roaming the city in search of the exhibitions and “artistic interventions”—by 102 artists in 25 locations, from an Ottoman-era hammam to a former brick factory—I attempted to plot pieces of the puzzle into a coherent picture. Interacting with locals in Pristina was inevitable, both to find the far-flung (and often vaguely signposted) locations and to glean how the tumultuous, not-so-distant past led to the complex present.
The main exhibition, titled “The Grand Scheme of Things,” is hosted on seven floors of the Grand Hotel Pristina, a decadent specter of a structure that has hardly changed since it opened in 1978. Each floor is dedicated to a theme—transition, migration, water, capital, love, ecology, and speculation—expressed in everything from photographs, paintings, and sculptures to engaging films and immersive installations. Among these are the soft dolls of Dardan Zhegrova’s Your enthusiasm to tell a story (2015–22), which invite you to lay down, put your ear on their hearts, and hear the artist whisper intimate poetry. In embroidered tapestries titled The Frequency of Frankness (2012–22), Jakup Ferri depicts a magical universe where various species communicate and care for each other. It is worth making the trip to Pristina just to see the engaging and heartfelt work of artists from the Balkans, who comprise more than half of the exhibition.
The once five-star Grand Hotel is a focal point in the city—tantamount to a national monument as a longtime gathering place for diplomats, war criminals, and pop stars—despite losing its stars one by one as it has deteriorated physically. It is like a Wes Anderson film set, still offering surreal lodgings on two floors, and a guest review reads: “Probably the worst I have ever been at.” (Although I would vote for Holiday Inn Sarajevo, at least when I stayed there in 2000, which has a similar, if more violent, history and some of the same ghosts.) The suite where Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito stayed—with its original green leather furniture, red carpet and curtains, and warped dark wood—is displayed as part of The Suit (2016), Majlinda Hoxha’s documentation of the hotel as a repository of history. Serbian mobster Željko Ražnatović (aka Arkan) and his gunmen later seized the dictator’s quarters; he was assassinated in another hotel, Crowne Plaza Belgrade, in 2000. The hotel was fully booked when NATO ground troops arrived in the city in June 1999, after the airstrikes on Serbia that put a stop to a decade of torture and genocide. The general manager, Rrahim Fazliu, has described the hotel as a “mirror of Kosovo.”1
Like territories, buildings change occupants over time. Fight Club, a training center for kick boxers, inhabits the hotel mezzanine. The basement, once used as an interrogation center by the Serbian paramilitary thugs, harbors a health club as well as an installation of projections and sculptures by Off Season Collective, which emerged from a residency program run by architect Elian Stefa in the early stages of the pandemic. These include Fill in the Blanks, an incantation on mass tourism by Anna Baranowski and Vlad Brateanu, which portrays a seaside resort near Vlorë, Albania, where the metal supports for beach umbrellas are invoked as a hallucinatory reflection of Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), alluding to the out-of-context replicas of iconic monuments found around the world: “We are passengers before we are tourists, privileged able bodies moving through non-spaces, forming lines at the airport to reach the hotel room, to the postcard landscape.” The Pristina police headquarters has a Statue of Liberty on its roof, left behind by the hotel for which the illegal structure was constructed. The 2021 film Legacy, by Baranowski, flashes images of historical events and the remnants left behind, including the ubiquitous bunkers dotting the Albanian landscape like mushrooms, with the postscript: “Neither nature nor time make distinctions between relics of bygone times.”
The biennial fills in the blanks for visitors to Pristina by opening and contextualizing significant spaces forgotten in the flurry of daily life. On a hill at the periphery of town, in the burnt shell of the Hertica School House, the NGO ETEA presents videos of moving interviews with former students and teachers on screens set up among the desks, surrounded by shards of broken glass and rubble. The unfinished home was offered by Mehmet Aliu-Hertica to students and staff of the Sami Frashëri High School so they could finish their education in secret after 1990, when the Serbian regime excluded ethnic Albanians from official institutions. One former student recalled being told to take different routes to school and not to walk in groups to avoid being discovered by Serbian soldiers. A classmate went missing for two days after being told that he would be forced to eat his notebook if he was caught again.
