The complex bargain: animals and humans

Review

A Covenant with the Animals

Murray Bridge Regional Gallery, 2 December-29 January

Reviewer: Christobel Kelly

By way of the title A Covenant with the Animals, curators Stephanie Radok and Sandra Starkey Simon convey a certain sense of gravitas in the relational bargain that humans and animals enact in the world. The binding nature of this agreement also exists as a penumbra and many of the artists engage with the indeterminate area where wilderness intersects with human convocation.

As the contemporary writer Robert Macfarlane reminds us, wild signs attached to natural life may be vigorously experienced close by, and not necessarily in some distant mountain range.  In Fanny Retsek’s concertina artists’ book, The Lost Fables of el Palo Alto, we see her observation of animals whose infiltration into suburbia parallels our own for a brief moment. This fleeting contact reminded the artist of Aesop’s fables, and the elusive moral instruction attached to the presence of animals. Her work Flee, on the other hand, alludes to the limiting beliefs that compel humans to tamper with apex predators in the wilderness areas of North America. Here, in this large-scale work, we see a delightful rush of animals all skittering in one direction. The endearing aesthetic of the work is almost jarring when one understands that their stampede is away from the unforeseen collapse of ecosystems brought on by myopic environmental policies.

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Lloma Mackenzie, Seeking Cover 11 (detail) 2016, relief printed French oak planks, linocuts on Wenzhou paper, linocut oak leaves on French dictionary pages, 2400 x 46 cm

The clattering restlessness between nature and culture is also present in the work Seeking Cover I, II and III, by Lloma Mackenzie.

A tension in this three-panelled work arises from the compassionate depiction of the animals that live in the oak forests of southern France, the innate beauty of the foliage that provides them with shelter and the subtle inference that come autumn, the animals formerly nurtured by the forest become threatened by it as the woods become the site of the hunt. For Mackenzie, the twist in the human activity of hunting is the use of dogs bred for that purpose.

The human activity of weaving in Beth Hatton’s piece Selection, 2nd Series is used to create a contemporary tapestry that references early settler floor coverings. Hatton, who originally coined the phrase, ‘a covenant with the animals’, poses nuanced and complex questions about our need for textiles. Through the use of kangaroo fur and sheep’s wool, as well as embedded text naming a variety of Australian marsupials, she draws attention to the pivoting equilibrium between the wild and the domestic; questions which go to the heart of the conundrum of how we maintain the benefits of biodiversity while at the same time fulfilling our material need for animal- and plant-based fibres.

The biodiversity that sustains us on a physical level also sustains us in some deep emotional sphere, and Stephanie Radok’s ink on paper calligraphic drawings Marsupialiania celebrates the ‘creatureliness’ of the Australian animals whose names and faces may have been forgotten through extinction and endangerment. In her essay to accompany the catalogue Radok reminds us that, like the animals in her garden, these creatures had, and continue to have a living presence.  Another series of woodcuts, printed in warm hues, captures the individuality of each small marsupial. In a similar way, the contemporary Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita, reminds us that the relational juncture we have with animals leads us to ‘embrace the fact that animality is at the heart of our human identity’.[1]

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Above: Stephanie Radok, Woylie – extinct in South East from The Marsupialiania Suite, 2016, drawing, oak gall ink on Zerkall paper, 38.5 x 53 cm
Above, right: Andrea Przygonski and Sandra Starkey Simon, Kuula and her Flora Bones after Georges Cuvier, Koala, 1817, engraving, from the series Viewpoints, 2016, edition of  5 screenprint on digital painting, 76 x 50 cm

 

This sensitive philosophical viewpoint is also shared by Andrea Przygonski and co-curator Sandra Starkey Simon.  Their collaboration has resulted in a series of screenprints on digital paintings. Each of the Australian animals presented in the work hearkens back to the work of colonial artists. The names of the animals, however, are spelled out in various Aboriginal languages alluding to the shape of absence in the Australian landscape.

Interspersed between these screenprints are a number of brightly coloured acrylic shelves that house a series of Australian animal souvenirs. Although these small-scale works have a particularly kitsch aesthetic, perhaps a slow reading of their minuscule presence may also invite the viewer to regard the souvenired animals as icons to be revered and treasured.

