‘My roots go down to the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick, and damp earth, through veins of lead and silver. I am all fibre. All tremors shake me, and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.’
-Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931
Piers Greville’s work is a proposition towards a new way of thinking about nature and our human relationship to the landscape. He does this by mapping the natural and technological topographies and fault-lines that occur in a particular site—looking back across history to reimagine it under the vision of the Anthropocene—our new geological era. The Anthropocene, a theoretical epoch, designates the current period of ubiquitous human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems as having altered them to such a degree that they have taken on another form. This is particularly reflected in the current state of climate change. The mediated view of the landscape through the lens of the Anthropocene operates within the material language of Greville’s painting, rendered two and three dimensional. Searching for a new visual language beyond its colonial heritage this exhibition, Fabricated Country, lifts and breaks open a small fragment of the Australian landscape to reimagine its past, present and future.
The point of departure for Fabricated Country is an area on the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales near the Victorian border, an ecological system that is particularly unique to Australia. Rising over 2000 meters above sea level, the highest summit in the country, this site’s ecosystem combines an alpine climate of glacial lakes with native grasses and swamps. Rising temperatures have led to natural habitats vanishing, so much so that this area is now home to some of Australia’s most endangered wildlife. Heralding above the tree line this place serves as a microcosm of our shifting landscape, an area isolated from anything else around it. Climate change inexorably alters all ecologies but when it significantly affects the environment at its highest peak there’s nowhere else to go. Greville describes this process like watching an island slowly going under water or a raft drowning in the ocean. The mountains and this site are sinking under the monumental forces of human intervention.
The repetition of mapping and re-mapping this site in detail becomes a form of geographic data collection to survey the changing patterns in the landscape. Headwaters was painted from a screenshot taken with Google Street View, a technology regularly used to navigate territories across the world. This painting also references a study by nineteenth-century artist and explorer Eugene von Guérard who detailed a dramatic expedition up this mountain range in which
he and his team almost died. This imposing landscape viewed behind a screen makes visible the cultural contingency of our contemporary experience of nature. Western landscape painting traditionally depicted ‘nature’ as something so grand and overwhelming, rendering its topography sublime and unknowable. Here, we see the imaging of the landscape as a gesture acknowledging this history whilst simultaneously revealing the incongruity between our attempts to capture and reproduce the natural world. Whether through painting or Instagram filters—nature ultimately needs to be physically experienced for some semblance of it to be known.
The topographical sculptured canvas, Raft, is held aloft by several ‘Baugespann’, which are scaffold-like structures that outline proposed building developments. Commonly seen in Switzerland these poles and rods form ghostly apparitions of an alternative skyline so citizens can imagine a future city, from residential renovations to new high-rises. There is a sense of urgency and precariousness in the way this small section of earth is carried. Along the poles, the segmented high-vis red characterises the visual language of danger, acting like caution tape to warn the attention of passers-by that this area may be hazardous. We see that this place is in a state of transformation poised on the brink of a potential emergency.
The Anthropocene re-inscribes humanity by placing us back to the centre but Greville’s work imagines nature as something mutable, something readily manipulated by human creativity. The work also reflects a distinctly science fictional landscape in the post-human scene depicted here, like it is a model for terraforming the earth when it lays waste. The humbling ruins scaffold an artificial future landscape that seems to predict an end of nature, a scene completely devoid of life; within this dystopian imaginary, we unearth new ways of looking forward. As rising temperatures produce new emergencies we only witness fragments of what is to come. It’s no longer science fiction to imagine a world where we all become refugees without any possibility of refuge. To imagine a world that dismantles the powers of capitalism to rip apart the nation-state and produce new sovereign territories. A world where the slippages between our real and digital interfaces become so indistinguishable that we can live inside the liminal prism of white noise. To imagine a world in which we are obliterated by nature in order to become nature once again. It will be in this renewal that the anxiety of being in our bodies will lift as we inhale the first breaths of the new epoch. When the ‘weight of the earth’ presses to our ribs we won’t feel pain or fear but relief. To imagine a world where our roots will reach out euphorically and embed themselves, bringing us spectacularly back to the earth.
Elyse Goldfinch is an independent curator and writer based in Sydney. She has presented and collaborated on over twelve exhibitions across Sydney and has written for online and print publications. She currently works as Executive Assistant & Curatorial Liaison at Artspace, Sydney and was appointed curator of the 8th GreenWay Art Prize, 2017. She holds a Bachelor of Art Theory (Hons.) from UNSW Art & Design and is currently completing her Masters of Art Curating at the University of Sydney where she is completing a thesis on the potentialities of Emergency Aesthetics through alternative platforms of exhibition making.