Australian Perspecta 1997

Between art and nature

One could say confidently that the 1997 Perspecta was the best to date, but that did not stop it from being a little frustrating. Never has Perspecta been staged on such a scale, boasting eighty artists, twenty curators and nineteen presenting bodies throughout Australia, including ABC Radio, The Botanical Gardens and the Internet. Its format was Nature-in-miniature: multifarious, impossible to comprehend as a unit. 'Perspecta', like 'Nature', existed as the name for an ineffable abstraction, but residing within this abstraction were pockets of complete and satisfying experience.

Art and Nature is a forbidding title, at first seeming to offer so much that there is little outside it. And in any case Nature, the last of the surviving gods, has been deconstructed out of existence. Nature is no longer the insuperable, energetic, mercilessly neutral force of the Romantics, rather it is enframed within a welter of ideologies: the nonurban, spaciousness, cleanliness, rusticity, honesty. The originary, graceful state of nature, cleansed of doubt has long been in disrepute. That Nature is perhaps a construct like everything else does not however discount an experience of it that is ecstatic or terrifying and thus inescapably real. But how many of us have the patience or belief to experience nature with such simplicity?

It was Pop art that first questioned the viability of Nature by showing life as made of packaged, anamorphous substitutes for it. A television show showcased a talking horse and recently, in film, a whole farmyard was made to converse. Increasingly it seems that one of the greatest feats is to make, as in an alchemical operation, the unnatural from the natural. Technology, which has delivered us from many of Nature's inclemencies, has perhaps delivered us from Nature altogether. Computerisation has changed the idea of travel. Cloning has turned animals and plants into machines, sanitising species to fit specified requirements; plastic surgery modifies our appearance hopefully for the better; you can gender your baby while it is still in the womb.

The work of Patricia Piccinini has in recent years focused on a fictitious project of engineering. Her 'lumps', all computer generated, are hideous but cute creatures who gain more attributes the more technology you are willing to buy into them. Beneath the cool humour of this enterprise lies the awareness of the manipulability of life. From this body of work came the compelling installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art of computer-generated photographs and a countless array of video terminals entitled Plasticology. The viewer was placed in the midst of a storm - but with no wind, just air conditioning, no sun, just holegens. Plasticology was a computerised televisual forest, each terminal filled with windswept fronds in a luminous, enhanced green. Perversely, increasing the alienation between virtual environment and spectator, none of the trees were indigenous. Everything bespoke health and abundance, but without substance. Artificiality continued into the neighbouring rooms. Lyndal Jones's simulated forest and interactive video installation, In the Garden of Eden, returned to the ur-theme of the Fall, placing it against a relief of ideas about natural selection. It encompassed the 'naturalness' of sexual desire and by extension all the desires that stem from human beings.

The most pressing theme that this Perspecta encompassed was the devastation of the environment. This it did in direct and oblique, confrontational and poetic ways. What seemed less an issue to the artists of Perspecta was the problem of over-population and the fact that the 'unnatural selections' of the billion-fold populations, and their escalating demands on resources and spaces, has had, and will have, untold consequences.

The brutality to our environment is merely an extension of the brutality performed on others. A startling work was Fiona Hall's Slash and Burn. Covering almost an entire room in the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a grid of hovering black body-parts. Closer inspection revealed that what first seemed to be shells of charred remains were in fact glistening carapaces woven from video tape. On the floor, connected by a tail of tape, lay a video case. All the titles were of violent action films. These films, Hall's work suggests, are entertaining veils which, ironically, conceal the real carnage which is of an immensity that even the most high-budget extravaganza cannot configure. The initial playfulness of the work drew the viewer into its centre, so that the muteness of death was experienced viscerally and with disconcerting anonymity.

Permeating Hall's exhibit was the smell of dried flowers and sharp spice, a foretaste of Lauren Berkowitz's three spectacular pieces installed nearby. Suspended parallel to the wall to the right of the entryway was a blanket of banksias, but the gaze was soon diverted toward a wide tower made of thousands of jalopeno chillies, spiking the air in bunches arranged in vertical columns. The red of the chillies was sharp and as assaulting to the eye as the luscious brightness was to the nose. And as if to reprieve the experience of the work beside it, a high undulating chamber of lavender graced the room. Surrounded by muted violets and pale green, encased in cooling scents, one became momentarily lost in an encirclement of benevolence and calm. The curator of this section of Perspecta, Victoria Lynn, pointed out that these works engaged in 'the systems of collection, consumption, preservation, mutation and artifice that we have created around "nature"'.