ARENA – curatorial essay


The world needs coal and highways, but we do not need the results of strip-mining or highway trusts.  Economics, when abstracted from the world, is blind to natural processes.  Art can become a resource, that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist. Ecology and art are not one-way streets, rather they should be crossroads.[i]  – Robert Smithson (1979)

Last year I attended a lecture given by Dr. Graeme Pearman, world-renowned climate scientist and expert, and former Chief of CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Division of Atmospheric Research.  Dr. Pearman has worked on the issue of climate change for over 35 years.  The focus of his lecture addressed the failure of climate science’s ability to effectively communicate the related magnitude of repercussions, in order to pressure political reform and social change for a sustainable future[ii].

The basic science behind climate change, its causes and impacts, has not significantly changed in thirty years according to Dr. Pearman[iii].  Newspapers, television reports and radio transmissions all reverberate an impending global environmental crisis.  To the point of desensitisation, we hear reports daily on droughts, endangered species, over population, famines, oil spills and irreversible systemic ecological damages.  Global warming and the altered climate system is a symptom of much deeper societal problems: the ‘growth imperative’, mass consumerism, political and corporate ‘green washing’, media conglomerates’ global cultural homogenisation, human rights violations and the relentless assault on the earth’s natural resources.  As Anne Sophie Witzke, manager of the RETHINK project held in Copenhagen in 2009 simply puts it, “we have as much information about climate change as we need…the crisis here is how the information doesn’t shift behaviour; it doesn’t generate the political will to respond effectively”[iv].

As anthropogenic expansion has left us on the brink of ecocide or what Tim Flannery calls “between a tipping point and a point of no return”[v], it will take all of the tools at our disposal to generate systemic change for a sustainable future.  We are at a critical junction.  It is naïve to assume that there is one technological antidote for the survival of humanity and the biosphere.  The issues of climate change and global warming facing us are far too complex and interconnected to continue with capitalist models that resonate the ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophies.  Felix Guattari argues in The Three Ecologies, that in today’s climate “now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interaction between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’”[vi].  It is essential “[that] ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists”[vii].

In a time of reflection and despair, Dr. Pearman came to the realisation that no matter how good the science was in communicating threats and catastrophes, it could not lead to the responses need.  Through an optimist’s approach, Dr. Pearman chose to shift from the rational field of physical science to work in collaboration with behavioural scientist and psychologist Professor Charmine Härtel, to look “for answers to questions that the most sophisticated climate models could never answer”[viii]. In the lecture, Dr. Pearman reflectively questioned, how much better would we be prepared if more of us 20 years ago asked questions and demanded a reshaping of the research agenda with the inclusion of behavioural and social sciences?  To this, I thought…and the arts.

Art has a transformative capacity to critique and reflect upon the “questioning of society by itself and often takes an active role in the search for answers to those questions”[ix].  Artists can offer alternative perspectives and approaches to sustainability that may lead to a direct advantage over purely scientific and/or technological methods.  As Patricia Phillips remarked in an interview with ecologically, politically and socially motivated visual artist Mel Chin, “art can precondition action”[x].  We are in new territories globally and as artists explore the terrain between art and sustainability, it is not surprising that we are considering how these artworks play in the overall debate.  Madeleine Bunting presents the controversial dichotomy of art’s inclusion in the discourse, as either being the “dangerous instrumentalisation of art…[or] the necessary outcome of the role art plays”[xi].  In today’s unprecedented climate, we are in a pivotal time where artists can play a vital role in society, leading towards positive social and environmental outcomes.  Some would argue that art should have no purpose but itself.  However, by applying the principle that the environment can no longer sustain the commoditisation of its resources, no longer can art be limited to tangible objects for visual consumption, enjoyment and satisfaction.

A global problem requires global action, and a multidimensional and cross-disciplinary approach.  It is what artist Cornelia Parker metaphorically describes as “a call to arms”[xii].  Artists are accustomed to an active blend of changing variables in process, and are familiar with crossing boundaries and redefining the scope of a project at any stage in the development of an artwork.  This is not about leveraging political agendas, institutionalising art or becoming propaganda machines in the spaces where art and sustainability connect.  When artists are transparent with their intentions, authenticity and integrity are not compromised.  It is taking Dr. Pearman’s optimistic approach and finding points to intersect as concerned global citizens and artists.

To paraphrase Barbara C. Matilsky, artists are in a unique position to address such issues as the environment, and effect changes because they can synthesise new ideas and communicate connections between seemingly disparate points between disciplines.  Artists have the capacity to pioneer a “holistic approach to problem solving that transcends the narrow limits of specialization…art embodies a freedom of thought…and expression [and] its creative potential is limitless…in its most productive mode, art can offer alternative visions” [xiii].

