Opening comments: Rare Earth

Rare Earth Artists Lab launch 2nd November 2017

Art after Dark, Light Square Gallery, TAFE

Life on earth – and the art and science of living and sustaining life – seemingly simple and yet so impossibly complex.

As humans we dream, imagine, ponder, study, question, experiment, interpret, create, destroy – anything goes with homo-sapiens. We appear to have remarkable powers, yet can never agree on how to use them.

One thing regardless, everything we are and do is underpinned by the systems and forces of the universes we exist within, and on Earth itself it comes down to ecosystems. Ecological systems provide us with every essential requirement: air, water, soil, food, shelter, medicine, fuel, fabric, place, restoration, inspiration … the list is abundant.

What so few seem to ‘get’, however, is that we completely depend on healthy ecosystems. They’re the givers of life, with or without humanity. Then comes us, human civilisations and societies. And within our societies come the systems we construct – cultural, social, political and economic. Only once alive and well with the milk of Earthly abundance, only then are we are then free to create our own systems.

Different people express this connection with the land differently. Professor Mick Dodson, aboriginal lawyer and human rights advocate, puts it thus: that land “supports our identity, our spirit, our social relations, our cultural integrity and our survival. Land is the source of our physical and spiritual sustenance. Removed from the land we are literally removed from ourselves”.

Pretty fundamental understanding one might think, whichever way you look at it.

And science, a continual process of discovery, constantly sheds new light, creates new insights, into how our world works. Yet there’s a constant struggle with translating science into good policy, with communicating evidence around climate change, relationships between habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, benefits of marine parks, needs of migrating birds, how to build healthier cities, produce food, protect ourselves from diseases, manage waste …

And just because we’ve done something before doesn’t make us knowledgeable. We’ve fished the seas and oceans for thousands of years, but does that make us all expert in how fisheries sustain and function as part of bigger systems? If it did, could we possibly have lost over 90% of our big fish globally? Would we have brought species after species to the brink of collapse?

We love our beaches in Australia – over 85% of us live in the coastal zone. Yet many years ago it was noted that we’re loving our beaches to death. Love and care are not enough. We need the knowledge and understanding of how our coastal systems actually function in order to make good decisions. If we’d used science, surely we wouldn’t have razed the coastal dunes of Adelaide to the ground and then had to spend millions, year after year, dredging, trucking and otherwise importing sand. We wouldn’t have imported the rabbit or the cane toad, or infilled all the swamps – the kidneys of the land, or planted the Arum lily near creeks and rivers, or gazanias near mallee or sand dunes. We wouldn’t clear all the small, medium and prickly native shrubs from our parks and gardens and then wonder where the small birds have gone.

Which is why we are troublesome tenants, as this exhibition puts it. So quickly we forget from whence we come, from what we’re made, upon what we depend. We stop thinking before we do stuff.

I’ll unashamedly say that I love this Earth with a passion, but I’m not in love with humanity! From the beautiful, innocent, delightful and curious infants (and I say with renewed vigour as I’ve just become a grandmother) we become, to varying degrees, greedy, selfish, egotistical, arrogant, conquering, know it alls! We lose our wonder and curiosity about the world around us, we stop asking questions and start spurting answers whether or not we know anything about we say. We think we care, but if we did we’d respect and utilise the knowledge bank, the insights of science, and not only western science, a whole lot better.

I treasure our creative forces and creative spirits, our enquiring minds. I treasure curiosity, inquisitiveness, delight, humility, compassion, generosity. That’s why I love both science and art – equally! They both inquire and explain and interpret and express. They’re passionate and exuberant with the diversity and wonder of life.

In talking with the three artists presenting this exhibition I was struck by the journey they took over three years to arrive here, and also by three things they mentioned that were really important to them: collaboration, listening, and the concept of humanity versus nature. I’d like to pick up on these three!

Listening first – oh so important. Listening to each other yes, but also to the science, the evidence, the stories, the knowledge bank. So listening and hearing! And then listening to the land. A wonderful book titled Listen, our land is crying by Mary White was recommended to me years ago. I deeply agree – in such a noisy world, to listen and to hear, & then to learn, is so important for our future.

Secondly, humanity versus nature. We’re obviously an intricate part of nature, despite constant attempts to set ourselves above. We’re nature’s produce, an abundant animal that has done well indeed, especially in terms of population and distribution. So how can we be versus nature? And yet in a sense we are. We’re increasingly ecologically illiterate, without a functional knowledge of how natural systems work and support life.

Given our capacities to think, analyse, build and share knowledge, tell stories and determine our pathways, we are bizarre. It’s as though we teeter on a perpetual seesaw of: understanding and ignorance, caring and carelessness, selflessness and selfishness, cooperation and competition. Taking cues from the world of binaries & opposites rather than pluralities and complexities. Which is, I think, why I love science – it embraces and untangles complexity, and art – it embraces and expresses complexity.

And thirdly, collaboration. Again critical and always a journey, often with unanticipated and delightful results. Collaboration not just with others though, not just with like or even unlike minds. But with the Earth itself and its parts, with the ecosystems that support us, with creeks and rivers, swamps and wetlands, seagrass meadows and kelp beds, woodlands and forests, dunes and deserts. With the keystone species and top predators – the sharks, bears, wolves, eagles. With the micro-organisms that inhabit the soils and our bodies, that determine whether or not we are healthy.

Collaboration should not just be anthropocentric – all about us. That’s the behaviour that creates the problems in the first place.

Through working in both the fields of environmental science (my PhD is in ecological literacy) & the arts (been a creative writer for much of my life) I’ve learned a lot about how the world works, as one does, but enough is never enough. The more I learn, the more I know I don’t know. Frustrating!! And some things I’ll never understand – it ties my brain up in knots just to attempt to conceive of multiple universes and the warping and wefting of space and time! Albert Einstein & Brian Schmidt & Brian Cox’s worlds!

However, one of my favourite quotes comes from Einstein: “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better”.

It gives me great pleasure to open this exhibition, and to be part of something intriguing that questions and interprets and celebrates, creatively, our Rare Earth while searching for pathways through the future. Congratulations John, Georgie and Michele.

Sheryn Pitman (PhD)

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