From soaring aerial views of landmass down to microscopic illustrations of organisms in the soil, the latest exhibition from UNSW Galleries looks closely at the material properties used by contemporary artists to visualise Australian landscapes.

Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes opens 21 June and runs until 7 September at UNSW Galleries. Material Place features 13 Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian artists including Megan Cope, Robert Andrew, Nicholas Mangan, Dale Harding, Gunybi Ganambarr and Yukyltji Napangati. 

Through an array of media including sculptures, installations, videos, prints and paintings, Material Place explores ideas of peoples’ connections to the landscape and historical representation and political implications for them. Many of the artworks use natural materials like local ochres, oyster shells, resins and rocks, while others implement archival video, drone footage and electro-mechanical devices.  

Relationships with the environment

Guest curator Ellie Buttrose, Associate Curator of International Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, says the exhibition seeks to ask: what are the politics that frame these representations and what do these frameworks express about our relationship with the environment?

“The exhibition returns to that very basic question of representation and what are the political implications embedded within these perspectives?” Buttrose said. “The way that we look at or describe the landscape is very revealing about our connection to it.”

The intricate connection between places and people is a focus of reflection for many of the artists, some of whom chart First Nations’ intergenerational relationships to Country. The featured artists capture how the impact of mining and fracking reverberates beyond a single site. The intertwined political and economic forces that can reshape a place for generations is a shared point of entry to these artworks.

“These are the kinds of things that are very present in many of the artists’ lives,” said Buttrose. “Previously, we might have thought that mining happened in remote places. But artists like Rachel O’Reilly are changing the conversation to show how fracking is something that is becoming part of people’s backyards. This often comes as a shock and change in the way we think about this industry.” 

'The way that we look at or describe the landscape is very revealing about our connection to it.'

Megan Cope and Gunybi Ganambarr make sculptures from materials that directly reference mining on their respective traditional lands. Ganambarr, in line with the decree of his elders, limits his materials to those found around Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. He extends the painting and incision of sacred designs on barks and larrakitj (memorial poles) to abandoned materials from mining and industrial plants. The rubber conveyer belt in Ngalkan (2015) speaks to the removal of resources from Yolngu land as well as the adaptability and vibrancy of Ganambarr’s cultural heritage.

For Foundations II (2016), Quandamooka artist Megan Cope cast oyster shells within minimalist concrete blocks. The work creates a tension between the delicate organic details found within the shells and the standardised cast form of the brick. The work is displayed in a grid format referencing the way that colonial city planning often ignored natural contours in the landscape and instead adhered to a rectilinear layout. This work relates to Cope’s wider research on Aboriginal shell ‘middens’, mounds of discarded shell and bone that indicate abundant sites where people had camped and eaten together.

Urgent conversations about land and place

In conjunction with Material Place, UNSW in partnership with the Art Gallery of NSW is hosting a two day symposium From Site to Place from 22-23 June that includes a curated screening program, and panel discussions with exhibiting artists and invited guests.

The program convenes artists, thinkers and poets for a conversation about land and space within the intertwined contexts of neoliberalism, settler colonialism and environmental degradation.

Miranda Samuels, public engagement and events officer for UNSW Galleries, said the exhibition and symposium offered opportunities to investigate different ways of understanding landscape within the context of art and the social sciences.

Samuels added that the exhibition and symposium were timely, with the Northern Territory government recently announcing that exploration fracking will proceed in the gas-rich Beetaloo Basin, along with the contentious Adani Carmichael mine in Central Queensland receiving approval. Closer to home, long-wall coal mining continues to take place in Sydney’s drinking water catchment.

“Mining, fracking and other extractive industries pose major environmental, social and economic challenges to Australian society,” Samuels said. In light of these challenges, she believes “there is an urgency to reassess how we understand land, place and space, and in so doing revise our ideas around what the genre of landscape art in Australia really stands for”.

Speakers at the symposium include political economists, eco-feminists, museum curators and poets, with a keynote address by leading Indigenous legal scholar Professor Irene Watson.

“We need to understand land as a social relation – that is in constant dialogue with people and communities – as something that is not neutral but extremely dynamic. This is a reason to host interdisciplinary forums like From Site to Place.”