There are few concepts so telling of the colonial Australian psyche as the ‘outback’. The word itself isolates the expanse it conjures to being behind, away or over there. Whilst this distance is indeed true geographically, from the perspective of the coast-dwelling majority, as a space it seems either elusive and unknowable—the mysterious domain of all manner of hopes, fears and anxieties. To the coloniser, time had decimated the landscape long before Europeans got here, and what remains is barren space to be subsumed into environmental and economic discourse, eventually becoming commodified. Though cynical, the notion does seem to possess some currency.
This Western perception of inertia in the geological, non-living landscape is one of many perspectives interrogated by Curtin PhD candidate Rob Kettels in his recent exhibition Abiotica. Having previously explored Euro-Australian cultural anxieties and aesthetic concepts (such as the sublime) relating to the environment, he now addresses the hierarchies inherent within Western cultural thinking that give rise to these previously explored issues, as well as economic and scientific discourse.
Kettels is a keen mountaineer, however, the lack of altitude in WA has seen him venturing into the remote East Pilbara and Gascoyne of late; it is on these journeys that the materials used in these exhibitions were collected. Though they are loaded with cultural histories and meanings, there is an autobiographical thread binding them to an embodied experience. The artist’s experience of the land is explored in Desert Sentience/The Levitating Bushman, a stop-motion animation filmed spontaneously in a remote area between Meekatharra and Warburton. Kettels was photographed jumping on the spot approximately 660 times to produce a stop motion animation in which he appears to levitate over the landscape. “It was definitely a durational work,” he says of the making of the film, “It was a weird experience being in a landscape that I would normally feel fairly comfortable in.”
The work represents a desire to become part of the landscape. “[From a Western perspective] we interpret the desert as harsh—it’s barren, there’s nothing there—where [as] Indigenous people of that particular area see it as sentient.”
“I sit between two spaces, I’m interested in science and information, but I question it as a knowledge system,” Kettels says. He describes his practice as that of a ‘botched geologist’, reorganising geological materials collected on his travels up north in a quasi-scientific manner, which subverts their Western cultural value and reinvigorates them with a new agency.
Science and Sovereignty (2019)
Dominating the floor space is Science and Sovereignty, a version of which has been previously displayed on the Curtin campus at Quarter Gallery. Samples collected from a reverse circulation geological drill rig are organised in a manner similar to the way in which they were found, abandoned in the middle of nowhere—a type of scientific waste. This conceptual organisation becomes a neat visual metaphor for Western perception of a wider landscape that has been summarised and therefore ‘known’. Rather than scientific classification, here the samples are arranged aesthetically. This mock-taxonomic display is framed by sand from the Martu native title area in the Great Sandy Desert (the artist obtained verbal consent from the elders of the area to use the materials in this exhibition), which links the installation visually to the land from which they originated. These meanings should not be understood as symbolic, rather we are invited to consider them as embodied within the materials as physical fact.
Drill core sample (detail)
This same technique of subversion through replication is evident in Kettels’ visual riff on natural history museum dioramas. The curved backdrop is painted blue, fading to sunset pink to replicate a daunting sky, a reference to the Romantic landscape tradition and its attempts to ‘ennoble’ nature by capturing what it considers sublime. Suspended in front of this are hand-polished drill core samples, estimated to be 1.2 billion years old. They are beautiful to look at, but beyond their aesthetic value, the intricate bands and patterns are the result of geological processes occurring over a billion years. They are seemingly ‘fixed’ within the context of the gallery space as artifacts of deep time; in this deliberate display Kettels invites the viewer to question constructed environmental and historical narratives.
At the heart of the exhibition is a desire to do away with the idea of a human-nature binary, to address the perceived divide between life and non-life. Future Rock, Strata and Core Sample are a tongue-in-cheek but clever way of addressing this. Plastic and other synthetic materials are embedded in a man-made rock; as with the drill core samples, they bear time stamps of activity that are immediately recognisible to us. As artifacts, they are a humbling reminder of our impermanence, reduced and returned to Earth by processes barely comprehensible to us.
Future Strata (2019)
The materials within the gallery are not simply passive exhibits appealing and reinforcing a culturally determined idea of nature, they are subject—as are we—to ongoing biological and abiotic change. Kettels successfully calls us to acknowledge the limitations of the Western consciousness in regard to land: we are in fact of the same stuff, one and the same with our environment.
Abiotica was exhibited at Paper Mountain in Northbridge during July.