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London 1997-2000

Text taken from the catalogue Phoenix
ISBN 0 9581792 0 4


John Barrett-Lennard 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.

The 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.

John Barrett-Lennard