Curator Tim Riley Walsh on using art to comprehend crisis


Thanks to La Niña, much of the country has had a very rainy summer. This, coupled with the fact that the ongoing global pandemic is a source of both chronic and acute stress for many of us, occupying all our doomscrolling time, means that the appalling fire season of last year no longer seems front and centre in the national consciousness. But the group exhibition On Fire: Climate and Crisis, curated by Tim Riley Walsh for the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Brisbane, is a reminder that the burning issue of fire is here to stay. Tracey Clement spoke to the curator about addressing the devastating impact of colonisation, highlighting Indigenous fire knowledge, and entering an era in which even wet zones burn.

Tracey Clement: Was the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019-2020 what shocked you into action on the issue of fire and the climate crisis in Queensland?

Tim Riley Walsh: Like most Australians, I was deeply saddened by the devastating scenes of Black Summer. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was shocked – that sort of response I think is becoming an increasingly privileged one in an era of climate emergency.

I think the truly upsetting aspect of its destruction was the sense of its inevitability. In a way this event was predictable. In the lead up to that fire season, there were significant warnings from retired fire commissioners from across the country. The landscape was bone dry and temperatures were set to soar.

Despite this, the events that were most relevant to where my research focuses – on contemporary art from Queensland – were those besetting our local environments. What I was surprised about were the scenes of serious bushfires close to, and within, rainforests: especially those in the Beechmont and Binna Burra regions in the Gold Coast Hinterland.

Wet spaces should not burn – and coming from this state, where we have a sense of great pride and connection to the rainforest, it is hard to shake the disquieting symbolism of such ecologies on fire.

TC: The scale of the loss of life in the 2019-2020 fires (an estimated three billion animals, countless trees, and more than 30 people) is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone picture…

TRW: This is one of a number of thematics from On Fire: Climate and Crisis. As a product that is so reliant on sense, how does art function in an era when climate events and disasters are growing beyond the limits of perception?

Kinly Grey’s new work for On Fire is titled vereor, 2021, and it engages with this sense of great scale, but also attending to the fine detail of natural and elemental forces. As viewers enter Grey’s installation they are greeted with a three-sided room made of projection screens: almost like they’ve entered the cinema through a backdoor and find themselves on the wrong side of the projected image.

As their eyes acclimate to the dark, large plumes of smoke appear to rise and pool – it’s a mixture of the poetic, but also fear-inducing. Moving around the structure, the audience is then invited inside, only to find that the plumes are generated by two diffusers emitting water vapour and a well-placed spotlight.

The anticipated fire is a playful, lo-fi parlour trick, but it shifts attention from fear to a sense of wonder. The work’s title is a Latin root of reverence, but vereor as a word sustains an ambivalence of both awe and, importantly, fear toward nature.

Fear is good, it means that we retain respect for the environment and recognise that humans aren’t at the centre of this vast system, nor the top of some hierarchy.

On Fire: Climate and Crisis installation view Photo: Louis Lim.

: The images of fire (especially bushfires) presented in the mainstream media fuel the Western perception that fire is predominantly frightening and destructive…

TRW: From the beginning, the project was focused on expanding on the cultural relativity of fire. Like so much on this continent, fire is a deeply colonised subject and as you say, a European perception of it is one that sees it as unwelcome in the landscape, a thing to be suppressed.

Ultimately, the exhibition attempts to expand on how scenes of destruction within the environment, with a particular focus on fire, are mediated in different ways, thus shifting our perceptions. In a way, it asks: how we can decolonise fire?

The late Gordon Bennett’s work Relative/Absolute (Fire) from 1991, the earliest piece in the show, elaborates a little on this important relativity. The work is from a broader series of Bennett’s in which various ‘absolute’ or universal subjects (man/woman/child/water/fire) are depicted as simplified icons and then accompanied by their relative names across six European and indigenous languages.

Bennett shows thus that in their naming, these supposedly shared subjects are articulated differently across cultures, but, as we dwell more on this line of thought, the absolutes reveal themselves as also entirely dependent on cultural context.

Fire is not simply one thing to all people, its relevance and application changes dramatically: it means critically different things to different people.

Opposite this is a new work by Dale Harding, Moreton Bay Ash branch smoulders slowly, 2021: a two channel video that captures a log of the titular tree burning in a relaxed, languorous way. There is a beautiful intimacy to its documentation of the grain of the wood glowing with the fire inside it.

More importantly, it communicates this sense of fire’s innateness to this land’s flora – it lives and belongs here. In its lyric way – as many of Dale’s works do so finely – it shows us that fire holds a central place here that shouldn’t be displaced when it is doing its positive work.

Dale Harding, Moreton Bay Ash branch smoulders slowly 2021(installation view) Two-channel video, audio 19:26 duration, looped. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photo: Carl Warner.

: In what ways does On Fire address the devastating impact of colonisation?

TRW: James Cook’s ‘discovery’ of this continent and his claiming of it for the British Crown in 1770 (off the coast of Far North Queensland) is a complicated event. It isn’t simply about the beginning of settler invasion, but is embedded too with the birth of the combustion engine and industrial pollution (the Watt steam engine was invented in 1776; the Endeavour was built as a coal-hauling vessel before being repurposed for exploration) as well as capitalism (The Wealth of Nations, a key text was released too in 1776). So these beliefs in possession – of land and of resources and of ecosystems – coexist here with the birth of ‘Australia.’

Daniel Solander, who assisted the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the invention of the index card—a symbol of a Western desire for classifying/controlling the world – was onboard the Endeavour alongside Joseph Banks. These processes aren’t distant, European things, but rather strongly influence how colonial cultures view and manipulate the perception of the world, and thus what future generations are socialised into.

There are very visceral and immediate impacts of colonisation: the massacres and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but there is also these less visible processes, these invasive colonial psychologies which do even further damage. I see this as relating deeply to the present climate emergency.

Warraba Weatherall’s new work To know and possess, 2021, taps into this. Weatherall has been collating information as part of a personal research project of Kamilaroi cultural objects within Australian collections. Possession and destruction aren’t simply visible in body-to-body conflict, but also in processes of collection. I’m sure some would argue this represents an ‘innocent process’ of knowledge building – but European culture’s drive ‘to know and possess,’ to borrow Weatherall’s words, is its own form of domination.

It was critical that voices such as Weatherall’s and also Paul Bong’s were foregrounded to describe these impacts from an Indigenous perspective.

TC: American fire historian Stephen Pyne’s notion that we are entering the Pyrocene – an age characterised by fire in which Australia is a major epicentre – is frankly terrifying. Do any of the works in On Fire offer hope?

TRW: Pyne is careful to describe the Pyrocene as a theory, and I think that is important. But certainly the thought of being beset by increasingly larger and more destructive fires is a deeply troubling proposition.

I would say Harding’s work definitely confronts this in a quieter, more poetic fashion. It is saying that if we focus on fire’s belonging here and champion cultural knowledge – Indigenous cultural fire and land management – that there is some opportunity for hope.

On Fire: Climate and Crisis
Institute of Modern Art
30 January – 20 March

Interview Words by Tracey Clement