Independence means little when you can’t visit most other countries. The median age of Kosovans is 30, the generation that grew up during the post-Yugoslavia turmoil of the 1990s, and today their biggest concerns seem to be corruption, pollution, and—perhaps most of all—a feeling of isolation. In his video SIN (2004), Driton Hajredini, a Muslim, goes to a Catholic church and asks the priest whether simply being born in Kosovo is a sin punishable by exclusion of one’s official identity and exile within one’s own borders. Even when a visa is possible, the process is often prohibitive and expensive. Applying for a visa to visit Portugal, I was told, entails a trip to Bulgaria. For her intervention Swap keys (2022) Spanish artist Luz Broto has facilitated a key swap at a locksmith shop, where people make and exchange the copies and addresses as invitations to visit each other. Yet for Kosovars paired with Spaniards, of which there were many, the whole exercise is theoretical given they are not allowed to enter Spain.
Then there are those who do not want a state, just freedom from definition or borders of any kind. Bosnian Roma artist Selma Selman conveyed the sentiment in her performance You Have No Idea (2022), in front of the National Gallery of Art: confronting onlookers, she repeated the titular phrase in a conversational manner that evolved into a crescendo of screams. A plea to stop trying to understand or confer an identity on those who do not wish to be labeled, it was emotionally cathartic and to the point. In the Grand Hotel, Selman’s video Mercedes Matrix (2019) follows her family taking apart a Mercedes, as if to dismantle a Romani stereotype. The Romani language was an unwritten until very recently, its traditions handed down through the spoken word, so there is no official history book. The livelihood of the nomadic Roma tribes, such as metalworkers, has been destroyed by confinement within nation states. Modern society really has no idea what to do with populations that don’t fit into normative or geographic boundaries, so it constructs equally forced categories to deal with them. The reality is that we are all unruly.
Borders are like book covers for territories. The titles and narratives depend, of course, on who is telling the tale. At the Palace of Youth and Sports, Korean artist Lee Bul’s dazzling blimp, Willing to Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon V4 (2015–20), invokes both the failure of utopian ideals and the possibility of salvation in the face of delusion. Suspended in the voluminous belly of the parking garage, it is like a shimmery fish swallowed by the brutalist concrete building, its gargantuan exoskeleton resembling that of a whale. One might imagine Moby-Dick (1851) and its protagonist, Ahab, as an allegory for Kosovo. A recent news item, briefly noted in the international press, also serves as a succinct metaphor for the current state of global society: a Russian-made plane owned by an American company operated by a Ukrainian carrier transporting nearly 12 tons of explosives sold by Serbia to Bangladesh crashed in a remote area of northern Greece, burning and detonating on the ground for two hours, killing the entire crew of course. The language of nationalism and human rights cloaks the bigger currents of power politics and alliances, with smaller players swept up in its swells, and the exigencies of conflict are what determine destinies.
The context plays an essential part in the art exhibitions. At the Museum of Kosovo, housed in a grand Austro-Hungarian palace that was once a military HQ, a permanent vitrine displaying a white cowboy hat, gold brooches, and a trophy atop an American flag—surrounded by weapons and other paraphernalia associated with independence—is dedicated to a national hero: “Some relics of the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright!” The original collection of the museum was spirited away to Belgrade in the late 1990s and never returned. In a speech from the steps of the museum, Prime Minister Albin Kurti expressed the hope that the country’s choice as site of the European biennial would confer legitimacy to its formal application to the EU, planned by the end of the year. Yet it is possible that the invasion of Ukraine will motivate Europe to recognize Kosovo as a country. The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has called for the urgent EU integration of the six Western Balkans states—including Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia—remarkable considering the nationalist furor in Greece over the latter’s name not so long ago.2
Stories never really end, and the narratives most always transform over time. On Sunday the city was quiet, nearly bereft of international art world visitors. At the Centre for Narrative Practice, a newly established community and educational hub in the former Hivzi Sylejmani Library, an artist collective from the nearby town Fushë Kosova discussed the problem of having to name themselves and issues of funding. I slipped into the back door of the former Gërmia Department Store to solve the mystery of Above Everyone (2022), a house built on the rooftop by artist Alban Muja, a humorous response to the lack of affordable property after the downfall of Socialism. The windows are lit at night, and rumor had it that someone is living there. I was discovered by an employee of the Ministry of Infrastructure, the current occupant of the building, who kindly escorted me upstairs, where I found an empty shell with quaint curtains in the windows.
