Speech launching After Eden, an installation by Janet Laurence at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 15 March 2012, Sydney.
I am not sure if Australian novelists are yet on the IUCN list of officially endangered species, though, given the present state of the publishing industry, it can only be a matter of time. But if I didn’t spot Tom Keneally or David Malouf imprisoned in a bell jar or stuffed on a pedestal when I first viewed this new work by Janet Laurence, I did feel a greater connection than I wished with this luminous installation inspired by vanishing species.
For I grew up in a mining town on what was then the very remote west coast of Tasmania, a rough settlement of 500 or so souls. The way in and out was a road that was put in when I was aged two, a wild and windy muddy track through rain-forested gorges and mountains.
When I was five years old we were one night heading to the north of the island, driving through Hellyer Gorge, not far from an area now known as the Tarkine. I was asleep, in the fashion of those days, sitting in the front seat, head in my mother’s lap. I awoke as the car slew to a halt and my astonished parents leapt out, with me stumbling behind. A Tasmanian tiger had just crossed the road in front of them. I blinked in the glow of the EH Holden’s headlights, remember only the rain spiking the big puddles and my own confusion, looking for something that I did not know was at that moment vanishing forever.
Seminal studies in the psychology of killing in war have revealed that man has an innate and overriding abhorrence to killing a fellow human. The actual firing rate of US GIs in combat in World War II – that is, the rate of soldiers firing their rifles in a way that might have a chance of killing an enemy soldier – was only in the order of 10–15 per cent. Or put another way, 85–90 per cent of GIs were either not firing their rifles or firing to miss. Historical research suggests this astonishing figure is remarkably constant through time.
But when the crime is not personally witnessed at close range it becomes far easier and without trauma. The firing rate with aerial crews or naval crews is much closer to 100 per cent. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is very little evidence of post-traumatic stress with, for example, aerial bombing crews who may have killed far, far more people, often innocents, in either Germany or Vietnam, than an infantry soldier did in close combat.
This powerful sense on the part of the humans of the profundity of personal killing seems not restricted to only our own species. We now know that there is a powerful connection between the knowing personal killing of animals and the killing of humans. We know that the killing of animals by children is a very clear indicator of the disturbance that leads to homicidal acts in adults.
And perhaps this explains why we seem largely indifferent to the vanishing of entire species. We are rightly sickened by the slow slaughter of a Brahmin cow in an Indonesian abattoir. We call it an outrage. But the slow slaughter of a species elsewhere in Indonesia we dismiss as an environmental issue.
Perhaps what Janet Laurence is charting here in After Eden is not the collapse of a natural world, but the collapse of an idea of us, the end of an industrial world, an idea of progress, that is given an odd and oddly disturbing elegy in these weird Wunderkammern.
Nothing is more secondary to an artist’s achievement than their original intentions. Though this may have started out in ideas of sanctuary and humans assisting species to survive, I find it myself oddly chilling. There is an eerie nature to this installation, from the Kodiak bear on life support apparatus onwards, through the nets of time and to ghostly images and sad stuffings of dead and disappearing animals.
These cabinets of curiosities hark back to another century that believed, like us, too much in industry, progress and science. Then, nature seemed infinite, a universe whose code could be cracked by Linnaean systems of classification, that took the mirror of the universe and smashed it into a thousand pieces called species and family and taxa. And having broken that world apart, having watched many of its individual parts die in strange slow agonies, we now wish to bring it back together. We preach wholeness.We hope for oneness. Many of us are desperate for new gods, some wishing for an omnipotent, vengeful Gaia.
Because perhaps in our hearts we sense we have not just reached certain limits but may have gone far beyond them. Could it be that the beauty of terror haunting this installation is the terror of beauty that brought us to this pass? The paraphernalia of science, the bell jars and glass lenses and glass vessels that litter this exhibition, are at the end here what they were at the beginning: the false hope of alchemists.
The ethereal negative images of animals from Aceh, China and Australia teetering on extinction or already vanished – cloudy leopards, Sumatran tigers, porcupines, antelopes, sun bears, baboons, monkeys, the gorgeous tapir striped in shadows of the moon, the threatened orangutan – bear witness to the limbo between this life and myth that they are already entering.