In the public realm, outside of institutions, through various modes of production and exhibition, artists can create interstices of interactivity, engagement and encounter, and generate the potential for human interconnectedness, offering what art critic Nicolas Bourriaud suggests as the possibility for the public to become participants in the outcome of a work.

When entire sections of our existence spiral into abstraction as a result of economic globalization, when the basic functions of our daily lives are slowly transformed into products of consumption (including human relations…), it seems logical that artists might seek to ‘rematerialize’ these functions and processes, to give shape to what is disappearing before our eyes.  Not as objects…but as mediums of experience: by striving to shatter the logic of the spectacle, art restores the world to us as an experience to be lived[xiv].

Philosopher and environmentalist Arne Næss, through what he defined as ‘ecosophy’ (ecology + philosophy), believed that in order for individuals to be intrinsically motivated to change, it is important for them to feel interconnected with the system.  They must be able to realise its potential, thus internalising it to create personal meaning and identification.  This philosophy relies on the notion of ‘relational thinking’ and that nothing exists in isolation.  In essence, public art practice is a convention of relations where ideas take form outside of the artist’s studio through engagement and response with the general public.  In addressing the global challenge of sustainability, artists can tap into our capacity for empathy, compassion and participation with the world, because “artistic expression is engaged with the pre-verbal meanings of the world, means that are incorporated and lived rather than simply intellectually understood”[xv].

The impending global environmental crisis is centre stage and it is not surprising to see it progressively become a dominant theme in contemporary art internationally.  In Melbourne, recent exhibitions include RMIT University’s Heat - Art and Climate Change (2008), curated by Dr. Linda Williams; Monash University Museum of Art’s The Ecologies Project (2008), curated by Geraldine Barlow and Dr Kyla McFarlane; works on the City of Melbourne’s Mockeridge Fountain public art wall including artist Ash Keating’s time lapsed text-based intervention work Copenhagen? (2009); and more recently Propositions for an Uncertain Future (2010), involving five artist responses to climate change conceived by artist Lyndal Jones.  Unlike the past when artists addressing environmental issues were categorically titled as Land Artists, Eco-Artists, Earth Artists or Environmental Artists, we are seeing is a shift where artists from outside of these genres are metabolising the catastrophic implications of the times.  They are responding by applying a wide breadth of knowledge and creative approaches through playful, immersive, metaphorical, pragmatic or speculative pathways, thus expanding the definitions of art.

In the course of curating the public art exhibition ARENA, I was motivated to bring together a diverse group of artists in an event that merges sustainability with artistic inquiry and intervention, to create what artist Robert Smithson suggested is a ‘mediated crossroad’ or in this context an ‘arena’.  The origin of the word ‘arena’ is derived from the Latin word ‘harena’ and denotes a place where combats were held.  I envisioned ARENA to be a site for engagement, rather than combat; a public sphere for five artists from differing practices to address themes of sustainability, a topic that some have never previously responded to.  The title is also adapted from artist Joseph Beuys’ monumental and encyclopaedic work Arena – dove sarei arrivato se fossi stato intelligente! (Arena – where I would have got if I had been intelligent!) (1972).  This installation consisted of 100 plates with images of Beuys’ previous ‘actions’, drawings, sculptures and collaborative performances, along with commonplace objects.  The concept of the work dealt with what Beuys deemed as ‘the arena of life’, by reworking the images of his historical works, not as an autobiography or as documentation, but as a system or evidence of Beuys’ process and concepts, such as, ‘Every human being is an artist’, ‘Social Sculpture’ and that art in itself is an evolutionary-revolutionary power.

Public Assembly artists Ceri Hann and Lynda Roberts consider themselves somewhere in between art activists and social change-agents.  In Social Circle – City Square, Ceri uses repurposed hard rubbish to create low-tech drawing devices to elicit physical and creative engagement with the public.  Using the sanded surface at Melbourne City Square as a substrate for drawing and relational exchange, Ceri presents a playful entrance for people to interact differently in a popular public site.  Similar to an Etch A Sketch®, the work is ephemeral, positive and whimsical, reminding us of the sense of wonder in the everyday and the significance of walking lightly on the earth.  Similarly, Lynda Roberts also creates a site for participation with Vox Populi: Climate for Opinion; a live narrow cast radio station in situ in a City of Melbourne’s Creative Spaces street cylinder.  The station acts as a social platform for public debate, to discuss people’s ideas, hopes and fears about an uncertain future.  Based on the idea of a civic square or a public soapbox forum, the relational artwork invites listening and expression from the public demographic in City Square.

