A Covenant with the Animals in Murray Bridge

One of the most futile efforts seen in recent times was a tour guide trying to explain to a group of excited Japanese tourists that the dolphins swimming alongside the boat were just going about their business and weren’t ‘there’ just for our entertainment. ‘Species survival’, ‘habitat loss’ and so on – these aspects were lost overboard in a flurry of selfies.

The reality is that for large swathes of urbanised society encounters with ‘wild’ animals have become abnormal. Pets are another matter. Australia has one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world. Around 40 per cent are dogs (around four-million dish-lickers to be precise) and 30 per cent cats. Don’t feel totally neglected. I’m sure your ferret still loves you.

It is claimed that over-exposure to pets has sentimentalised our attitude to animals to the point where it has become difficult to authentically appreciate our relationship – even stewardship or covenant with – the wider animal kingdom. Supporting causes such as species reintroduction, survival breeding programmes and retention of natural environments are very practical ways of exercising stewardship. But ‘covenant’ is in another postcode.

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Fanny Retsek ‘Flee’ (detail) 2016, Photo: Keith Southern

In traditional societies this integrated relationship, an unspoken covenant, between humans and creatures permeated every aspect of daily and ritualised life. Industrialisation broke this bond. The artists in this current Murray Bridge Regional Gallery exhibition have variously embraced this central notion of animals as beings who actively share the world with people.

Add to this a common belief that animals have stories worth telling. As the stakes are raised and global communities talk about such things as ‘the sixth great mass extinction event’ almost upon us, the message and means of some art has gone up several degrees. A compelling example is the recent photographic work of Nick Brandt, Inherit the Dust, composed of life-sized panels depicting animals including cheetahs, elephants, rhinos and lions, sited in East African locations where they once freely roamed. These locations almost overnight have become factory sites, garbage dumps and quarries. Kapow.

The art in Covenant is no less committed but relies on the willingness of viewers and their capacity to respond to elegantly constructed imagery to get with the program. If reverence is indeed a precondition for an authentic covenant then be prepared to show some by spending time getting to know these works rather than demanding that they spit their messages out. Rather like observing wildlife, it takes patience.

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Stephanie Radok, ‘Woylie-extinct in South-East’, 2016, from The Marsupialiania Suite, Photo Michael Kluvanek

Generally speaking, the works reference history as a means of dislodging contemporary mindsets. Stephanie Radok, for example, has drawn on images made in the 19th century by John Gould which have been recently updated by zoologist Fred Ford in his book Gould’s Extinct and Endangered Mammals of Australia. Radok has produced something equivalent to sets of collector cards.

The artist says that she intended her drawings and woodcuts to depict Australian native animals as lively spirited creatures. I am particularly taken with her belief that becoming familiar with the names and faces of these animals is “both useful and exciting”. The charm of these simple illustrations is that they express the idea that the origins of greater awareness of issues may lie in simply admitting native creatures into our domestic lives.

Radok and Sandra Starkey Simon co-curated the Covenant project. In terms of outcomes Simon said, “I think an idea is growing that if we don’t take care of the animals then we are not taking care of ourselves, that we are diminished when animals are abused. Hopefully the works in this show will communicate this subtle but powerful message.”

Simon has collaborated with Andrea Przygonski to produce Viewpoints: five posters and five shelves holding objects that represent two different eras with contrasting attitudes to native fauna. European colonisation is referenced by books and scientific diagrams of the period aligned with Indigenous naming. The contemporary period is referenced by tourist souvenirs.

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Andrea Przygonski and Sandra Starkey Simon ‘Kuula and Her Flora Bones’ (details), 2016 from the series Viewpoints

A related strategy is at work in Lloma Mackenzie’s imagery constructed from juxtaposed relief prints sourced, it appears, from decorative pattern books and the like. This is cultural mashup-lite which is disarmingly open-ended in terms of what juxtapositions of natural and human habitation might mean.

Laura Wills’ hybrid creatures are composed of many parts including people, bags of  owers and textiles. The artist recently undertook a residency in Yogyakarta and these creatures reference endangered Indonesian animals. Their hybridity is connected to the artist’s investigations into reincarnation and related concepts of inter-relationships between all creatures and humanity.

Beth Hatton’s rugs draw inspiration and some of their meaning from the so-called ‘tiger rugs’ of Tibet as well as colonial Australian floor coverings, especially those made from rag fabrics and animal skins. In one work, the words ‘Bandicoot’ and ‘Bettong’ can just be made out in a field of overlaid stripe patterning. This may be a metaphor for the commonality of interdependence of societies and their animals, domesticated or otherwise. Like Mackenzie’s overlays they suggest rather than declare.

Not so Fanny Retsek who has continued to count down the impact of human predation and unconscionable development on wild life of all kinds. Her strategy is a sophisticated mix of mapping and auditing. In one work, Flee, apex predators of North America are itemised as if head-count icons ready to be deleted off the screen.

A Covenant with the Animals
Beth Hatton, Lloma Mackenzie, Andrea Przygonski, Stephanie Radok, Fanny Retsek, Sandra Starkey Simon and Laura Wills
Murray Bridge Regional Gallery
Friday, December2 to Sunday, January 29
murraybridgegallery.com.au

Header image:  Lloma Mackenzie, ‘Seeking Cover II’ (detail) 2016 single edition, Photo: Alex Makeyev

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