Eleanor Peres on re-member
In a composition of rich material assemblage, three artists provoke the question if legal personhood should be extended to the ecosystems of lutruwita, and earth.
It only seems fair that natural entities hold rights to protect their inner workings, as the industrial operations that threaten their existence do. Bumblebees, bacteria and boreal forests do not have legal standing today but at nodes throughout history, neither did body corporates, nation states, temples, rivers or robots. Ecuador made rights of nature constitutional in 2008, with pachamama stipulating respect for nature’s existence, maintenance and regeneration. Sophia, earth’s first robot to be granted personhood when she was made a citizen of Saudi Arabia in 2017. The same year, New Zealand recognised the Whanganui River as a legal person as it is regarded in Maori culture as tupuna, an ancestor. This notion of guardianship is how Takani Clark invites us to view the infrastructure of her family ancestry, a home erased from its occupants on stolen land that has never been ceded.
Of course an army of frogs, coal mines or the corporations logging the eucalypt forests of takayna cannot walk into court and articulate their case. A lawyer is hired to represent juridical, non-human persons. But who foots the legal bill for the river? When Should Trees Have Standing was published almost fifty years ago, rights for nature was a radical vision accompanied with a warning. Adjusting the legal framework to encompass complex natural entities invites the risk that its use or misuse be dictated by who had access to it. Possessing rights does not assume the means to exercise them. As the river runs without a wallet, citizens who wish to bring a case against exploration and exploitation on behalf of natural refugium will require deep pockets. Law is enmeshed in architecture through planning, as it is in art via authorship and transaction.
This is the year of the unthinkable perpetually crystallising into reality. The digital-physical balance of every experience is being recalibrated by the day. As the conditions for experiencing art in a constructed environment have transferred to digital platforms, the exhibition becomes an opportunity for speculation, to provoke alternative readings and more meaningful narratives. Like a sandwich without bread, the exhibitions of 2020 have been stripped of their physical architectures and the sequence of experience dictated by built forms, permanent and impermanent. Re-member initiates a refreshing perspective on how artificial structures shape the rituals and relationships we are entangled in. Georgia Morgan reconstructs in the mind’s eye the derelict space of the Derwent beneath the bridge many pass over every day as a portal to an ancient space of cultural and family worship, a Hindu temple in Malaysia. It is a conscious curation to absorb the unconscious, to enshrine the quotidian. The worlds the gallery transports our imagination to are one element in the composition of an art encounter.
There is art itself, its author, the space it occupies and its curation as well as the material of its messaging, works of language that explicate by biography, concept statement, soundscape and comets of social media. With space and time collapsed, art has evolved beyond objects in stasis. As I embark on a night at the museum via laptop in a closed-border world, I become aware of an invitation carefully designed by Caitlin Fargher to both artists and guests to reassemble and return to elements of re-member in the order of their own delight. Pick your player, plot your path.
Selena de Carvalho’s material list is a document titrating darkness with delicacy. Out of the ordinary materials loop back on themselves and stretch temporal notions of what it means to keep an eye out, to watch over. The list reads like field notes from a collage exploration of many return visits, each listing patinated with memories of its participation in cultural and industrial rituals. Take, for example, sassafras roots from logged and burnt coups. When we think of a tree we often consider what is skyward of its trunk before we enquire what lives in the soil, out of sight. Branches, leaves, flowers and fruits.
By focusing on the root, Selena is diving into the humus network of rhizomatic communication between the tree and its neighbours. Not just any old tree, sassafras is the source of the recreational drug MDMA that has been proven to elicit an elevation in mood and experiences of closeness and empathy by humans who ingest it. Early one August morning there was ABC radio national banter about a speculative Tasmanian space program implementing sassafras rockets. Let’s come back down to earth. The sassafras roots de Carvalho operates with as medium are salvaged from logged and burnt coups, begging the question who burned the forest and why was it repeatedly logged to serve as structural and visual contributors to the architecture of high-end tourism projects in the state? Over twenty times we could perform such a dissection on the corpses of what the artist calls material states of short-lived notions of pleasure that run parallel to how one nurtures humility and delicacy.
And how delicate they are. The many limbs and lingering histories of the materials in re-member have been frankensteined into elegant creatures that almost seem to come to life as Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures of metamechanics did. Delicate yet dark, are composed of fragments of material representations of the complex histories of living creatures and places in rich detail. To be with these assemblages is a hi-res invitation to explore deep and diverse corners of the living world, to witness and to listen to their stories in all their imperfect reality and tainted beauty.
Affording rights to the protection and proliferation of complex ecosystems only makes sense if their right to representation is accessible. We cannot fool ourselves with the delusion that the river, granted with personhood, could flow into court and behave as a conscious human and continue to serve as a productive and functional resource to the anthropocene. The river is not a person, it never will be. Though the opposite concept is interesting, that the legal framework provides a platform where the human as well as its juridical institutions are no more righteous than the river and for any to make a case in court, the complexity of the river has a space to be listened to.
Re-member winds a path through the forest floor of lutruwita, scattered with clues to follow your curiosity off-trail in a speculative entanglement of beauty, nature, corruption, family, power and empathy. Take the exhibition to the river if you wish, feel free to return.
Eleanor Peres is a graduate at Sibling Architecture and design researcher from Tasmania, currently based in Sydney. She completed her Masters of Architecture at the University of Sydney, where she teaches design and has worked with architecture studios in Australia, the Netherlands and Japan designing schools, housing and exhibitions. Eleanor’s research confronts the complexity of living systems in a technological built environment, by participation in the Moscow-based research collective The Terraforming, her 2020 publication on the fractured relationship between architecture and ecology On What Earth are you Thinking?, an ongoing exploration with Australian Council of the Arts entitled “Living Structures” and an upcoming residency with the Unconformity in Queenstown.