Janet Laurence seems to be arguing for kindness, for tenderness, virtues too important to be too easily dismissed. There are various symbols of hope and healing scattered throughout – pieces of sulfur, of topazes, drips and jars of healing medicines. But the whole feels more like a wartime triage centre overwhelmed by the casualties flowing in from an indescribable catastrophe.
The serial images on glass of an open-cut mine full of skeletons of dying species is more than a metaphor. In one cell in this exhibition there sits above a surreal koala hospital a Tasmanian devil.
The devil, as many know, is in serious danger of extinction within a decade from a strange facial tumour disease. The last sanctuary of cancer-free devils is in the Tasmanian Tarkine. We do not know what can save the devil. But we do know what will guarantee its extinction and that is the opening up to development of that final sanctuary, one of the last great temperate rainforest wildernesses in the world. Yet the Tasmanian Labor Government supports open-cut mining and logging of the Tarkine, and the Federal Government refuses to protect the area. Against such determined stupidity, one wonders: What is kindness?
The dead things toll the terrible changes; the twenty tagged blood finches and barn owls reminded me of the twenty-one orange-bellied parrots living at Tasmania’s remote Port Davey, the last in the world still living in the wild. Doomed. I could go on listing those beautiful creatures destined to soon die out on my island – forty spotted pardalotes, giant freshwater crayfish, the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle – and then multiply the example greatly for the rest of Australia, a nation with the shameful reputation of having one of the worst rates of species extinction in the world.
All these animals, birds and fish I have known and know my grandchildren will never know. We live in the twilight of some terrible moment, the meaning of which we can only grasp at. We have grown autistic to the natural world.
‘What separated the stars from the mountains, the mountains from Man,’ asked William Blake over two hundred years ago, ‘And left Man, a little grovelling Root, outside of Himself?’
Perhaps the beginnings of an answer can be found at the exhibition’s end in a film made by Janet of rescued elephants in Aceh. There is a remarkable close-up of an elephant closing and opening its eye, inviting us into another world, a world human beings have only just started to recognise in our time.
What if there is no natural world opposed to the human world? What if there is only this world and the short time we have in it? What if what we see is not just the elephant’s powerlessness and suffering, but our own powerlessness and our own fears for ourselves and our species? Do we pity the elephant, or the elephant us?
Human civilisation advances to the extent it is able to enlarge its capacity for empathy. When it loses that capacity, when it retreats from it, we enter chaos, war, disaster.
Perhaps works like this chart the beginnings of a new empathy, as strange and as historically loaded as the empathy that began with seeing slaves as human, as seeing children as human, as understanding women as equal. It begins with the blink of an elephant’s eye and who can say where it ends?
Contemporary art sometimes seems terrified of the space beyond. Having taken on much of the role of high religion for a certain class with its idols, rituals, monuments, and glorious buildings, it now also seeks to impart orthodoxy. It impales any living art on a torturous spear barbed with endless correct readings.
But art exists in a space beyond comprehension. Art draws our attention to the chaos at the centre of our existence, but it can no more explain it than nature.
I have read that Janet Laurence is an environmental artist or an eco artist. I don’t know what these ugly phrases mean. Adjectives are judgements and judgements are confusion masquerading as certainties. Works of art, though, are conceived in love and can only be apprehended through love, which is perhaps why words of criticism so rarely matter.
‘Perhaps I can only show a pathos and expose a tenderness,’ Janet Laurence has said of this installation.
The purpose of life may be to be defeated by greater and greater things, as the poet Rilke had it, a position that anyone who shares my taste in sporting teams would appreciate. But we need to stop and look, to think, to rediscover things commensurate with our capacity for wonder before we start again. We need to comprehend our already immense loss.
Is After Eden about death then? Is it about desolation? Is it about beauty? Is it about the folly of redemption that haunts us yet? Is it about the possibility, once remote, of the annihilation of the human species? Is it an argument or is it an elegy? These veils, these images that seem to recede and vanish before us, do they lead to hope or despair? Nietzsche thought we had art only in order not to die of the truth. Is it about them, I finally wondered, or is it about us? Is it about man finding a way back from being a grovelling root outside of himself?
Or is it about a child stumbling around in the headlights in a rainforest soon to vanish, searching for an animal about to pass into myth, confused by what was, what is, and knowing only at his centre the beginning of a loss – of wonder, of enchantment – that he does not yet know will haunt him for the rest of his life?
I congratulate Janet Laurence on After Eden and thank you for listening to me.