Creating in the Age of the Anthropocene

Between ever-worsening news of climate change and environmental degradation, growing species extinction, and a fundamental lack of care for land and nature, fauna and flora— art still, somehow, goes on. Caught between hope, purpose, fatigue and anxiety, for many people it’s art—whether creating, viewing or experiencing—where one can explore the immensity, fragility and power of the natural world. But how does it feel to be an artist working with nature in these times? We asked five artists—Nici Cumpston, Karla Dickens, Jenna Lee, Janet Laurence and John Wolseley—to tell us.

Karla Dickens:

Karla Dickens, Disastrous, 2022-24. Photograph: Michelle Eabry.

Keeping it Together titles these new globe sculptures showing alongside a series of heavily collaged pieces on board, called Disastrous, which were created over 2022 to 2024, and will be showing for the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) later this year.

I have lived with fear for the environment for decades—my first action easing this pain was working for Greenpeace some 36 years ago. Fear has taken over many times since: living through bushfires, suffering breathing issues and nosebleeds from dust storms during droughts, and of course living through the natural disaster hitting the Northern Rivers in February 2022, with collective community trauma still lingering. Having known many mental and emotional issues, this anxiety is clearly identifiable. I am grateful it is now being named: Climate Anxiety, Eco-Anxiety or Eco-distress.

Bounding and wrapping the globes has become a therapeutic practice easing my anxiety. Some totems are close to my height: I felt safely bound as I wrapped the globes together. The small series of works on board are more punk in essence, responding to my fears and anger— they are straightforward. The large Disastrous works are more complex and intricate, embracing my neurosis. Keeping it Together may be therapy for my anxiety, yet visually they are subtle and more composed, which I need personally to be proactive.

Nici Cumpston:

Nici Cumpston, Old Mutawintji Gorge III, from the series mirrimpilyi - happy and contented, 2023, Adelaide - Kaurna Country, pigment inkjet print on Hahnemühle paper hand coloured with PanPastel, crayon and pencil, 120 x 44 cm.

Old Mutawintji Gorge I-VII are hand-coloured black-and-white photographs from the series titled, mirrimpilyi – happy and contented, created on a day trip to Mutawintji National Park with fellow Barkandji artists for the exhibition ngaratya (together, us group, in it together).

Mutawintji is a place of great cultural significance to Barkandji peoples and neighbouring groups. For millennia we have gathered here, at this place of permanent water, for cultural activities including marriages, initiations, ceremony, and trade.

Walking slowly along the creek bed, the presence of our Ancestors was evident in the ancient rock art and time alone with my camera enabled me to watch the light and capture the beauty of this ancient land.

Through hand-colouring I shape the colour that fills my prints by revisiting memories of this time and place. It is a meditative process and offers opportunities to reflect on time spent learning from each other and our precious Country.

As a Barkandji artist, I am compelled to make work that speaks about our ongoing care and responsibility for the Barka, our Darling River, and the entire Murray Darling basin. It is through these works that I give our Country a voice, seeking recognition and justice for our environment and ongoing cultural obligations.

Cumpston is showing in ngaratya (together, us group, in it together) at Broken Hill City Art Gallery from 3 May—28 July.

John Wolseley:

John Wolseley, Ephemeral rivers of the Wimmera plains - Red Gum, Banyena, 2022, watercolour on paper, 56 x 76 cm. private collection.

Sixty years ago, I started painting vital, flowing ecosystems in Europe, capturing habitats as they started to lose their diversity. I then emigrated to Australia, searching for healthier rivers, forests and deserts, which has taken me through vibrant living landscapes and, increasingly, into country cleared and impoverished.

How does an artist of land in the Anthropocene deal with this downward spiral? I have tried all manner of strategies to maintain my romantic conviction that artists and poets can be a voice for living earth—from quiet meditative celebrations to practical activism. I have always kept in mind a quote from John Ruskin’s essay, ‘All Great Art is Praise’. He wrote, “The art of man (sic) is the expression of his rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which (s)he forms a part.” My work often attempts to reveal some underlying pattern by relating the details of a particular ecosystem to the greater system of the total cosmos.

One great problem arises when didactic intentions take precedence over inner revelations, where the work can lose its power. There’s danger in being overly preachy in a world suffering eco-fatigue. It’s all one hell of a conundrum and, as I grow older and gentler, I’m doing more paintings which passionately show my delight in the power and beauty of earth. I hope by so doing I can say, “How can we bastards continue to ruin it all!”

Jenna Lee:

Jenna Lee, Grasstree (at rest), 192 x 32 x 32cm, (detail), pages of ‘Aboriginal Words and Place Names’, organic cotton thread, bamboo, rice starch glue, book cover board, stool, fire. Courtesy the artist and mars gallery.

In the last few years, fire has become a central force within my practice for its alchemical quality and materiality—often listing “fire” in my materials list for the traces it leaves behind.

As I reflect on this, I am taken back to a particular moment in late 2019—sitting on a fold-out chair in my studio in London, watching the southeast of this continent burn from the screen on my phone— and having a single clear thought in between all the heartache: this was preventable.

I do not doubt that the Anthropocene is here and that humans are having a huge impact on the planet, but I want to make sure we clarify who exactly we mean by humans—that we make a very clear distinction: when the land is in control of and can be managed properly by Indigenous people here and across the globe, its patterns and signals are seen and heard—and that when the land does tell us that something is wrong, we have thousands of years’ experience in what to do.

I say this because I firmly believe it is the answer to the problem we are all facing. I take this belief with me into my practice, whereby I enact processes of transmutation—rooted in cultural knowledge, to demonstrate the transformative power our ways can have on the materials, legacies and environmental conditions we have inherited.

Janet Laurence:

Janet Laurence, Tears of Dust, installation view, Museum of Australian Photography, 2024. Courtesy of the Museum of Australian Photography.

Love in the time of catastrophe and extinctions calls for another set of questions. Who are we as a species? How do we fit into the earth system? What ethics call to us? How to find our way into new stories to guide us now that so much is changing? How to invigorate love and action in ways that are generous, knowledgeable, and life affirming?

—Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming

We need art now in this catastrophic time, as we need a totally changed paradigm to explore new ways to share our planet with the other species that make us whole. I want my art to be, and show, a way of caring for our planet and to heal it. Making work in this way creates a space of possibility, and hope, as an action. Art being alchemical enables transformation through action: it is able to reenchant, reinvent, regenerate.

My experiential work expresses our interconnection with, and the fragility of, nature. It also involves delivering laments and protests as Dirt Witch processional performances. It speaks to the heart and soul of a language of emotion and empathy to enable us to care. It is deeply important in my life.

Feature Words by Art Guide Australia