QingLan Huang uses paradoxical storytelling to convey messages of a catastrophe and extinction.  Circus is an interactive sculptural installation using a Chinese zoetrope-inspired viewing box as its central component.  Through the viewing window, an eerie (not-so) fictional world exists where humans rule in a game of life.  The viewer turns the handle, moving the illustrations in sequence to discover what could be a ‘happily ever after’ or doomsday scenario ending.  QingLan’s work is inviting and mysterious.  It entices our sense of curiosity, presents a colourful array of images to satisfy our compulsion to look inside; but, instead of pure enjoyment, we are left with dichotomous messages of anxiety and hope.

For the first time local artist Sarah Duyshart and I are collaborating, lending elements of our differing art practices to respond to the issue of global warming on our respective country’s landscapes – Sarah (Australia), myself (Canada).  In Medias Res (Latin for in the midst of things) are parallel atmospheric fields created using ‘smoke’ and ‘snow’ for the public to move through.  Sarah’s contribution to In Medias Res sees a field of atmospheric eddies created from ‘smoke’ drifting across City Square, referring to the smouldering remains of an aftermath or a wounded topography.  Simultaneously, in proximity to the emanating ‘smoke’ is my contribution to In Media Res.  Reminiscent of the Canadian wilderness in winter, blowing ‘snow’ leaves a pristine, untouched blanket of purity.  Subtle sculptural elements indicate that something ominous lingers beneath.  Abstract, amorphous and sublime, the parallel works invite the public into immersive, composed landscapes contrasting distress and beauty.

When recently asked, none of the artists in ARENA consider themselves to be ‘eco-artists’ or any similar categorisation.  In fact, two of the artists didn’t consider the term ‘sustainability’ to be applicable to their practices.  However, through the process of creating works for ARENA, the artists actively questioned how their materials, practices and processes were sustainable, and endeavoured to employ best practice in creating the artworks.  Conversations emerged over ‘by being less bad, are we being more good?’ and ‘what is the ecological footprint attributed to choosing one material over another?’  We questioned the term ‘sustainability’ and the risk of it meaning nothing when it is “applied to all manner of activities in an effort to give those activities the gloss of moral imperative, the cachet of environmental enlightenment”[xvi].

ARENA is a contributing space, representing sustainability from varying perspectives, where the artists’ processes, creative inquiry, styles, materials and intentions differ vastly.  It is a space where attitudes overlap and distinctions emerge.  The artists approach sensitively and conscientiously the intersection where art and sustainability connect, allowing experimentation, process and public participation to shape the outcome of the work.  In this arena, ‘sustainability’ is about society, the environment and a complex array of interconnections and relationships; and like art creation, it is a process – one of communication, optimism and response.

Jen Rae, 2010


The artists of ARENA would also like to thank and acknowledge the support of Jenny Southwell, Ray Thompson and Eleni Arbus from The City of Melbourne, Dean Sunshine from Snowmasters and Malcolm Eaton from Just Wheelie Bins, Seven Thousand Oaks volunteers and staff.


[i]  Robert Smithson, The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University Press, 1979).

[ii]  Graeme Pearman, “Climate change: are we up to the challenge?,” 2009, Greenhouse 2009, 28 May 2010 <>.

[iii]  Jo Chandler, “Journey to a Hostile Climate,” 13 June 2009, The Age, 27 May 2010 <>.

[iv]  Madeleine Bunting, “RSA Arts & Ecology Magazine Features,” 29 March 2010, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) Arts & Ecology, 20 April 2010 imn<>.

[v]  Tim Flannery, “Now or Never, A Sustainable Future for Australia?,” Quarterly Essay 31 (2008): 1-66.

[vi]  Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton (New York: Continuum, 2008).

[vii]  Ibid.

[viii]  Jo Chandler, “Journey to a Hostile Climate,” 13 June 2009, The Age, 27 May 2010 <>.

[ix]  Alan Sonofist, “Introduction,” Art in the Land: A Critical Anthology of Environmental Art, ed. Alan Sonofist (New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1983) xi.

[x]  Patricia Phillips, “A Composite Interview with Mel Chin,” Benito Huerta, Lucy R. Lippard and Mel Chin, Inescapable Histories: Mel Chin (Kansas City: Mid-America Arts Alliance, 1996) 30-46.

[xi]  Madeleine Bunting, “RSA Arts & Ecology Magazine Features,” 29 March 2010, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) Arts & Ecology, 20 April 2010 <>.

[xii]  Madeleine Bunting, “The Rise of Climate-Change Art,” 2 December 2009, The Guardian, 27 May 2010 <>.

[xiii]  Barbara C. Matilsky, Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1992).

[xiv]  Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay, ed. Caroline Schneider, trans. Jeanine Herman (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002).

[xv]  Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2005).

[xvi]  Eric Zencey, “Theses on Sustainability: A Primer,” Orion – Nature/Culture/Space May/June 2010.