Updated: May 31, 2022
"Whatever increases your capacity to act and intervene in the world - intervene in the public sphere - for the love of the world." (Braidotti, 2014)
Whilst traditional humanist theory is exclusive, post-humanist thinkers such as Braidotti are grounded in radical ways of thinking. Her quote above is a new materialist challenge to ask what it means to be human in the context of a planet facing environmental disaster because of our destructive impact.
The second assignment for my Bronze Foundry class has been an opportunity to explore and develop the medium conceptually and technically. On a practical level, I wanted to create a sculpture that had a more handmade texture to it after the highly polished penguin I had made last time. Further, in line with the attuning to nature that making my penguin did to me, I wanted to contrast the mass extinction seen in nature currently, with the commemoration of the mass deaths experienced in the war.
Ecological extinction and ethics philosopher Deborah Rose Bird's 2017 book chapter, 'Shimmer: When all you love is being trashed' writes about how the planet is haemorrhaging species and the destruction of interconnected natural relationships are sending us down a cascading and barely comprehendible path of environmental devastation. Maya Lin's What is Missing art video explains how humans are the sole reason for the sixth mass extinction on the planet, where 1 in 5 mammals, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 8 birds, and 1 in 4 conifers are known to be threatened with extinction.
I am extending my ideas of commemorating the Other. I want to make a post-humanist Shrine of Remembrance - a commemorative statue to remember already lost nature in our tragic experience of man-made climate change. I have recently investigated feminist cultural theorist Donna Haraway's ideas expressed in her 2015 book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. When considering her thoughts in relation to my work commemorating the suffering of the forgotten human Other who is rarely commemorated, I see that there is also a yawning gap for commemoration for lost nature and the ecological grief that comes from living through the sixth mass extinction around us - especially in Australia where we are experiencing some of the most dramatic species losses. Art websites talking to the mass destruction of our planet have inspired me: https://feralatlas.supdigital.org/ and https://www.anat.org.au/
Artist Maya Lin became famous for her 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the National Mall in Washington DC. This work talks to time and its continuing nature, the way that loss is reflected on us all.
More recent work by Lin is post-human, orienting us to the sixth mass extinction where habitat and species are disappearing at unprecedented rates thanks to humans. You can see her beautiful online work at https://www.whatismissing.org/
In her article on Commemorative Atmospherics, Shanti Sumartojo talks about how a sense of sacred and affect can be generated through lighting, sound, ritual, architecture and icons. The sculpture of The Driver is by British World War One veteran Charles Sargeant Jagger is one of these icons, standing on an alter-like plinth with arms outstretched in a sacrificial Christ-like manner. The figure was originally cast in Hyde Park Corner in London in 1922, and it was recast for Victoria's Shrine of Remembrance in 1936. The sculpture portrays a driver soldier wearing spurs, holding a whip and bridles - showing us in a humanist reading, the cooption of animals in the human-plight of war.
For years I have loved The Driver's grandness and dignity. Inspired by it for this assignment, I see an owl in it, the outstretched wings captured in the likeness of the soldier's driving-cape. Owls are a symbol of the feminine and fertility, with the moon's cycles of renewal. Owl mythology related to Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy, before the Greeks gave their pantheon human forms. Owls also can represent change, transformation, intuitive development, and trusting the mystery. They are tied to the spiritual symbolism of “death” which brings about new beginnings with a higher understanding and evolved perspective.
These are some of my initial drawings of owls:
Since thinking about the use of owls in art, I have noticed their use in local sculptures. At the Point Leo Sculpture Park the other weekend I noticed Matt Calvert's Night Imp (2010), which has a silhouette that resembles a story-book owl, a child, and a mischievous hobgoblin. I liked the idea of incorporating some human-like elements to the owl so I made its beak look a little nose-like. There seems to be something both inherently endearing and mythical about the owl.
In Melbourne's CBD on Elizabeth St I noticed Tom Bass' 1963 Children’s Tree. The plinth has been designed as public seating and it features a whimsical boy and girl playing around stylised tree with an owl. In this instance the owl represents a subtle allegory of wisdom through play.
Further afield in Canberra, I remember seeing Bruce Armstrong's 2011 Owl. Largely disliked for its phallic resemblance, the sculpture was meant to be a nod to a 'parliament of owls' and the wisdom held by politicians in the nations capital.
