Lucas Ihlien plainly admits that there are trained professionals out there who can do a much better job than me at tallying up all the carbon emissions. I am an enthusiastic amateur, ordinary bicycle riding, compost-making suburban do-gooder. I’ve installed a half-flush toilet, I use energy saving bulbs, ‘safe’ toilet paper and I’ve signed up to ‘green power’, but I don’t really understand whether I am making a difference.
If you are worried about climate change and not sure what you can do, then In the Balance: Art for a Changing World at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is a must see. Over 30 artists and collectives, who are predominantly Australian, explore one of the most contentious problems we face at the moment. The artists in this exhibition have developed novel ways to get people thinking about climate change.
The exhibition is based around four themes: logging and de-forestation, Australian waterways, mining and sustainability, and recycling. Unfortunately, the majority of works are not spectacular or innovative. There is an abundance of video installations, living plants in jars, photographs of people chaining themselves to trees and anecdotal episodes on recycling - essentially, all the usual suspects one would imagine to be in an environmentally minded exhibition.
A notable exception to this is Olegas Truchanas’ video work of Lake Pedder before it was flooded by the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission. Exquisite vistas slowly merge into one another, showing a pristine wilderness that can never be recovered. Also, Angela Torenbeek’s Turtle is a devastating reaction to the dangers marine life face due to fishing.
Unfortunately, Weathergroup_U’s video installation was not in operation resulting in what felt like a dramatic under-representation of Indigenous people talking about their affinity with the land. According to the exhibition catalogue, the work interviews Jeffrey Lee, the sole custodian of the Aboriginal land of Koongarra. He is fighting to maintain control of the area to stop mining corporations accessing it for uranium deposits.
However, the truly successful part of the exhibition occurs when the artist calls directly upon the visitor to participate. Lucas Ihlein is conducting an environmental audit on the MCA and its power usage. He sits in a room surrounded by chalkboards for walls and a computer, updating his blog with his findings and holding discussions with visitors. That a visitor can talk with him about what he is doing is thrilling. The chalkboards, littered with annotations, measurements and tallies is an artwork in itself, visually demonstrating the tangled web of the energy consumed to perform everyday tasks, like visiting the gallery.
‘Artist as Family’, comprised of Patrick and Zephyr Jones and Meg Ulman, designed a public garden called Food Forest in Surry Hills where food is grown by the community to decrease the dependency on supermarkets. Their project also has a social benefit, as homeless people have the opportunity to feed themselves.
That the visitor is invited to follow the exhibition past the gallery wall to the outside ensures that the artists and curators have delivered on their promise to provide positive outcomes on what could have potentially been a sombre exhibition. It is a small start, but In the Balance is a valuable excursion where art can be a vehicle for activism.
Hand-drawn diagram; incomplete diagram for The Artist as Family, Food Forest, July 2010