Flow: Counihan Gallery

From top: Flow at Counihan Gallery

Flow at Counihan Gallery, Brunswick (21 April-21 May)

Artists: Colleen Boyle, Clara Brack, Garth Henderson, Heather Hesterman , Bridget Hillebrand, Penelope Hunt, Rebecca Mayo, Harry Nankin, Jen Rae, Dominic Redfern, Cameron Robbins, Sarah Tomasetti, Maurizio Toscano

Curator: Heather Hesterman

Reviewer: Kate Gorringe-Smith

Flow is a peculiar type of motion. It is what water does when ice sheets melt; what makes rivers etch the earth over eons; it is the grand gesture of humanity’s movement from the past into the future; and, alas, it is also that unfeeling description of massive, involuntary human migration. Matter and energy flow, and information too: evidenced by the firing of neurons as much as the contagion of an internet sensation. Flow asks us to reflect on our experiences of flows and invites us to bear witness to the ecological present while hearing the call of our common ecological future.” *– Heather Hesterman


In this tightly curated show, “flow” defines the theme, the placement of works in the gallery, and the visitor’s experience. As part of Climarte’s 2017 Climate+Art=Change festival, the exhibition sits in a space with climate change at its centre, and each work addresses this crisis, whether directly, subtly or tangentially.

Counihan Gallery consists of three continuous spaces. In Flow, the first houses works characterised by feelings of helplessness underpinned by the implications of human agency. These are some of the most stark and pessimistic in the exhibition, works that peer with varying degrees of horror at the future and the role of humanity in the looming crisis. The first work, When All Else Fails, Jen Rae’s large drawing in white on a solid black background, depicts a lone climate refugee drifting in a small dinghy beneath a chaotic sky filled with the human debris of the ages. It is a bleak and unforgiving portrait – yet there is an innocence to the lone, childlike survivor, and the dinghy’s name is Resilience.

Next to Rae’s drawing is Bridget Hillebrand’s installation Floodlines. Beautiful and delicate, this is the exhibition’s sole work in traditional print media. Referencing articles from newspapers in linocuts of text, Hillebrand has created a downpour of words that both documents and mimetically recreates the flood-producing rains in the Wimmera in January 2011.

Water is everywhere. In Sarah Tomasetti’s work, the peak of Mt Kailash, one of Tibet’s most sacred mountains, floats against a white background, whose apparent solidity fades to the insubstantiality of muslin. This poetic piece captures both the endurance of the mountain and the rhythm of its human ritual of worship: pilgrims visit to circumnavigate the base of the mountain, on which no human has ever set foot. Four of South Asia’s major rivers have their headwaters here, fed by slow glacial melt.

The piece is a paradox: a floating fresco. “The plaster surface of the painting is made from marble dust and limestone putty, an ancient method that echoes the means of decorating the walls of Tibetan monasteries, using the materials at hand. The muslin used to bring the work away from the wall coils below, echoing the continual passage of feet in the dust at the base of the mountain, undertaking the Kora”. It is a work of reverence that also enshrines the threat that “…the estimated 46,000 glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau appear to be melting faster than those on other parts of the globe”.

Suspended next to Tomasetti’s work is Hesterman’s RISING. Hesterman has fashioned timber water-level markers that show current and predicted sea-levels for different sites along the Victorian coast. The markers hang from the ceiling and dance, casting painterly shadows, but this serenity is contradicted by their spear-like points poised to fall and stab, and their high-water marks – well over my head – that predict our inundation. Human-scaled, it is at once comprehensible and incomprehensible, beguiling and horrifying, marking the current point in time as much as a hydrological phenomenon.

In the room’s centre, Colleen Boyle’s floor-piece, I of the world, also invites us to consider where we stand in time. On the floor is an image she has collaged from two: the famous photo taken in 1968 by an Apollo 8 astronaut of the Earth’s rise above the moon, and a 15th century painting known as The Ideal City that became “a metaphor for good governance and the civilising presence of architecture”. At the time they were made, Boyle argues, both works caused a break in the flow of how humanity saw itself in relation to the world. Boyle plays further upon this idea by inviting the viewer to stand on the image and view oneself in a mirror suspended above the work – placing the viewer front and centre in this self-examination of exactly where we stand in relation to the planet.

