taken from the catalogue Phoenix
ISBN 0 9581792 0 4
REAPING AND SOWING: FLAMES AND THE PHOENIX
is Director of the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at The University of
Western Australia in Perth. He has worked as a curator and writer
for nearly twenty years. He has curated national and international
projects including the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and the
Australian component of the Biennale of Venice, as well as numerous
other exhibitions. He was founding Director of the John Curtin Gallery
at Curtin University of Technology, Director of Praxis Contemporary
Art Space, and initiated ARX, the Artists' Regional Exchange.
phoenix of Tim Maslen and Jennifer Mehra's exhibition is a green and
glowing creature which rises in the aftermath of death and destruction.
It is drawn from their experience of visiting the site of one of Australia's
devastating bushfires last year, a few weeks after the fire's passage,
and seeing the first new green growth on the ashen ground. This mystical
bird is yet to appear, but the seeds floating in the wind, in their
installation, and the charcoal, grey and metallic drawings of the
fire's residue, herald its imminent arrival.
Their work points to the regenerative power of the natural environment
and the cyclical pattern of death and renewal, subjects that have
all but been ignored in most contemporary art. Landscape, the spiritual
and the sublime, as seen in nature, may have dominated the high end
of most Western art for centuries, but in the last hundred years the
dangers of a romantic vision, and the catastrophes of the twentieth
century, have turned most artists vision resolutely away from any
green world. The last thirty years of green or environmental debates
and politics have not overcome this, indeed it has often seemed to
merely reinforce nature as a romanticized and distant territory.
Increasingly, however, artists are trying to find their way into acknowledging
humanity's fundamental connection to life's patterns and to ways of
developing a complex politics and vision of the natural. Nature and
culture were determinedly split in much twentieth century thought,
perhaps in part in response to some of the truly horrendous attempts
at sociopolitical Darwinism. At the beginning of the twenty-first
century nature is now recognized as malleable, subject to both manipulation
through bioengineering and to catastrophic change through human intervention-and
in this it becomes like culture, a by-product of human action.
The flames of the last summer's bushfires, and the fires that dominate
media headlines in Australia as this exhibition opens, are part of
a longer cycle, one that is unconquered by human intervention. It
remains fundamental and inescapable, life and death, birth and renewal,
reaping and sowing, and like the fire's flames (in romantic but still
powerful terms) it remains terrible and glorious. Maslen and Mehra's
work points to the post apocalyptic moment, when seeds are released
from their fire blackened pods, cast into the future, and new shoots
appear on blackened trunks. Their seed pods may glow with yellow and
red, reminders of the flames that have passed, but they remain fertile.
The fires and regrowth that have become the subject for Maslen and
Mehra's work have recently gained an unsought and more terrifying
companion in the headlines. They do not compare nature and culture-humanity
is invisible in their work, but they do not have to. The confluence
of more recent events, of current bushfires and other impending fires,
conspires to force the comparison.
In Australia large areas of the country are currently burning. In
recent weeks hundreds of thousands of hectares of bush and farmland
have been burnt, over five hundred homes were destroyed in our national
capital in the space of an afternoon and evening, hundreds of people
have been injured, six are dead, and untold thousands of animals,
native and domesticated, have been killed. The politics of the fires
are beginning to surge forward also, with claims of inadequate preparation
by various sectors of government and debates about the proximity of
nature-and the dangers that lurk within it-being launched by both
pro and anti environmental movements. The process of renewal will
be vigorously contested.
The other, impending conflagration that dominates, and that necessitates
a wider vision of the phoenix, is of likely war in Iraq. We seem only
weeks from a flaming Middle East, with the torches of the righteous
carried aloft in a new crusade against the forces of evil. In Australia
the thick palls of smoke that drifted over our Parliament House two
weeks ago, when the fires in Canberra were at their height, may be
the precursor to the decisions to be made shortly within it, about
whether we as a nation will march to war, and at whose side.
The walls of flame which are waiting to descend may be the fruit of
the past, a harvest that of necessity follows from some earlier planting.
The fires in Baghdad will have grown from the blossoming red and black
oil well fires of the past, first Gulf (or Iraq) War. These sowed
the seeds of the burning, collapsing twin towers of the World Trade
Centre, a recapitulation on a scale worthy of Hollywood or the Big
Apple, of the towering flames that had burst from Kuwait and Iraq
in 1990-91. The towering inferno in New York has led to a return to
the site of earlier battles, and the dogs of war are straining at
their leashes, waiting for the moment they can be set free. It would
seem that on the ashes of this war would rise the shoots of renewal
and a new generation could pay homage to the phoenix. Culture and
nature appear as one and the same, and its common cycles seem inviolate.
Fire does sweep regularly across large swathes of Australia, much
native flora has adapted to it, and in some cases is dependant on
the flames' power for its regeneration. In a scenario of bio-political
determinism the cleansing flame of war looks to be likewise inescapable,
a vital prelude to post-war reconstruction in a land once dominated
by the forces of evil. It borrows from the might of Biblical prophecy,
and the fruits of righteous apocalypse, while encrusted with ash and
pain, are made to seem sweet within.
The threat of this flame, though, lies not in nature but in human
actions, and we are misled if it is made to appear inevitable. The
fire blackened seeds that follow an Australian bushfire, and which
are preserved by Maslen and Mehra in their cast branches are sown
without our intervention, and they will be reaped in time, whether
we wish it or not. The seeds of war, and the great scythes that follow,
are not nature but culture, and these flames can be beaten out before
they take hold. If the choice is made to light fires and let loose
the dogs then the phoenix that may rise from these ashes is likely
to not be natural and green, but bleak and terrible. We can make choices
about what is to be reaped and what sown.
The engagement of artists like Tim Maslen and Jennifer Mehra with
the residue of a natural process, and the new life that follows from
it, is important not just because we are reminded of the fertility
that follows from destruction. Fire, flame and ash have dominated
ecosystems here, and human intervention will not and cannot stop them.
The forces of culture, and this too is an important reminder to be
taken from this exhibition, are not the same. Maslen and Mehra's work
can point to the vital need to understand the forces and politics
of the landscape and natural environment, in part to confine myths
and metaphors to their own territory. The danger of ignoring the natural
environment, including through the tools of contemporary art, is of
confusing nature and culture, of failing to comprehend what is not
natural, and of not being able to act on that in turn.
For Maslen and Mehra, in the bushfires sweeping Australia nature is
renewed, the detritus of the old swept away, and new possibilities
can arise. The growth that follows the flames is inevitable-together
they are part of the same phenomena. This cycle is truly that of the
phoenix, burning to ash, then springing forth anew.