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Particulate Matter: A Fossil Fuelled Future?

BY The Cross Art Projects | 29-Feb-2020
At the end of 2019, much of Australia’s east coast (NSW and Victoria) and the Flinders Ranges and Kangaroo Island (SA) went up in flames. The Black Summer collapsed the tyranny of distance: the far from here became intimate as smoke crawled into every set of lungs, near or far, as “particulate-matter”, particles that are small enough to enter and damage human lung tissue. For months, Australians breathed air pollution up to 26 times above levels considered hazardous to human health. Climate emergency is now a thing that envelopes and entraps us all.


Venue: The Cross Art Projects
Address: 8 Llankelly Place, Kings Cross 2011
Date: Opening: Thursday 5 March, 6pm. Exhibition runs to 18 April, 2020
Web: https://crossart.com.au/
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Mervyn Rubuntja, NO FRACKING, 2019. Watercolour on paper, 73 x 54 cm
We are a continent of orange sunsets, dead rivers and dying koalas, black oceans and bleached coral; a laboratory of the crisis that confronts contemporary existence. Particulate Matter breathes an alternative landscape tradition; one that fights land appropriation and resource extraction without consent. In 1963, a bark petition by Yolngu elders protested the alienation of traditional lands for bauxite mining at Yirrkala in Northern Territory. The petition offered non-Indigenous Australians a rare opportunity to understand the creation and maintenance of the region, with its complex relations of Indigenous ownership, custodianship and obligation: a living tradition of land care, stretching back 60,000 years, or the ‘eternal present’ of the Indigenous Dreamtime. While the 1963 petition was unsuccessful, in the short term, it provoked the Federal Government’s 1976 Land Rights (NT) Act which galvanised the homelands and art centre movements.

Critical engagements by artists matter deeply as they can enable change of mind, heart and legislation. Traditions of witnessing and mass interventions—from the riot of hand-made signs in school children’s climate protests, to chatty Knitting Nanas and the spectacular choreography of Extinction Rebellion—all help us to figure out what is going on in politics, state and corporate propaganda and heavy-handed laws from the ‘push-back’ Intervention to mass incarceration of Aboriginal people.[1]

The artists in Particulate Matter have called for action against ecocide. They represent three distant but linked areas of fossil fuel exploration and development: Central Australia, Barkly Tableland and the Gulf of Carpentaria and Galilee Basin. In the Northern Territory Jack Green and other Yanyuwa, Garawa, Marra and Gudanji artists take on the Macarthur River Mine the world’s largest open-cut lead-zinc mine, owned by Glencore a transnational miner operating in 18 countries, and fracking.[2] In parched Central Australia Mervyn Rubuntja’s ‘No Fracking’ camel points to the stupidity of water-intensive fracking. Both Green and Rubuntja are custodians and leading voices. In Queensland artist / activists have raised awareness about open cut coal mining in the vast Galilee Basin. Together with many artists they memorialise each dying species, loss and ruin and the destruction of a Dreaming storyline. Jack Green’s radiating lines or stripes convey, simultaneously, energy and meditation; the land is breathing.

In artworks and exhibitions, actions and artist videos the artists continue the history of contesting the Western modernist landscape tradition; of the mute bush peopled by anti-heroes or marginalised folk. During the period of alienated modernist landscapes, the watercolours of Western Aranda speaking artist, Albert Namatjira, became increasingly popular and a few bark paintings found their way into public art collections via anthropological ‘expeditions’. In 2020 curator Brooke Andrew brings a First Nations worldview to the Sydney Biennale—founded 47 years ago. That’s how long it takes to “get a go” in Australia.

Nonetheless, First Nations artists have helped to win hearts, minds and a fair share of battles for Native Title, environmental justice and the Uluru Statement (2017) for Truth, Treaty and Voice.[3] Most Australians now acknowledge that reconciliation and environmental sustainability are related issues. Many see the colonial savagery and failure of the Intervention, dramatically introduced in 2007 as a military intervention. The Federal Government now calls for the extension of the Intervention (past 2022) as ‘income management’, having long desired to spread the Intervention beyond the Northern Territory to other regional communities.[4]

In the red centre descendants of Albert Namatjira and his kin reference the 'heritage of Namatjira' and also extend the famous Hermannsburg school to film or performance (such as with BigHeart theatre group). These “intervention” artworks, like the artists’ Sydney Biennale works, are drawn from their social commentary paintings, focussing on mining and climate change. In mid-2016, artists at Iltja Ntjarra art centre invited artist Tony Albert to hold collage workshops in Alice Springs, confronting matters like homelessness and health—key issues the Intervention has miserably failed to address.[5]

The artists say: This body of work explores the overlay of modernity on the traditional indigenous way of life. It delves deeply into the psychological process of alienation and the deep-seated need and determination to hold fast what has been entrusted by past ancestors. It is a reflection of the past and a window to the future. Intrusions and uniforms may change, but Tjina Nurna-ka, Pmarra Nurn-kanha, Itla Itla Nurn-kanha / Our family, our country, our legacy, does not.

Since that time, as Jack Green states about a painting: Government been working for a long time to push us Aboriginal people off our homelands. Many people end up in town with no job, no house and no family support. Being in town, whether it be Darwin, Katherine or Tennant Creek can be dangerous for Aboriginal people.

