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Art that’s culturally aware and connected to place can influence our climate-change trajectory, says a researcher from UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture.

A new exhibition at UNSW Galleries examines how relationships with place and understandings of geologic evolution inform our climate futures. Lithic Bodies by Associate Professor Bianca Hester from UNSW’s School of Art & Design engages with the ‘extinction line’, part of which is visible at the base of the Illawarra escarpment, south of Sydney. 

The extinction line marks the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geological periods, around 252 million years ago. It bears witness to the most devastating mass extinction event in Earth’s history, the cause of which remains unclear, but thought to be related to an environmental tipping point

Geoscientists believe this geological history, now embedded in the Illawarra, offers unique foresight for today’s climate crisis and rapid loss of biodiversity, says A/Prof. Hester. “Lithic Bodies explores a narrative of planetary change registered in fossil and rock in relationship with the present ecological moment.”

A vast vertical rock face of the escarpment reveals the extinction horizon, located between the Bulli coal seam and the Coal Cliff sandstone. The coal measures deposited at the end of the Permian period sit below a ‘dead zone’ which lacks organic matter. This is due to a sudden dying-off of vegetation during the extinction event.  

The dead-zone represents a devastated landscape ravaged by flooding and wildfire. “These events of fire and flood resonate with the current crisis,” says the artist, writer and practice-based researcher. “The dead zone of times past is a useful metaphorical figure, demonstrating extinction outcomes associated with our fossil-fuelled society.” 

Lithic Bodies integrates sculpture, video, text and screen-printed images, as well as public walks in a provocative exploration of environmental histories interconnected with colonial inheritance. It engages with the extinction line as a conceptual and material loop between epochs.

“Through our ongoing mining of coal, we are materially and socially interconnected with the carbon cycles of the deep past, metabolising the fossilised energy embedded in remains of paleo-environments,” she says. 

“Our reliance on extraction, embedded in European colonisation, impacts present-day carbon cycles, which we know has led to climate change. This is happening within the context of the current extinction event.” 

Lithic Bodies promotes the need for urgent discussions about the climate crisis, resource extraction and conservation in Australia. “By leveraging the aesthetic capacity of practice-led research, we can contribute to a transformation of the habits and narratives that shape our relationships with non-human life, now and in the future.” 

The exhibition is the latest in a body of work that investigates the material conditions of a fossil-fuelled society. A/Prof. Hester engages with geoscience experts, libraries and museums, such as the Australian Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, as well as local institutions, such as the Clifton School of Arts, while working in dialogue with First Nations mentors.   

“Art/science partnerships can enable greater public outreach and understanding of the interactions between human activity, geology and ecology,” she says. 

She undertakes situated fieldwork (connected to specific time/place contexts), as well as engaging with paleo-botanical fossils and other early life specimens associated with specific sites to produce alternative geological records. Her work, Constellating bodies in temporary correspondence (2021) explores the material and social histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s volcanic terrain, generating an alternative map of the city.  

The multimedia video, sculptural art and collective walk, developed during multiple residencies, focus on the environmental impacts of extraction since colonisation across diverse sites. The work was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art and acquired for its permanent collection.

The project, and its precursor movements materialising momentarily (2015), involved multi-partner collaborations, including with earth scientists and vulcanologists from Auckland University, Māori researchers, academics and students at Auckland University of Technology, artists from Public Share collective, Māori custodian Pita Turei and community groups. She explores the consultation and creative process in her book Groundwork (2021).

Image: Bianca Hester, Lithic Bodies 2023 (detail). Video still made during fieldwork at the Permian-Triassic extinction line, Illawarra escarpment. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Sammy Hawker

Connecting to the non-human

Lithic Bodies ranges in scale from exploring singular fossilised leaves to the vast dimensions of the sandstone escarpment. “In witnessing the remainder of botanic life-forms that crossed the extinction boundary … we are brought into relationship with deeper scales of time and materiality that persist beyond human realms, but to which our existence is indebted,” she says.  

The project is developed on Dharawal Country where she lives and works. She is consulting on working in alignment with culture and country with Peter Hewitt, a Jerrinja/Yuin artist and educator, and Uncle Peter Button, an Aboriginal Elder, environmental and cultural advocate, and a member of the Sandon Point Aboriginal Place Joint Agreement Partnership.  

She is collaborating with geoscientists, artists and curators, such as Matt Poll (Manager of Indigenous Programs, Australian National Maritime Museum), Dr Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris (independent curator, writer and educator), A/Prof Brian Jones (sedimentologist, University of Wollongong) and Dr Tara Djokic (Geologist, Australian Museum).  