Arriving at the Grand Hotel, I heard the sounds of music coming from the mezzanine, where someone was playing a rendition of “Hava Nagila” [Let’s Rejoice] on the recently repaired grand piano. The unofficial mascots of Manifesta 14 are the stray dogs of the city. A hotel clerk told me that lots of people throw rocks at them because they are afraid, so the dogs, fearful in turn, have become aggressive. Artist Petrit Halilaj has revived the fallen stars and letters from the old sign atop the Grand Hotel, adding new letters so it reads When the sun goes away, we paint the sky (2022). Inspired by a phrase in an essay written by a 12-year-old girl, it is a brilliant invitation to imagine a brighter collective future.
Yet the most effective and emblematic artistic intervention may be Europe Without Monuments (2022) in Mitrovica, a contested city not far from Pristina, where the Ibër river divides the Serbian and Albanian communities to the north and south respectively. In the water next to the central bridge, patrolled by NATO peacekeeping forces, Ukrainian artist Stanislava Pinchuk has installed a skeletal deconstructed version of Bogdan Bogdanović’s 1973 Monument to Fallen Miners, a massive temple-like portal built atop a hill in memory of those who fell in a revolt against German occupation of the Trepča mines during WWII. Farther down the river, artist Piers Greville recruited kids from both sides to create a human bridge by swimming against the currents, in the performance What Is Here (2022,) a feat documented in a video at the Grand Hotel. The whole project is the brainchild of curator Petrit Abazi, an Australian who was born in the city, and local officials said that such a collaboration would not have been possible without the mediation of an international organization. In the evening, as the sun goes down and temperatures cool, the structure comes alive as children and dogs alike slosh into the water to play around it. I walked uphill just before sunset led by a brave little stray dog, who sauntered through the monument’s columns and continued down the other side into the trees while I took in the expansive view—and there was no sign of a division from up there. The conclusion to this story: Manifesta is what an international biennial should be, a show reflecting its context and transforming it in turn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Cathryn Drake is a freelance writer and editor focusing on art, architecture, and culture.
Art contemporain. Manifesta 14, le Kosovo comme vous ne l’avez jamais vu
Contemporary art. Manifesta 14,
Kosovo as you’ve never seen it
For its fourteenth edition, the European traveling biennial Manifesta has taken up residence in the young Balkan republic. The opportunity to discover a vibrant and committed cultural scene, and to assess the weight of the war and tensions with Serbia in a different way. This year, Pristina is the place to go, assures the Croatian daily “Jutarnji List”.
Kosovo, the youngest country (the average age of its population is less than 30 years) and among the poorest in Europe, is poised to establish itself as the most interesting place on the Old Continent this summer. And not because of the political tensions that cross it, or at least not only. Tired of reflecting the image of a theater of conflict and a country in transition, the Kosovars have decided to express who they are, through art and culture. Without evading criticism and politics, they send a strong message: from now on, they are ready to take their place on the chessboard of the world.
