Brisbane-based artist Emma Lindsay has made a solid career out of documenting the damage wrecked by people on the natural world. Often it makes for confronting work, as she presents the numerous species now extinct or endangered due to climate change and human interference. Previous exhibitions have featured suites of museum specimens, sprawled out and pinned to timber boards, or taxidermied into awkwardly inaccurate representations of the real thing. Rendered in lush impasto on stark white backgrounds, Lindsay’s paintings are haunting reminders of not only the permanent losses already suffered, but the threatened species that may soon join them. Now, in a new exhibition at Artspace Mackay, Lindsay concentrates on what is likely the worst disaster to befall Australia’s unique environment – the continued destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.
Great Barrier Reef | Anthropocene Project was created in response to an invitation Lindsay received from Artspace to make work inspired by Mackay and the Coral Sea region. Comprising a series of paintings, photographs, and a single-channel video work, the exhibition features reef and rainforest species whose existence relies on the continuing health of key habitats within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and coastal Wet Tropics regions of Queensland.
To complete the project, Lindsay undertook fieldwork at scientific research centres on Lizard and Heron Island, Museum of Tropical Queensland, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. While travelling through Tropical North Queensland at key nesting, feeding and species migration times, she also witnessed extensive coral bleaching on the Cairns Outer Reefs, and the very real impact of Cyclone Debbie upon regional species and habitats earlier this year. The exhibition includes a monograph of photographs taken during fieldwork and several large-scale photographic prints, which show the dangers faced by nesting Green Turtles, and the problem of plastic and garbage pollution in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The trace of human activities upon Queensland species and landscapes are revealed by Lindsay’s painted mark, and in her studio choices of whether to depict or erase surrounding habitat information. The movie-length digital video work GBR Fieldwork Encounters (9 mths > 2 hrs)(2017), presents unedited snippets of the artists’ actual encounters, documentation process, and physical challenges over 9 months of research. The constant, often jarring reminders of human presence are seen and heard in every encounter recorded within the natural environment, museum, scientific laboratories and aquarium sites. The artist poses a deliberate and critical contrast to dominating media portrayals of wild species and places, typically seen in the stunning technical filming traditions of David Attenborough’s BBC wildlife documentaries.
Lindsay’s practice contributes to recent artistic dialogues by contemporary artists including John Wolseley, Janet Laurence, Walton Ford, Caroline Rothwell and Hayden Fowler, whose practices examine and document the effects of the Anthropocene—as encountered by the artists themselves within the environment, or recorded in natural history museum archives. For Australia in particular, animal extinction is particularly pertinent given almost 2000 of our unique species have been identified by the Australian Government as being at risk, on top of approximately 100 already lost species. Lindsay, in sharing her concerns, makes a statement about where society’s values lie. As art objects her paintings have a rare majestic beauty to them; as ecological documentation, they’re deeply disturbing.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Lindsay has managed to bring a new radiance to the works in Great Barrier Reef | Anthropocene Project. Perhaps it’s due to the refracted light and dancing movement of her underwater subjects this time around; or maybe because so much of the source material here is still radiant and alive, albeit under threat. Whatever the reason, Lindsay’s lighter approach suggests a sense of hopefulness—that a window of opportunity exists within which we can preserve the Great Barrier Reef’s remaining beauty for generations.
Provided we’re willing to act, of course.