Artists Fiona MacDonald and Alison Clouston and Boyd contributed to Bimblebox: Art, Science, Nature (curator Beth Jackson), a successful national touring exhibition based on artist residencies at Bimblebox Nature Refuge in the Galilee Basin. The Bimblebox Art Project, begun in 2012 by artist Jill Sampson, joins a vital genre of contemporary art exhibitions that create platforms for calmer discussions.

Fiona MacDonald’s Mining Galilee (2014) subtly presents the economic and emotional conflict between energy resources and natural heritage in regional communities—a propaganda flash point for politicians. Her digital photographic series layers the massive scale of open-cut mining in the Galilee Basin over studio portraits taken in Rockhampton in a primarily agricultural age. (Several members of the artist’s Rockhampton-based family have worked in these mines.)

Alison Clouston’s Coalface death mask (2020) in Particulate Matter belongs to a set of her works that double as performance costumes with Extinction Rebellion or at mass climate emergency rallies. Debuting at National Day of Action, Sydney Town Hall (22 February 2020). In collaboration with composer Boyd’s soundscapes Clouston links the ‘social situations’ of street protest to immersive ‘social archives’ of deep, even geological time, or cyclical time experienced in a gallery installation.

The urgency of environmental emergency and destruction are evaded by our Federal government. Prime Minister Morrison, elected by coal donations money, calls for “resilience” while planning for more coal mines and promotes a long, slow detour through “the gas route” allegedly for its lower carbon dioxide emissions. In 2016 atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400ppm and in the previous year Australia emitted 532 million tons of carbon dioxide — despite extreme drought and renewable energy uptake. (AFR, 29 November 2019.) Even a catastrophic temperature increase of 2℃ of global warming would require annual emissions reduction of 2.7% per year, well beyond what can be accomplished by subsidising gas.

So, Australia digs deeper in its efforts to be the world’s biggest quarry. The geographic sites in Particulate Matter are broadly representative of what is happening across the ‘great quarry’ linked by port monopolies (Glencore) or gas lines. Exploration permits generally cover the very large areas that are required for oil and gas exploration. In the Northern Territory where Aboriginal landowners consent to exploration (EPAs), they cannot refuse and subsequent mining.[6]

The drought followed by infernos have made us aware that water is an increasingly scarce resource. Natural gas has been piped from the Amadeus Basin (Palm Valley and Mereenie gas fields) through the Amadeus Gas Pipeline to Darwin since 1986. The new Northern Gas Pipeline has enabled Mereenie field, west of Alice Springs, to ramp up production, Palm Valley to re-open, and the opening of a new Dingo gas field south of Alice Springs. More exploration drilling underway—anywhere, anytime. The new high-pressure pipeline crosses the Barkly Tableland connecting to the Carpentaria Gas Pipeline near Mount Isa in Queensland.

In Queensland billionaire Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal (former China First) mine is four times the size of internationally controversial Adani coal mine. Waratah Coal has applied for a Mining Lease and Environmental Authority. Palmer donated more than $80 million to scare advertising and claims credit for Prime Minister Scott Morrison's 2019 election win. The Environmental Defenders Office has launched a challenge on behalf of the owners/caretakers of Bimblebox Nature Refuge and The Bimblebox Alliance. While the fossil fuel industry remains the highest donor to major Federal political parties, a flourishing future is as unlikely. The decision by the High Court in the Timber Creek appeal launched by the late Mr Griffiths from Warringarri Arts in Kununurra, awarded Timber Creek native title holders $2.5m, partly for 'spiritual harm'. (ABC, 13 March 2019.)[7] It is cold comfort.

Over the Black Summer, author Richard Flanagan wrote from Bruny Island off the coast of Tasmania, “Australia has only one realistic chance to, you know, survive: Join other countries like those Pacific nations whose very future is now in question and seek to become an international leader in fighting for far stronger global action on climate change. But to do that it would first have to take decisive action domestically.” (NYT, 25 January 2020.)[8] Flanagan dramatically introduces Danielle Celermajer's idea of “omnicide” to capture the scale and breadth of the killing. Celermajer a Sydney academic specialising in multispecies justice, says that 'More than ecocide, “omnicide” is "the killing of everything – human and morethanhuman.'

Across our region from the Pacific to the Indonesian archipelago, there are pleas for Australia’s leaders to “listen to the scientists”.

Vale: Over the Black Summer we mourned 33 human deaths, trillions of animal deaths and over 100 species extinctions (in NSW alone over a thousand species are already extinct) and the burning of 17 million hectares. We honour our firefighters and vast crews of volunteers who communicated, healed and fed so bravely and those who travelled from afar to join in solidarity.

Jo Holder and Djon Mundine OAM

Special thanks to the artists and to Bimblebox Art Project (Beth Jackson and Jill Simpson); Iltja Ntjarra Art Centre (Iris Bendor, Marisa Maher & Koren Wheatley) and Waralungku Arts (Katrina Langdon); The Cross Art Projects: Belle Blau, Simon Blau, Susan Gilligan and Phillip Boulten and historian Dr Seán Kerins, Stop the Intervention Collective or STICS (Sabine Kacha, Hans Marwe).