Tree of Life

What could it mean, in this Anthropocene which so radically revises our senses of both past and future, to give testament? S.H. Ervin’s group show 'TREE of LIFE: A Testament to Endurance,' curated by Gavin Wilson, takes up this form of declaration. Twenty-seven artists show works which emerge from experiences of living and making with native ecosystems, and which are exhibited as certificates of, or vehicles for, knowledge of our landscape’s dual fragility and resilience.

There are ‘testaments’ in the Biblical sense: statements of belief which emerge from the experience of individual speakers or writers. In this sense, the testament elides between small, experienced events and larger truths. The testament works, in this respect, as a folding together of subject and object: an enveloping of the whole object world within the local experience of the subject. 

Nicholas Harding’s taut, dense and floridly sensual paintings picture periods spent in Wilpena Pound. Harding’s delicate brushes of colour register not only the landscape as it stands in the moment of painting, but his many preceding years spent with it, and his affection for it. Harding also discloses, in an artist statement, another manner in which this landscape has become interwoven with his interior, personal world: while recovering from a cancer diagnosis, he spent time at Wilpena observing the bushland grow back, green, after successive bushfires over the past five years. As such, the insistent vibrancy of Harding’s landscapes is a testament at once to a personal history between the artist and the land, and to a broader, brighter future in which regeneration might truly be possible. The paintings really are testaments in this sense: accounts of experience, and affirmative statements of belief.

Tjulka Tjuta, a work painted by artists of the Adelaide Studio Women’s Collaborative as part of the APY Art Centre Collective, also does this testifying work. It accounts for a sensorial, and also spiritual, experience of the landscape that is at once personal and transcendent. Again, a future-tensed hopefulness which emerges from deep engagement with the land’s history seeps from the work. Circular motifs picture rock holes where water collects after rains to sustain human and animal inhabitants of the land through dry seasons. For these Pitjantjatjara artists, knowledge of these sites is passed from generation to generation, ensuring not only survival, but a flourishing through harsh conditions. 

Tamara Dean’s captivating photographic set is site-responsive, situating community members alongside dancers from the Australian Dance Theatre in the Adelaide Botanic and Mt Lofty Gardens. Flesh, stark and vulnerable against bark and grass, is beholden to the cyclical temper of the gardens. The sharpness of these images attests to the way that encounters with nature can — perhaps should — be shocking to our senses, inspiring both an examination of (colonial) histories of human bodies on land, and a view to the future we share with it.

There are also the ‘testaments’ which accompany last wills. These we might think of as more instruction than declaration: ‘this is what must be done.’ Many of the artists in TREE of LIFE take up this aspect of the testament, as well. Allana Beltran’s work, for instance, emerges from her activism in Old Growth Forests in Tasmania’s South West, which she has been carrying out since 2007. Beltran’s symbol of choice is the angel, sat atop a tree. For her, as for many of these artists, the angel might stand in not simply as a symbol of nature’s enchantment, but as a more foreboding figure, asking us to show the same resilience, adaptability, and gentleness that trees do.

With curator Gavin Wilson, artists include: Josephine Mick, Rhoda Tjitayi, Katie Curley, Barbara Baker, Margot Brown, Inawintji Williamson and Margaret Richards – together with Allana Beltran, GW Bot, Nicholas Blowers, Nici Cumpston, Tamara Dean, Rachel Ellis, Louise Fowler-Smith, Richard Goodwin, Nicholas Harding, Janet Laurence,  Idris Murphy,  Andrew Merry, Euan Macleod, Peggy Patrick, William Robinson, Shane Smithers, Mary Tonkin, Emma Walker, John R. Walker and Joshua Yeldham.

EXHIBTION
TREE of LIFE: A Testament to Endurance
10 April – 30 May 2021
S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney

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