The Wonder of Trees: Engaging Public Art

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At the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow, Australia revealed itself once again as a climate action laggard – stubborn, arrogant, and willing to compromise the rigour of global climate agreements by refusing to sign up to ambitious carbon emission reductions. Australia is literally at the coalface of climate change: while its economy is still heavily reliant on the mining and exportation of fossil fuels, the country is plagued by increasingly frequent natural disasters, including the unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfires caused by global warming that endangered or made extinct over 500 species of plants and animals. At the same time, neighbouring Pacific nations have for some years been facing the impacts of climate change with rising sea levels causing destructive erosion and coastal flooding.

In response to the environmental crisis, artists across the world have either become activists themselves or been active in interpreting natural ecologies and scientific data for lay audiences. Public art, as the most accessible form of the visual arts, enjoys heightened potential to capture the attention of people who may not otherwise be engaged with the facts of climate change. Yet bringing new insights and perspectives to audiences in the public domain is never straightforward. With its broad accessibility comes the perennial problem for public art as being an often divisive presence in our city spaces. Public art can bring a feeling of belonging to a place, but it can also be controversial as viewers’ responses reveal differing ideological, political, and aesthetic values.

If public art is to rise above the status of civic decoration to make a meaningful contribution to current discourse, it needs to connect with a broad cross-section of society, not just those already well-informed and heavily engaged with environmental issues. In Australia, artists have responded to this challenge with some notable examples of public art that draw attention to the natural world in ways that are grounded in facts yet deploy a sense of wonder or play in conveying the need to urgently act on climate change. A major hit of the 2022 Sydney Festival, for example, was Thaw, an astonishing spectacle featuring performers dancing on a large block of ice suspended high over Sydney Harbour.[i]

As a recent project by Olafur Eliasson demonstrated, however, the use of real icebergs in public art risks being met with scepticism.[ii] Many environmental artworks of the last decade have, less controversially, harnessed the power of trees to advance discourse around environmental issues. In Australia and unbeknown to many, Joseph Beuys’ iconic 7,000 Oaks: City Forestation not City Administration (1982) extends to Sydney, Australia’s largest city. Forty years after its launch at documenta, 7000 Oaks is widely acknowledged as a pioneering environmental art project, an art-led ecological intervention and occupation of public space intended to raise awareness about the environment by offering first-hand experience of nature and its life cycles within an urban context.

Australia’s small but valued 7000 Oaks was curated into the 1984 Biennale of Sydney and was the first international iteration of the project.[iii] For Sydney, Beuys and the Biennale team sought a tree with a similar historic link to place as the original oaks in Kassel, and they selected the Ficus macrophyilla. Colloquially known as the Moreton Bay fig, it is as large and slow-growing as a European oak and native to the eastern seaboard of Australia. As well as being synonymous with the enduring landscape of Sydney and having been featured in Australian paintings for generations, the Moreton Bay fig has been culturally significant to the First Nations people of the coastal lands around Sydney for over 60,000 years.[iv] In late 2022, Sydney’s 7000 Oaks will be re-launched with the opening of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new Sydney Modern extension.

With a history enmeshed in both Aboriginal and post-settlement landscaping, the Moreton Bay fig is a culturally significant species in eastern Australia, and since Beuys’ intervention other artists have referenced the species in public art projects. Elsewhere in Sydney, Allan Giddy’s light-based Earth vs Sky is activated each evening in Morton Bay figs located at the water’s edge of an inner city park.[v] At sunset, they are illuminated with colours captured from the sky using renewable technologies developed in partnership with scientists. As the artist explains: “Lights bathe the trees in their own ever-changing ‘opposite twilight’ each day after sunset. To achieve this, a world-first, custom-built, colour-sensitive system continuously samples, and then inverts, the colour of the evening sky. As the earth seeks to balance the sky through colour opposition, the turbine balances the electricity used to create it.” Giddy is an artist drawn to the cycles of natural systems, his time-based sculptures aiming to re-invigorate public spaces with installations powered by sustainable energy. In the decade since its installation, Earth vs Sky has gained an iconic status on a highly visible city foreshore, testament to the capacity of art-science collaborations to mesmerise and inform users of the public domain, including those otherwise disengaged with climate politics.

