Even as the Arctic hastens our end of times
I dance with you through the memories
On the edges of the ice and melt.
(From The Fuse is Lit: Fire and Ice.)
Lisa Anderson’s exhibition Beguiling presents a poetic and performative investigation into the current climate catastrophe that humankind faces right here, right now. Like all good stories it is multilayered and nuanced: photographs and videos documenting actions, figures ghosting the landscape, words floating across screens, huge icebergs melting into the sea. Each visitor will take away haunting visual images and prose that will resonate in their memories and will be difficult to shake off.
Anderson has been researching climate change for many years so you can be confident the scientific details are correct. The artist has been to these locations, taken a hot air balloon ride across the region, and approached the giant icebergs in boats. They have had residencies in the Arctic and Antarctic, and in Norway and created images and poetic reflections about time and place, both in the cold white expanses and our own burning shores.
St Kilda and Port Melbourne feature in Roller Coaster and Balloons: The Last Ride a powerful lament for what we have lost. Anderson notes that Luna is the Roman god of the celestial skies and signifies an ability to open a portal into another world. The iconic laughing mouth that welcomes us into Luna Park is used as a performative prompt and provides the artist with a visual entrance to another real. The layering of our local shores awash in burning red bleeds across images of huge white ice lands melting into the sea. The devastation is made human through the soundtrack recorded at Luna Park of children giggling and squealing with joy. The Roller Coaster, St Kilda beach and Port Melbourne’s industrial horizon haunt the video, bringing climate catastrophe home. The work is palpable, difficult, emotional.
Throughout this exhibition, Anderson mines the performativity of lens-based media. This is not documentary, although we know the images of the places pictured to be real. The artist was there behind the camera but the pictures are inscribed, layered, manipulated to create an interpretation by the artist and to provide a trigger for an interpretation that the viewer will bring.
Anderson clearly situates the practice in relation to the debates that have haunted photography since its invention in the 19th century. Debates that have been exploded more recently in the generation of AI images. This makes Anderson’s practice special in the environmental photo field. Many would-be documentary photographs of climate catastrophe show us the wonder, the beauty of the landscape that humans have pillaged and destroyed. Think of wilderness photography used in the campaign to save the Franklin in Tasmania or aerial images over mining zones where pollutants look beautiful. In contrast Anderson takes a performative and conceptual approach. The title of this exhibition clearly recognises the way in which the destruction of the planet can appear to be beautiful, mesmerising, and seductive: the word beguiling conjures all these things and more. Whilst Anderson’s project acknowledges this and presents to us the awe and wonder, it is also a deconstruction of past approaches to this topic. Here the landscape burns, it is scarred and wounded by the artist to demonstrate how we as humans have injured this cycle of life.
The scaring of the white iceberg photographs with countdown fuse creates a performance art work integral to the process of making the video. These actions on and with the work are experimental in ways that recall conceptual art and its analysis of the medium. The burning fuse is a ‘real’ element incised into the photographed surface, it cuts and burns as it tattoos the landscape. What we see is the documentation of this performance as it creates the image that we are looking at. The scaring, burning images are compelling as the world becomes a body: its surface tattooed by the cruelty of humans. The ticking of the Doomsday Clock that Anderson refers to in these works, adds to the brutality.
The Fuse is Lit: Fire and Ice forms the centre piece of the video installation and is flanked by smaller screens showing the other video works. A poetic text written by the artist during a residency in Svalbard glides slowly up the screen. It is a silent, poetic, lament about the glaciers and a prophetic reminder that their demise is our demise. The ritual ending underlines the performative and the text speaks to mythology and history.
Ragnarok: End of Days tells the history of Svalbard a beautiful archipelago that has been exploited for mining and been entangled in military conflict and espionage. The mining tunnels were ironically repurposed as a climate-controlled environment for the world seed banks. In the artist’s eyes, this place is the stage where mythical “giants and gods make their last stand bringing about mutual destruction”.
There are a fleet of photographs accompanying the moving images that are drawn from the videos and/or present studies of the ideas explicated on screen. The photographs are in some ways palimpsests, silent, visual poems that haunt the space creating a memorial.
Anderson suggests that we are all implicated in this spectacular demise, writing:
Here in the fragile frozen world
You can see
Who I really am
I am you.
This exhibition uses multimedia to show parallel elements of beauty and destruction through the Anthropocene. The photographs use various techniques to explore the measures we use in the countdown to midnight made by science and demonstrated by the doomsday clock, set now at 2 minutes to midnight. The photographs have been altered through scarring the image with wax and burns, or using infrared styled images and different printing surfaces and image twinning/mirroring which is used to suggest a possibility of eternity through the portal or the folkloric meaning of disaster warning. The videos rely strongly on the images and rhythms of folklore and myth that is used across cultures to explain the world of nature, as earth, fire and air are anthropomorphized as dangerous and beautiful, enticing and yet sharp edged, alluring and a signal of destruction. The works bring together the remote locations of the Arctic and Antarctic regions alongside the infrared based images of Port Phillip.