It seems like an age ago but in September 2019 I travelled with five artists and a film crew to Mount Zero Taravale in far north Queensland, a property owned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). We spent a week in the bush preparing for an exhibition that has just opened at Defiance Gallery, Mary Place. It’s the fourth in a projected series of five shows, spread over a decade.
On previous trips artists have been to three other AWC properties: Mornington in the Kimberley; Pungalina, in the Gulf of Carpentaria; and Newhaven on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. The program was similar on each occasion: scientists and field officers take the group on an extensive tour of the property, including an overview by helicopter. They talk about the animals and plants, and the challenges they face in preserving and restoring native species.
The artists choose a favourite location and set to work, knowing they have a year to prepare for the show. With each participant the first $45,000 in sales goes to the AWC, while Defiance Gallery, which supplies the venue and helps organise the project, is donating all commissions. In brief, everybody gives freely of their time and expertise for a good cause.
For the artists the rewards of these trips to the bush are spiritual rather than material. Some have described the week in a remote location as a “life-changing experience”. Nobody has come back feeling short-changed. Of the five mature campaigners on the Mount Zero trip there were four landscape painters – Tim Allen, David Collins, Peter Stevens and Mary Tonkin; and one sculptor, Alison Coates. What do these artists have in common, aside from a week’s bonding in the bush? Stylistically they are very different from each other but this has resulted in a display full of illuminating contrasts and complements.
David Collins is a lyrical abstractionist who draws inspiration from the landscape. Light is translated into surprisingly bold colour that leaves every brushstroke visible. Most artists will settle on a particular set of tones but Collins goes from the vivid green of Cycad Walk to the flaming red of Pre History, and the yellow of Casuarina Light. The strength of colour is offset by the gestural nature of his surfaces, and by a set of darker, more layered compositions.
Mary Tonkin is a purposeful painter who captures the small, flickering effects of sunlight as they filter through the leaves of the forest. Unlike Collins, who is remarkably open to each new sensation, Tonkin carries her palette in her head. She paints in autumnal colours – chiefly gold, ochre, lavender, grey-green and touches of red. In works such as Dawn citriodara, Mt. Zero Taravale, she brings us into the heart of the forest, surrounded by dense undergrowth. Sight lines are broken by twigs and grasses that cut across the tree trunks that soar upwards, out of the picture, towards a canopy we can only imagine. Firecrackers is a mass of thin, coloured streamers of grass that bunch and divide in all directions.
For Tim Allen a painting grows out of the fluent, expressive drawings he makes on the spot. Line plays a starring role, with colour used sparingly. These are very physical images, full of compressed energy and jagged forms. Allen never tries to cover the entire canvas, being content to let the part stand for the whole, leaving the last touches for the viewers’ imagination. In Puzzle Creek (light that blinds),the rocky outcrops that loom over a blue-green band of water are stained and splashed by shades suggesting earth and sunlight.
Peter Stevens takes the opposite approach, composing with patches of colour that crowd together on each panel, flattening out pictorial space. These works are never so abstract that one cannot instantly identify the major features of a scene, from waterfalls to trees, and even an occasional small bird. In works such as Return Gorge Bee Eaters or Gorge Falling Water 2, Stevens experiments with a kind of fractured symmetry, using a waterfall to carve a picture into dissimilar halves.
As the only sculptor in the group Alison Coates had a more difficult task in translating the experiences of the week into three-dimensional work. She’s made an exceptional job of it, with a large and diverse contribution, ranging from small desktop pieces woven from string and wire, to reliefs in salvaged shards of metal, and a triptych of burnt cycad stalks that has the eerie feel of threepersonnages – to use the French word which describes a figure that transcends mundane humanity. Coates’s largest and most ambitious work, Overstory, floats across one wall of the gallery like a constellation woven from string.
The AWC, founded in 1991, is a lean, efficient organisation that claims to have devoted 86% of its expenditures over the past decade to conservation programs. This has entailed acquiring substantial parcels of land, fencing them off, conducting an ecological audit, eliminating feral animals and working on new land management schemes.
The organisation now controls 30 properties totalling 6.5 million hectares. I’ve been to three so far and feel as if I’ve learned a lot about the environmental disaster that is the legacy of colonialisation and how the damage may be repaired. There’s no shortage of support from the general public or from the private and corporate sponsors that back the AWC. All that’s missing is the political will.
COVID-19 has acted as a smokescreen for government inaction and neglect in many areas, of which climate change is only the most obvious. While we all pull together to help stave off the pandemic we should not forget the funding cuts for National Parks that handicapped bushfire preparations. Neither should we forget the Prime Minister’s Pacific holiday, and his desperate scramble to find positive images that made him look like a hero rather than a zero.
Politics in Australia today has degenerated into a theatrical exercise in which transparency and accountability have been discarded in favour of relentless image massaging. Why do something when you can merely pretend to be doing something, thereby saving the cash for your pet projects? Too often vested interests are given precedence over the public interest.
Pardon the digression but in the fields of both the environment and the arts governments have been increasingly ready to let private sponsors make the running. When government has taken a proactive role, as in the Murray-Darling basin or the future of the Powerhouse Museum, the results have been diabolical. Such failures bestow an added importance on the efforts of organisations such as the AWC, which is focused on a good result for the environment rather than lining the pockets of corporate farmers or property developers.
Artists are not consultants who run the clock on the time they spend on a project but people who feel grateful for being able to make a (modest) living from doing something they love. In theory we are all fans of the Great Australian Outdoors but the bush keeps shrinking while ever greater numbers of animals face extinction. If the biggest problem is our national complacency this project shows how much can be achieved when art and science join forces.
Five Artists, Seven Days:
The AWC Mount Zero Exhibition
Defiance Gallery at Mary Place, 17 February – 24 March, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February, 2021