Another artwork involving trees and illumination was recently commissioned in Melbourne as a temporary art project intended to evoke the nocturnal activity of native possums in an inner city square.[vi] Mikala Dwyer’s Apparition (2021) is a pair of holograms depicting a possum, appearing high in the trees after dark. The artist notes how apparitions “seem to be dreamt up from a need to symbolise and make meaning out of something – loss, fear, love, birth, death. They also address the deep imbalances around power and the sacred at different times in history. This apparition of possums perhaps asks the question: ‘Will you miss me when I’m gone?’”.

 

Mikala Dwyer, Apparition, 2021, City of Melbourne and RMIT University, University Square, Melbourne. Photo by Takeshi Kondo

Environmental scientist and author Tim Flannery believes that art that evokes emotion can be a useful weapon in raising awareness and possibly inspiring action against climate change. He has spoken of the need to bring emotions into the dialogue as scientific data and political rhetoric in themselves are dry, partisan, and potentially disengaging. Flannery argues that “now we have proven that climate change is real, we have to stop being rational and start being emotional”.[vii] Dwyer’s animation appears and disappears at random, reflecting how possums are normally encountered but also exerting a haunting presence invocative of ephemerality and loss. The overwhelming experience of the work is sadness, the endearing marsupial slipping from view as quickly as it appears. It is a requiem for an animal not yet under threat of survival, but whose fate is likely to follow that of the many species already endangered or lost. It conveys collective feelings of regret and anger over habitat loss and consequent diminishment of native species populations, the ghostly image eliciting an unequivocally emotional response.

The sense of wonder in Dwyer’s work enhances its eloquence as an environmental statement. Exploiting the potential for public space to be an effective platform for dialogue on issues of the day, the artist cleverly draws the view into a magical suspension of disbelief. Similarly seducing passers-by is an audio-based artwork in the centre of Sydney that also mourns the loss of native species to development and climate change.[viii] Forgotten Songs, a collection of bird calls from 50 endangered and extinct species driven out of Sydney’s centre since white settlement, comprises a collection of bird cages suspended above a mostly pedestrianised city laneway. It was immediately embraced by city workers, who began to cut through the laneway to enjoy a few moments of uplifting birdsong, a reprieve from the cacophony of traffic noise just metres away. Like Giddy’s illuminated trees on the city waterfront, by imbuing wonder in people’s encounter with an aspect of nature not otherwise visible – or in this case audible – the work takes viewers by surprise, creating a space for learning about and reflecting on aspects of the natural environment and the destructive impact of human activity.

 

Mikala Dwyer, Apparition, 2021, City of Melbourne and RMIT University, University Square, Melbourne. Photo by Takeshi Kondo.

An element of wonder is key to these projects’ capacity to penetrate the public psyche. Wonder can also be invoked by chance encounters with natural phenomena in unexpected spaces, such as a micro-forest on a busy city street. Barlow Street Forest was created by the Dirt Witches, a cross-disciplinary collective of female environmental and climate activists, as one of a few temporary art projects commissioned to help attract people back into the city centre after the 2019-2020 pandemic lockdowns.[ix] A pop-up native forest measuring eight by 13 metres, its improbable location adjacent to Sydney’s Chinatown near busy Central Station has inspired both curiosity and petitions to make it permanent.