She is conscious of working lightly and sustainably, leaving no trace in the landscape as she makes frottage rubbings of rock formations and moulds from fragments of fossilised forest branch, leaf and twig. 

The work extends on themes explored in Dust of these Domains (2023), an exhibition of drawings, text and objects cast from paleo-botanical fossils held in the archives of the Australian Museum. The project hosted a reading-walking performance circuit around the grounds of art museum Bundanon. Participants carried hand-scaled bronze objects whose surfaces registered impressions from “geologic residues of past environments” and heard text-fragments written in response to and performed at four locations.  

“The work encouraged participants to consider the ramifications of the interdependence of violent colonial relations with land enacted through extraction, and to consider our responsibilities to non-human communities while we live, work and reproduce on sovereign lands,” she says. Her related essay, Beside these intricate extinctions, was published in Fossil Fables

Lithic Bodies elaborates on and brings material form to her creative non-fiction book, Sandstone (2020). Part of the Lost Rocks slow-publishing art series, Sandstone explores the myriad geo-social histories ingrained in sandstone to propose a new ethics of place.  

The book effected a profound shift in her art practice. Moving to Sydney in 2013, she was struck by the pervasive presence of sandstone across the city. “That led to a whole range of works investigating the geology of the area, its stories of colonisation and its social and environmental histories.”  

The book was structured as “embodied fragments”, excavating personal histories as a framework for engaging geologic histories. She wrote Sandstone the year after her daughter was born. “It was literally the hottest day on Earth [on record] when she came into the world. The intersection of her birth and the visceral acknowledgment of a changing climate, were transformative.”

Producing alternative archaeologies

Her engagement with scientific artefacts and archives dates back to her long-term collaboration with art group Open Spatial Workshop (OSW), with Associate Professor Terri Bird (Monash University) and Dr Scott Mitchell, established in 2003. The collective asks audiences to “contemplate Earth’s relentless pulses of metabolism and extinguishment across geologic time scales” through its experimental sculptural installations and curated events, publications and video narrative works. 

Their 2017 major project, Converging in time, was developed during a three-year research project with the Geosciences Collection at Museums Victoria and exhibited at Monash University Museum of Art. The associated publication was recognised for its alternative archival archaeology, challenging traditional representations of knowledge and expanding understandings of the Museum’s collection. 

Loaned specimens were incorporated into purpose-built structures and presented in dialogue with OSW’s sculptural and video experiments. The specimens included a meteorite fragment containing pre-solar grains; Saléeite crystals from the Ranger Uranium Mine in the Northern Territory; a 23-million-year-old kauri log from the Gippsland coalfields; and a fossilised ‘sea lily’ unearthed in a Brunswick clay pit in 1923. 

“[Re-situated] together, they develop a more complex and comprehensive understanding of the circulation of matter in the world, drawing out [the] various histories and illuminating entanglements between geology, geography, colonisation and resource extraction upon which our global society exists,” she says. 

OSW are developing a new exhibition and publication project, Metabolic Scales, examining banded iron mined in the Pilbara region, Western Australia. The work, presented as a preliminary study at BETTER NATURE – Earthen at Cement Fondue (2023), examines the biological, geological and economic entanglements bound up in material transformations dating back more than 3 billion years. 

“Metabolic Scales highlights how the politics of life are conditioned and constrained by our complex biological-geological interdependence and how our rapidly collapsing future can be understood in relation to Earth’s deep material histories.” 

Lithic Bodies will be exhibited at UNSW Galleries from 27 September 2024, with a related exhibition and public panel at the Clifton School of Arts in October 2024. Work from Metabolic Scales will be exhibited within the group show, These Entanglements: Ecology After Nature, University of Queensland Art Museum, from 11 February 2025. Open Spatial Workshop will exhibit at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) from 31 October 2025. 

A/Prof. Hester acknowledges editorial advice for this text from Dr Tara Djokic, Australian Museum, and Associate Professor Brian Jones, University of Wollongong.

Lead image: Bianca Hester, Dust of these domains 2023 (detail). Bronze object (pictured) 17cm x 7cm (edition of 20); performance-walk (90 minutes); A2 posters (edition of 250). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Bianca Hester

This article was originally published in 2024.

Written by Kay Harrison
Associate Professor, Co-Director Research and Engagement Bianca Hester
Associate Professor, Co-Director Research and Engagement