The events scheduled for this summer bear witness to this dynamism. Manifesta 14, a traveling European biennial of contemporary art, [was inaugurated on July 22 in Pristina, the capital]; DokuFest, a major documentary film festival, [held] August 5-13 in Prizren; the electronic music festival Sunny Hill, organized by [Kosovar-born British singer] Dua Lipa and her father in Pristina, from August 4 to 8, [brought together] musicians such as Diplo, Skepta, J. Balvin… And this is just a preview of what's on offer.
A twisted bridgeHowever, rather than the cultural life and the possible meetings in this part of Europe, the media prefer to speak about the political tensions which shake the north of the country, in particular in Mitrovica, city divided between Serbs and Albanians of Kosovo, located close to the Serbian border [see box].
Mitrovica is an ugly and neglected small town, split by the Ibar river. After the war (1998-1999), the international community built a bridge over the Ibar. For nearly two decades, this bridge has been closed to road traffic, only pedestrians can cross it. The soldiers of KFOR [the NATO peacekeeping force] are positioned there to guard the invisible border which separates the city [the north being predominantly Serb, the south predominantly Albanian]. Stray dogs keep them company.
A different Mitrovica and a bridge that would be used for what it is built for, is that possible? Apparently yes, judging by the positive reactions of the citizens to the installation of three artists, placed under the bridge, in the river. It is the work of Petrit Abazi, a Kosovo-born artist [and curator] who lives and works in Australia, Stanislava Pinchuk, originally from Ukraine, and Piers Greville, an Australian. Their installation “explores paths of reconciliation, recovery and healing,” says Hedwig Fijen, the director [and Dutch founder] of Manifesta. According to her, there is no reason not to go to Mitrovica to discover this work.“We have colleagues from both communities working together, I believe anyone who wants to see this facility can go there without risk,” adds Fijen.
A public successThose who visit Mitrovica measure how much culture unites. From day one, the installation has also served as an “urban beach”. The reactions are extremely good. The cries of the children breathe new life among the scaffolding and platforms planted [by the artists] in the river, as well as in the city, where, usually, nothing happens except the occasional demonstrations and barricades.
article continues (paywall)
Manifesta reveals artists for 2022 Prishtina iteration
The nomadic European biennial Manifesta has released a list of artists who will be participating in this year’s version, to launch July 22 in Prishtina, Kosovo, and run for a hundred days. Of note, nearly half the seventy-seven artists appearing are Kosovar, reflecting an attempt on the part of the organizers to play up the local context of the event. Kosovar artists are typically underrepresented at fairs and biennials across the continent. Manifesta officials frequently stage the biennial—which was launched in 1994 by director Hedwig Fijen and of which there have been thirteen editions to date—in cities that are not on the regular festival circuit. Previous editions have been held in has previously taken place in cities such as Ljubljana, Slovenia; Marseille, France; and Limburg, Belgium. (A 2006 iteration to be held in Nicosia, Cyprus, was scrapped over escalating tensions between the curators and a city-run nonprofit that was sponsoring the exhibition). Future editions are slated for Barcelona (2024) and Germany’s Ruhr region (2026).
Participants, totaling fifty-two individuals and twenty-five collectives representing thirty-two countries, will present their work across twenty-two venues, including the Brick Factory, an industrial site; the Grand Hotel; the Great Hammam, a public bath; Kino Rinia, a disused cinema; the Centre for Narrative Practice at the former Hivzi Sylejmani Library; and Zahir Pajaziti Square. Interventions will additionally take place throughout the city.
The artist list for Manifesta 14 is below.