In flitting between the time periods of settler incursion and present-day tourism, Przygonski and Starkey Simon call attention to the post-colonial sweep of time, and the effect it has had on the changing regard for the animal population of Australia.

At the core of Laura Wills’ work Animals Indo is a regard for human and animal interconnectedness, which is prompted by ideas of Buddhist philosophy. This universality can be seen in her digital drawings of endangered Indonesian animals that contain worlds within worlds. Each image is an amalgam of other human figures, flowers, swathes of material and so on. In this almost collage-like work, we are invited to view the world as both whole and composite at the same time. Likewise her deeply mysterious work Blackbreech depicts a breeching southern right whale. Whilst airborne, the creature straddles two worlds and, suspended in time, we are able to see that in the place of encrusted barnacles and sea creatures, its entire body is composed of clouds in a strange inversion of the elements.

More tender than didactic, this exhibition avoids overloading the viewer with a sense of ecological diminishment, rather, it calls us to come quietly and observe the animals that share our world. Through the distinctive lens of each of these seven artists we are able to recruit a sense of wonder at their covenant with the animals.

Christobel Kelly is a South Australian printmaker and lecturer in Art History at Adelaide College of the Arts.

[1] Raimond Gaita, The Philosopher’s Dog, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, 175.

Akky van Ogtrop on Organising Paper Contemporary

How did Paper Contemporary come about?

In 2013 I was approached by Barry Keldoulis, director of the Contemporary Art Fair, with the proposal to organise a works on paper section as a special project presented in association with the Print Council of Australia (PCA). This proposal was based on the blueprint of the Sydney Art on Paper Fair (SAPF), which I founded in 1989 and organised until its tenth anniversary in 2005. SAPF was the first art fair in Australia specialising in works of art on paper.

I was unable to go ahead with the project in 2013 (too short notice), but when Barry approached me again in 2015, I decided to take on the challenge. I presented Paper Contemporary as a project in association with the PCA, but planned it in such a way that the PCA was not involved in administration, or any other work in relation to this project. With the fair organisers, I developed a plan for a section focussing on works on paper, prints, and artists’ books – still based on the SAPF idea, but placed within the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair. And that’s how Paper Contemporary was born.

Hosted within Carriageworks, the city’s urban industrial arts precinct, I encouraged and invited a dynamic grouping of print studios, master printers and workshops to participate. Complimenting the main fair, the result was a special survey of the works on paper sector, curated to focus on original limited edition prints, multiples, artist’s books, and zines held at Bay 19.

Why do you think it’s important to have a space dedicated to works on paper within a fair like Sydney Contemporary?

To have the Paper Contemporary participants together as a group has more impact than if they had to compete with the big spaces/galleries.

Ours was an intimate, inviting space and the audience was not made to feel intimidated. It gave them the chance to talk to the exhibitors and see the works up close. Another important reason for me was that Paper Contemporary presents such a good opportunity and platform to show the best of the best, to better educate future collectors on the joy of buying and living with works of art on paper.

How did people respond to the exhibit?

I had terrific feedback, especially about the atmosphere of our space. Many told me it was the most vibrant section of the fair, which is a great compliment for all of the exhibitors. Most of them did very well, not only with sales but also with making new connections. I am sure a lot of follow-up business will occur.

Is there anything you would do differently?

I found this year’s fair better organised than the first one; however, many improvements can still be made. In regards to Paper Contemporary: there is always something I would do differently. With SAPF I tried to improve every fair. Same now, as this was the first year in a building I did not know. To mention a few things: I would do the talks, panel discussions and demonstrations differently. I would consider how to improve the configuration of the stands and the tables. Lighting can be improved, etc. I also hope to get feedback from the exhibitors: that is very important.

What was the highlight of the fair for you? Did a particular work stand out?

This is difficult to answer. Was there a particular work? No, not really. I saw some great works – too many to make one choice. I always enjoy seeing the German Expressionist prints in the Olsen Irwin Gallery. There were some great works in the Annandale Galleries stand. I enjoyed the works by Tan Vargas in Gallery Mutt, Santiago, and many other interesting works in the international galleries. It is really a pity the fair did not produce a catalogue. It always helps your memory…

Akky van Ogtrop is the Executive Director of Akky van Ogtrop Fine Arts. She is a curator, an art historian, an art valuer and the President of the Print Council of Australia.