The Dirt Witches include established environmental artists such as Janet Laurence, curator Vivienne Webb, and academic Prue Gibson, author of The Plant Contract.[x] “As Dirt Witch artist activists we have the opportunity to bring our individual practices and networks together to create the micro forest installation. This aligns with local and international movements to establish fast growing, dense and biodiverse plantings. Complex ecosystems and nature conservation are fundamental to this moment.”[xi] In addition to fulfilling a brief to create a public artwork, the project is also intended to educate and garner new knowledge. When launched in early 2021 it was accompanied by a program of talks and workshops, advertised on the street by a message chalkboard where the artists and visitors shared facts and information on environmental statistics, plant varieties, and maintenance tips. The forest mimics the layers of a natural ecosystem, incorporating over 30 species belonging to the critically endangered Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub, as well as beehives containing sugarbag stingless native bees (Tetragonula carbonaria). It serves as a reminder of the 5,300 hectares of scrub that once stretched between Botany Bay to the south and North Head to the north of Sydney.

In a country where public opinion is increasingly at odds with government policy over climate action, public art in Australia is playing an important role in revealing natural ecologies and explaining environmental challenges. While some audiences welcome the presence of climate change discourse in city spaces, others still look to art for an apolitical reprieve from dire predictions about the future of our planet. Those viewers are looking for glimmers of light, not despair, and do not want to be bombarded with depressing and didactic narratives as they go about their business in the public domain. Like the other public artworks discussed here, Barlow Street Forest presents an effective solution to the dilemma faced by artists wanting to activate public space by engaging rather than enraging audiences. In order to pique the interest of lay audiences in environmental issues, public art can occupy, as these projects demonstrate, a middle ground between visual captivation and subtle pedagogy. As the creator of Thaw explained, the aim is to “capture the minds of people in [the artwork’s] wonder and deliver this message through a moment of thought, not a slap in the face.”[xii]

 

 

[i] Legs on the Wall, Thaw. Commissioned for the 2022 Sydney Festival; performed 14–16 January, 2022.

[ii] Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch, 2014. For a discussion of its disputed impact, see report by environmental NGO Julie’s Bicycle, 10 January 2019: juliesbicycle.com/resource_hub/ice-watch-london-2018/; and Hettie Judah, “Was Olafur Eliasson Bringing 30 Icebergs to London a Sustainability Own Goal?”, Frieze, 14 December 2018: www.frieze.com/article/was-olafur-eliasson-bringing-30-icebergs-london-sustainability-own-goal

[iii] For a full discussion of Beuys’ 7000 Oaks in Sydney, see Felicity Fenner, “De-Beuysed but not Forgotten”, Public Art Dialogue, vol. 9, no. 2, 182-191: doi.org/10.1080/21502552.2019.1644131

[iv] The Gadigal of the Eora Nation traditionally made fishing nets from the tree fibres. See “Moreton Bay Fig: History”, New South Wales Office of Environment & Heritage: www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=2700766

[v] Allan Giddy, Earth vs Sky, 2012. Bicentennial Park, Glebe. Commissioned by the City of Sydney.

[vi] Mikala Dwyer, Apparition, 2021. University Square, Melbourne. Commissioned by the City of Melbourne in collaboration with RMIT University, Melbourne.

[vii] Tim Flannery, UNSW Centre for Ideas, forum attended by the author, Sydney, 19 August 2020.

[viii] Michael Thomas Hill, Forgotten Songs, 2010/2012. Angel Place, Sydney. Commissioned by the City of Sydney.

[ix] Lara Merrett, Caroline Rothwell, Rena Shein and Floria Tosca (artists), Barlow Street Forest, Barlow Street, Sydney, 2021. Commissioned by the City of Sydney.

[x] Prue Gibson, The Plant Contract: Art’s Return to Vegetal Life, Brill, Leiden, 2018.

[xi] Dirt Witches (2021). City of Sydney: www.cityartsydney.com.au/artwork/barlow-street-forest/

[xii] Joshua Thomson, in Kelly Burke, “Three women are dancing on an iceberg in the sky. They don’t know how fast it will melt”, The Guardian, 14 January 2022:

www.theguardian.com/culture/2022/jan/14/three-women-are-dancing-on-an-iceberg-in-the-sky-they-dont-know-how-fast-it-will-melt

 

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