Petrit Abazi (1983, XK)
Piers Greville (1972, AU) & Stanislava Pinchuk (1988, UA)
Studio Notes, for Artemis Newcastle Art Gallery Magazine
Because it’s a tall painting, I stacked some milk crates to climb so I could tend to some detail in the clouds. Looking down the surface of the linen and onto the studio from up there I’m momentarily disoriented, dislocated from the ground. I steady myself. The vertigo of an awry perspective usually peaks in the moments after the shift. Sometimes it endures. I remember driving with my friend, the artist Jamie North, when he offered me a ripe Bolwarra fruit which happened to be in his car. It had this delightful sweet fragrance and taste. However, when exiting the car at our destination, I went to stand up and had the feeling I was tumbling forward in endless somersaults. I spent the next 6 hours crouching and swaying like a drunken sailor. Jamie later told me an anecdote – via D’harawal elder, Aunty Fran Bodkin – about Bolwarra-induced vertigo being a source of humour for some D’harawal people at the expense of European settlers, perhaps a small joy in the face of an upending world.
At the opening of the 2020s, as the fires raged across the continent, it felt like a planet going over the edge. Much of that summer was spent tracking the fire front via landscape-wide infrared scans. Then covid changed our lives, and so on… and the viewpoint went from those macro scans to electron-micro level as we discovered another frontline of peril. These unfurling ecological crises and their knock-on effects, reminiscent of Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point give me a vertigo sensation akin to the actual Bolwarra version: are we in freefall now, will the terrain flip up and around us over and over? or is it an upside-down-under, where colonial mindsets persistently resist adjusting orientation?
In 2020 I painted Phase Space Green, now in the NAG collection. The ‘Phase Space’ naming alludes to the acceleration of changes we / our environment are shifting through, which we may eventually move beyond, to a further unrecognisable reality. The painting describes some terrain around the upper Brogo River in southern NSW, an area engulfed in the massive fire front in the summer of 2019/2020. It was painted immediately after escaping those bushfires on the South Coast of NSW, having arrived home to Melbourne. On our trip home, at a nexus midway between the coast and the snowy mountains, between the fire front we left and Melbourne, is a place where rows of deep valleys seem to criss-cross each other, forming the cross motif visible in the painting. I imagine this feature, this terrain forming from the phenomena of river valleys in the south eastern highlands being cut in distinctly separate geological epochs, and I imagine how it will emerge from this one.
The carbon sequestered in the painting via the salvaged charcoal is just the starting point, the grounding reality of the work: Fires are normal. But over this material underpinning washes a cold concussive panic, the post-human scan of a data-hungry electronic eye, telling us: This fire is different.
Building the collection
The article below was written by Georgie Plenty, Member Newcastle Art Gallery Acquisutions and De-accessioning Committee, for Artemis, the Newcastle Art Gallery Society Magazine
Piers GREVILLE Phase Space Green, 2020, charcoal and oil on linen, 140.0 x 200.0cm, Gift of the Newcastle Art Gallery Society 2020 Newcastle Art Gallery collection Courtesy the artist
'I found my way to a re-imagining of 'landscape ', not apart from human or urban spaces, but as the product of human agency. ' 
Melbourne-based artist Piers Greville's recent works investigate landscapes that have been impacted by humans and the effects of climate change.
Phase Space Green 2020 was exhibited alongside other monochromatic works all viewed from an aerial perspective in his most recent exhibition Tipping Point at Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney. The exhibition featured large luminous paintings fusing cartography, bush fire response and geotechnology with traditional landscape painting.
The painting Phase Space Green illustrates the terrain around Brogo River in the Bega Valley, south coast NSW where bushfires raged through in early 2020. Charcoal salvaged from the fires was ground in oil and used to describe the topography of the painting. Greville explains, ' ... while it is a painting of a landscape in a conventional western sense, it is also OF the landscape. The material underpinning of the painting is morphed into a colour space informed by technological mediation.' 
Greville spent much of the 2019 - 2020 summer studying and updating fire maps. 'These maps are created using infrared scans of the landscape with software connecting vectors. This idea of an electronic data-hungry analytical eye scanning terrain too dangerous for humans to exist in feeds much of my current work. It is not a futuristic concept but in fact the recent past and present. ' 
The artist has explained the importance of monochrome in his works which references different historical sources from Chinese pottery to holographic projections in Star Wars films. He works en plein air, walking the terrain, capturing drone imagery, collecting geolocation co-ordinates and drawing and painting on location.
