Embedded in the land: ‘Material Place’ at UNSW Galleries

Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes , exhibition installation view, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 2019, with the work of Bonita Ely, Gunybi Ganambarr, Megan Cope and Mabel Juli; photo: Zan Wimberley

Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes, exhibition installation view, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 2019, with the work of Bonita Ely, Gunybi Ganambarr, Megan Cope and Mabel Juli; photo: Zan Wimberley

What is our relationship to place within settler colonial Australia? What methods and materials might be most fittingly employed to represent land use today? In what ways can art address the environmental issues unfolding in our current moment? These are some of the questions posed by the deftly curated exhibition ‘Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes’, at UNSW Galleries in Sydney until 7 September. Offering a diverse range of approaches that includes Google Earth imaging, drone footage, kinetic sculpture, as well as the more traditional artistic techniques of painting and carving, the exhibition brings together 12 Australian artists, half of whom are Indigenous.

In the first gallery space, the visitor is greeted by a number of distinctive sounds. One of these is an ominous amplified clicking noise that emanates from Nicholas Mangan’s 2018 installation Termite Economies. On top of a purpose-built table sits an earth-coloured model of a termite tunnel that has been amalgamated with a small goldmining structure. The result looks a bit like a theme park water slide in miniature. To the right, a television monitor is supported by a tall wooden plinth. It displays footage of bone-coloured termite mounds that rise into the air like heavily dimpled buildings. The work is based on studies undertaken by the CSIRO into the ability of termites to locate gold. It imaginatively adopts this curious example of capitalism’s desire to transform any form of life into a prospective source of wealth, thereby critiquing the subjection of nature to an economic calculus.

Elevated slightly off the floor, a liquorice-coloured conveyor belt, Ngalkan (2015), is encountered in the next room. It has been intricately incised with sacred triangular and diamond-shaped designs by Indigenous artist Gunybi Ganambarr. Displaying an innovative use of materials that responds to the erosion of his people’s land rights, the discarded rubber conveyor belt signals the removal of minerals from Yolngu land through mines and refineries that have now been decommissioned.

In such ways, ‘Material Place’ explores the intersections of colonisation, mining, Indigenous cultural heritage and attachment to place – ideas that are thoughtfully weaved through the subdued spotlit exhibition to create a compelling dialogue between the works. Meditating on some of the most pressing issues of our time – environmental degradation and our relationship to nature – the exhibition eschews a tone of urgency and catastrophe in favour of foregrounding Indigenous knowledge and culture, practices imbedded in extensive research and those that take an experimental approach to materials.

Benison Kilby, Sydney