There is disbelief and horror in this room at how we are changing things we have traditionally considered to be out of our hands. Linking the first and second spaces, however, is an element of hope: large digital prints by Garth Henderson of German industrial sites that have ceased their original functions to be preserved instead as playgrounds for society. It is a complex homage to the remains of an outmoded industrial history that has been repurposed for a different future.

In the second gallery space the works continue to relent. The mood becomes meditative through action, reflection and abstraction.

Cameron Robbins’ Creek Thing is an automatic drawing machine that, powered by the waters of the Merri Creek and with the assistance of children from the local primary school, creates abstract works that capture the creeks’ dynamism and autonomy as a place with its own life and identity.

Abstraction and identity also characterise Harry Nankin’s meditation on a stand of “old Belah trees (Casuarina pauper) found on the remote Meringur Flora Reserve in northwest Victoria”. In his images, overlaid gelatin silver film photograms on acrylic, backlit by a lightbox, and a pigment print, the shadows of the trees mingle into a complex abstraction. Nankin’s work, In defence of the pathetic fallacy, invites us to embrace the notion of Pathetic Fallacy to mitigate “…our well-reasoned suspicion of anthropomorphism [that] has become an irrational and exploitative indifference to nature for itself – an indifference central to the ecological crisis that besets us all”.

Rebecca Mayo’s piece, Bound by gorse, meditates on the flow of the Merri Creek, the growth of vegetation, of history and of colonisation, through the practices of clearing the noxious weed and making it into bricks to create a physical wall. Mayo writes that “Bound by gorse considers humans’ current relationship with Gorse conflating its historical use [as a hedging plant] to contain with the contemporary task of keeping it at bay”.

The fourth artist in this room, Clara Brack, has created a series of digital prints that appear as oversized postcards. Again reflecting the flow of history, nature and, here, thought – through hand-written messages, Brack’s work alone projects the artist herself into the exhibition space, allowing some viewers perhaps to engage more personally with the works.

Placed appropriately between rooms two and three, sits Janus, a sculpture by Maurizio Toscano who writes: “In antiquity Janus was the Roman deity responsible for watching over the thresholds of civic and domestic spaces. This two-faced figure reminded the citizens of Rome that the stability and fragility of the present demanded both a careful reflection on the past and a prudent contemplation of the future.” Janus literally appears to be a time bomb, the digital countdown displayed on the side of the piece ticking down to our destruction.

The third and final gallery space holds two works: digital pieces by Dominic Redfern and Penelope Hunt. This is the only space with a bench, and hence the invitation to sit. If the first space was characterised by interruption/examination, and the second by meditation, this space invites immersion. At its northern end, Redfern’s video installation Creek appears on five screens. It is a work that finds hope within compromise. Redfern’s creek is Riddell’s Creek, “…polluted and flowing at a trickle”, but nonetheless, “…in its diversity and tenacity…as beautiful as any other of nature’s expressions”. Mesmerising, the screens show the creek in macro, the detail absorbing and the light beguiling.

Hunt’s work, the exhibition’s final piece and – consciously placed by Hesterman’s curation – its lightest, is a four and a half-minute video loop projection depicting a landscape of rolling white clouds that silently reveal and erase a group of wind turbines. It creates a poetry of our engagement with renewables and climate change as it shifts from in and out of focus, from political to personal and back again, in and out of the media and our daily lives.

The climate change conversation is fraught with fear and helplessness. Throughout this exhibition artists have responded delicately and with great integrity. And although it does not shy from the possibility of destruction, the exhibition still offers an intrinsic message of hope: ironically, one can’t observe or comment on a “flow” without seizing upon one of its moments – we cannot comprehend the flow in its entirety – so a hiatus is created in which the viewer may question how and whether he or she dares interrupt the current flow toward environmental destruction. As Janus powerfully reminds us – we can stop the ticking, we can change the flow. – Kate Gorringe-Smith

*All quotations are by the artists from their artist statements (http://www.moreland.vic.gov.au/events-recreation/arts-and-gallery/counihan-gallery-in-brunswick/counihan-gallery-exhibitions/flow-exhibition-2017/)