In 2019, Greville won the Glover Prize for landscape painting with a diptych Pedder Prime Cuts - his response to canoeing on Lake Pedder, Tasmania. This acquisition of Phase Space Green is the first work of art by Greville to be acquired, adding another perspective to the landscape genre in the collection.
1 https://www.a-ok. work/home/piersgreville
2 https:/ /pictame2.com/media/CAt8bfUgwfn/
4 Glover Prize, John Glover Society, Evandale, Tasmania
A-OK: in conversation
A conversation about my background formative experiences, as well as current narratives. The discussion with artist Alison Kennedy can be viewed online here.
Terraforming the anthropoceneJuly 2018
by Elyse Goldfinch courtesy of Kings Artist Run Emerging Writers Program
Written in response to various discussions leading up to the exhibition Fabricated Country July 6-28 2018, Kings Artist Run, Melbourne.
‘My roots go down to the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick, and damp earth, through veins of lead and silver. I am all fibre. All tremors shake me, and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.’
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931
Piers Greville’s work is a proposition towards a new way of thinking about nature and our human relationship to the landscape. He does this by mapping the natural and technological topographies and fault-lines that occur in a particular site—looking back across history to reimagine it under the vision of the Anthropocene—our new geological era. The Anthropocene, a theoretical epoch, designates the current period of ubiquitous human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems as having altered them to such a degree that they have taken on another form. This is particularly reflected in the current state of climate change. The mediated view of the landscape through the lens of the Anthropocene operates within the material language of Greville’s painting, rendered two and three dimensional. Searching for a new visual language beyond its colonial heritage this exhibition, Fabricated Country,lifts and breaks open a small fragment of the Australian landscape to reimagine its past, present and future.
The point of departure for Fabricated Country is an area on the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales near the Victorian border, an ecological system that is particularly unique to Australia. Rising over 2000 meters above sea level, the highest summit in the country, this site’s ecosystem combines an alpine climate of glacial lakes with native grasses and swamps. Rising temperatures have led to natural habitats vanishing, so much so that this area is now home to some of Australia’s most endangered wildlife. Heralding above the tree line this place serves as a microcosm of our shifting landscape, an area isolated from anything else around it. Climate change inexorably alters all ecologies but when it significantly affects the environment at its highest peak there’s nowhere else to go. Greville describes this process like watching an island slowly going under water or a raft drowning in the ocean. The mountains and this site are sinking under the monumental forces of human intervention.
The repetition of mapping and re-mapping this site in detail becomes a form of geographic data collection to survey the changing patterns in the landscape. Headwaters was painted from a screenshot taken with Google Street View, a technology regularly used to navigate territories across the world. This painting also references a study by nineteenth-century artist and explorer Eugene von Guérard who detailed a dramatic expedition up this mountain range in which
he and his team almost died. This imposing landscape viewed behind a screen makes visible the cultural contingency of our contemporary experience of nature. Western landscape painting traditionally depicted ‘nature’ as something so grand and overwhelming, rendering its topography sublime and unknowable. Here, we see the imaging of the landscape as a gesture acknowledging this history whilst simultaneously revealing the incongruity between our attempts to capture and reproduce the natural world. Whether through painting or Instagram filters—nature ultimately needs to be physically experienced for some semblance of it to be known.
The topographical sculptured canvas, Raft, is held aloft by several ‘Baugespann’, which are scaffold-like structures that outline proposed building developments. Commonly seen in Switzerland these poles and rods form ghostly apparitions of an alternative skyline so citizens can imagine a future city, from residential renovations to new high-rises. There is a sense of urgency and precariousness in the way this small section of earth is carried. Along the poles, the segmented high-vis red characterises the visual language of danger, acting like caution tape to warn the attention of passers-by that this area may be hazardous. We see that this place is in a state of transformation poised on the brink of a potential emergency.