It reminds me of Armstrong's far more successful 2002 scuplture, Bunjil in Melbourne's Docklands. The eaglehawk is regarded as a spirit creator by the Kulin nations, including the local Wurundjeri. The sculpture talks to mythology, the spiritual force of nature, and the relationship of public sculpture to architectural design. Grand in scale like his Owl, this sculpture is much more successful.
There is a beautiful and haunting sculpture at RMIT designed Indigenous artist Dr Vicki Couzens, with collaborators Jeph Neale and Hilary Jackman, Wurrunggi Biik - Law of the Land. It is made from cast iron and represents a possum skin cloak with an intricate wedge tail eagle shaped spirit memory imprint. For me it is a shrine to the missing, remembering the untold loss of a land colonised without respect for the First Nations people and environment.
First Nations poet Evelyn Araluen's Stella Prize winning book has a poem called Bad Taxidermy where there is a single line on page 42 that says - 'The spare cabinets waiting in anticipation in the extinction room'. Her words have a way of talking about the systems of classification and collection, and how they are linked to extinction. I want to incorporate my previous work in archives and forgotten histories into my piece.
Plinths are also a way of displaying a relic of the past. The plinth was a kind of alter for the first bronze items made. These items were often ritualised objects made for sacred spaces. could be explored for my work. Memorials have an alter - it is interesting the double meaning of alter - it also means to adjust or change. The online dictionary defines the verb 'to alter' in relating it to the castration of domestic animals. Having my book by KS Inglis, 'Sacred Sites' is a nod to both a plinth, and also Araluen's anticipation of archiving the lost.
I evolved my owl sculpture to dialogue with all of these ideas. Below are progress photos of the method of creating my bronze sculpture.
I have not gone into the techniques because they are all documented here for assignment one. There were some elements of the project that ended up being different to my experience with making my penguin. Firstly I wasn't sure how to make the texture of the feathers, and I was grateful for teacher Simon Perry for showing me how to layer feather shaped pieces of wax over the owl's body. It took a long time, but the effect was worth it. I found though, that the brick and plaster investment was quite difficult to clear from the bronze in some of the detailed areas. I didn't want to initially change the hand crafted and unadulterated bronze surface of the owl, so spent a lot of time chipping and brushing it out with various tools. However, once I realised I had to weld some holes up, I realised that the surface was going to have to changed anyway. In ended up sand blasting the build up.
The good thing about the sand blasting was that it identified a lot of other holes and seams that needed to be smoothed, and now that I wasn't as precious about the surface I was able to grind and weld the feathers to greater effect. I shaped the owl's feet into defined claws with a die cut tool. I used a black/brown patina to colour the owl in the end, and finished with a tiny drill to ensure bronze of the eyes stood out.
I wanted the surface to be shiny-ish so I used a wax and electric buffer to help the shrine to be more 'reflective'. This shininess also alludes to Deborah Bird Rose's notion of the indigenous 'shimmer' which when encountered in nature, makes us want to care and protect a planet that needs our help (as opposed to the 'sublime' which is depicted in colonist patriarchy artwork where the male protagonist is central and safe from epic but fleeting environmental conditions).
Some ideas of the production of a plinth were investigated. Ecofeminist Indonesian artist Tita Salina 2015 work, '1001st island - the most sustainable island in archipelago' was a floating island of rubbish made of the amount of waste someone made in 50 years.
I considered making the plinth out of rubbish, adding to the environmental concerns of the work, and showing that the bronze and plastics were likely to have the same lifespan - but felt it might have been didactic in a memorial context.
I have also experimented with using my Shrine of Remembrance linocut matrix and and previous artworks to see if I can build some of the iconic shorthand visual elements to what I am trying to say. Shanti Sumartojo's mythscape idea is something I'd like to explore by adding the classical shrine building into the piece. I also have been interested in how the Greens party are looking to banning rodent poison you can buy at supermarkets because during the crisis of extinction, poisons are worsening the situation through birds of prey and other mammals unintentionally being killed. I experimented using some RatSak boxes as the plinth to highlight this, but I found the impact of the boxes distracting (alters at real memorials don't articulate the type of death and I wanted this work to be about larger issues than rodent poison). I also used a Jenja game as a plinth to draw on the accelerating toppling of species, but the effect was playful and not somber as I had intended.
In the end I have selected the owl sitting on the Sacred Site book by KS Inglis, with the imagery of the shrine being depicted through a projection of my linocut on a misty, textured background. I have made a soundscape of the last post against the fading sounds of wild animals, some recognisable and some already extinct. The final work below is called The Forgotten.