The Anthropocene re-inscribes humanity by placing us back to the centre but Greville’s work imagines nature as something mutable, something readily manipulated by human creativity. The work also reflects a distinctly science fictional landscape in the post-human scene depicted here, like it is a model for terraforming the earth when it lays waste. The humbling ruins scaffold an artificial future landscape that seems to predict an end of nature, a scene completely devoid of life; within this dystopian imaginary, we unearth new ways of looking forward. As rising temperatures produce new emergencies we only witness fragments of what is to come. It’s no longer science fiction to imagine a world where we all become refugees without any possibility of refuge. To imagine a world that dismantles the powers of capitalism to rip apart the nation-state and produce new sovereign territories. A world where the slippages between our real and digital interfaces become so indistinguishable that we can live inside the liminal prism of white noise. To imagine a world in which we are obliterated by nature in order to become nature once again. It will be in this renewal that the anxiety of being in our bodies will lift as we inhale the first breaths of the new epoch. When the ‘weight of the earth’ presses to our ribs we won’t feel pain or fear but relief. To imagine a world where our roots will reach out euphorically and embed themselves, bringing us spectacularly back to the earth.
The following is an abstract of the Masters of Fine Art thesis researched and submitted at Victorian College of the Arts in 2018. Supervisor Prof. Jon Cattapan.
Full (unredacted original) copy of thesis PDF available on request.
The redacted version is viewable at University of Melbourne Library
Faced with fundamental redrawing of human relationships to the global and local environment, a shift in ways of viewing landscape has precipitated. Broad awareness of biodiversity collapse, urbanization, global warming and the advent of genetic engineering and advances in biological technology has inverted many notions and definitions about the word nature. This, underlined by a revisited pre-colonial historical narrative, particularly across Australia, sustains landscape and nature as urgent topics that need to be dealt with and re-viewed.
This practice-led research project investigates the intersections of ecological and cultural environments and how this interrelation can be expounded through the act of painting. The investigation is based largely within a local context of Australian visual art and regional terrains, employing a methodology located at the intersection of postcolonial and post-digital frameworks. Within these frameworks the project interrogates and re-interprets actual and combined landscapes. The project elucidates a contemporary re-imagining of landscape enacted through painting.
The final research outcomes are composed of a written dissertation and installation of drawings, painting and spatial work. The work comprising the installation is a direct manifestation of the practice-led research. It is expanded upon in the exegesis section of the dissertation. This set of creative works form part of the argument attending to the central question of my thesis. Combining post-digital and established modes of production, this work seeks to open up a layered space, a visual methodology for re-viewing landscape.
A response to
Piers Greville’s Sublime Artifice
by N.A.J. Taylor. The following response to the show was written by N.A.J Taylor and published in his Crikey Blog: “This Blog Harms”
‘Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians. In the end, technique has only one principle: efficient ordering’.
— Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1964
The study of political events and their human impact increasingly employs the full range of aesthetic arts – including photographs, music, paintings, film, literature, architecture, and poetry – as source material. Aesthetic politics acknowledges that any artistic expression of the world as it appears to be is subjective. There is, therefore, an inevitable gap between the ‘reality’ of what an artist seeks to present, and the ‘representation’ he or she achieves in their art. It is how this gap between reality and representation is treated that gives aesthetic sources the potential to enhance our capacity to comprehend and deal with the world’s many conflicts and dilemmas – by providing a reflective understanding of how the world is “internalised in our minds and our habits, as well as our collective political consciousness” (Bleiker, p.8). Thus the greatest contribution might come not as we would expect from politically committed or activist art, but from less conscious representations.
Nowhere is the need for an intellectual synthesis between the aesthetic arts and political science more necessary than in the study of violent and non-violent harm in world politics. For instance, ongoing peaceful protests in Melbourne and on Wall Street, as well as the violent displays of the London riots earlier in the year, are all manifestations of a broader frustration towards the rampant combination of flows – of people, goods, services, capital, technologies, ideas, news, images, and data – that are having unintended, uncontrollable, and in may cases, irreversible effects on human and non-human species, as well as the natural environment. Long-term responses to such events require not just a forensic examination of ‘what happened’, but also a deeper understanding of how these frustrations were individually and collectively internalised in human society. Simply put, the problems of the modern world are too complex for us not to employ the full register of human intelligence to make sense and deal with them.
Of all the flows, technology is perhaps the most ubiquitous, and anything but its continued prominence unthinkable. For Jacques Ellul, technology is especially tyrannical since it has embedded within it “social and psychological consequences independent of our desires” (Ellul, p.18). Whereas in ancient times technology was tempered by the rules of tradition, today even incremental technological advances are afforded a perverse reverence traditionally reserved for the sacred. Those in ancient Egypt and Hyksos, for example, had long known about the wheel but did not employ it in labour because the zodiac, which it resembled, was forbidden from being put to material use. Today we see less of this type of transformational ingenuity due to a myopic obsession with hyper-efficiency and order, which is less concerned with solving basic needs and problems than it is about manufacturing new ones. In this way, technology demands instantaneous responses governed only by ‘reflex’, leaving neither the time nor freedom necessary for any meaningful inner ‘reflection’ of the consequences.
Over the past few decades, humanity has increasingly come to see the treacherous consequences of technology on the natural environment. Writing in 1989, the environmental activist Bill McKibben pithily remarked that, “What was once considered nature is now merely an artificial approximation, changed forever”. McKibben’s observation is most brutally evident in sites of industrial production such as the ancient copper mine located near Huelva in southernmost Spain, which the indigenes named ‘red river’ because of its disastrous environmental effects. Originally operated by the Spanish government, the mine had supplied the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, and the Roman Empire. Its copper had paid for Carthage’s numerous wars on Rome and had been held by both Scipio and Hannibal. However believing they could extract yet more from the earth, in 1873 a group of opportunistic foreign investors, equipped with modern techniques and machines that favoured mining aboveground, acquired it from the Spanish government.
What exists there today is a 58-mile-long river flowing through one of the world’s largest deposits of pyrite, or fool’s gold. Because of the mine, the river has a pH reading similar to that of automobile battery acid and contains virtually no oxygen in its lower depths. In the late 1980s, temporary flooding dissolved a power substation, a mandibular crusher, and several hundred yards of transport belts. More recently, the LA Times reported that NASA astrobiologists are using the conditions of the river to replicate the conditions of Mars. “If you remove the green,” one of them remarked, “it looks like Mars.” The thinking goes that if something could live in such an acidic river, then there is likely to be life on Mars too. Whether humans relocate to Mars or stay on earth, the grand irony is that future peoples will have to adapt to equally ‘natural’ environments.
I view Piers Greville’s Sublime Artifice as a meditation on both of the above concepts: Ellul’s dire warnings of the treachery of technology, and McKibben’s observation that human activity alters and harms the nonhuman world through time. Elsewhere, I call this ‘biospheric harm’. However, in many key respects, Greville’s worldview violently differs from that of McKibben and Ellul. Indeed, whereas Ellul saw only disaster in revering technology, Greville draws attention to sites where there is aesthetic delight to be found in its presence. And whereas McKibben explored the possibility of appropriate human responses to protect our once ‘natural’ habitat, Greville appears taken by the sublime in technology’s destruction of, and synthesis with, nature. Greville’s Sublime Artifice therefore eschews any attempt at a mimetic representation of reality characteristic of the landscape, instead choosing to fictionalise his observations of Iceland based on memory and fantasy. This may be troubling for those seeking moral, ethical or spiritual guidance. However in my view, Greville does hint at our future by leaving absent the actor most responsible for nature’s battle with technology: people. For in Greville’s world, we have become silent witnesses to the destruction of nature, and insignificant to its synthesis with the technology of our creation.