All things grow: Unexpected art from nature meeting conflict

Artists Charles Green, Lyndell Brown, Paul Gough and Jon Cattapan have harnessed their experiences as war artists to create remarkable works for the exhibition, Turbulence, Conflict and the Garden of Remediation, on show at Melbourne Gardens. We spoke to Charles Green about the exhibition, and the relationship between conflict and the natural world more generally.  

The artists all have personal ties to conflict; Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, who have worked collaboratively since 1989, were appointed as Australia's official war artists in 2007. This was ground-breaking, as Lyndell was the first Australian woman to visit a war zone as an official war artist. The pair visited military installations and bases throughout the Middle East including Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf and photographed the experience of Australian troops and the environments in which they operated in great detail. Jon Cattapan is another war artist who worked alongside peacekeeping forces in Timor-Leste in 2008/9. Paul Gough's work has long revolved around the iconography of commemoration, the cultural geographies of battlefields, and depictions of peace and conflict.

"After that, we came together to explore sites of Australian involvement in conflict since Vietnam, aftermaths at places where there have been battles and bases no longer used in that context. And you look at these sites and see this entropy – the natural world is gradually taking over again." 

Having borne witness to conflict and the ability for nature to reclaim sites of brutality, this slow disintegration into gardens fascinated and inspired the artists. "Paul took photographs of NATO army bases in Germany that are now mothballed, with the buildings beginning to deteriorate. It's also evident in Jon’s beautiful paintings of people wandering in public spaces, and in my and Lyndell's pieces, particularly Santa Cruz, Dusk 4 [pictured]."  A huge painting depicting Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, Timor-Leste, the site of the Santa Cruz massacre where at least 250 East Timorese pro-independence demonstrators were shot en masse by Indonesian soldiers during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. "We took photographs of the astonishing, hauntingly beautiful cemetery, which looks like a garden.” Like most of the pieces in the exhibition, Santa Cruz, Dusk 4 began with a photograph. "We were travelling to aftermath sites and taking photographs, which are a key information gathering resource, and taking notes, writing, and drawing in sketchbooks." The photograph used to create Santa Cruz, Dusk 4 was taken at the exact location where the students were standing when they saw the Indonesian army enter the cemetery.

The image is effectively a documentary photograph, but it is very peaceful and serene. Despite the visually assuaging effects that plants have had on a site of violence and tragedy – juxtaposing the atrocities humans are capable of and the verdant serenity of the natural world – these works aren't intended to be viewed through a 'plants as saviours' lens. "What we’ve done is record these places and present our responses. To imagine there was a therapeutic or healing possibility would be much too much. It’s absolutely the case that gardens have a therapeutic and healing function for veterans and people being healed – it's no accident that hospitals are often surrounded by gardens, but we feel it's very important for Australians, and people worldwide, to understand the harm that we’ve done to other people and the environment, and not try to overlay that with any imagined healing process based on empathy."

Harm to the environment is reflected in the works in a nuanced way, and our ever-changing climate was at the forefront of the artist's minds when creating this exhibition. "So, turbulence and conflict have generated climate change, and conflict is one of the key elements in climate change globally, Climate change, in turn, has generated a lot of conflict across the world – in the middle east for instance, climate change has generated huge economic shifts and mass migrations which have led to much of the conflict we’ve seen. Syria, for example, was undergoing a massive, decade long drought which led to mass migration into cities that escalated pre-existing issues. Climate change has underpinned all sorts of turbulence that has led to disastrous consequences unfolding. We as artists were interested to try and create images of that turbulence."

These works bring to mind an old folk song by Pete Seeger, Where have all the flowers gone? 'Where have all the graveyards gone? Covered with flowers every one, When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?'

But learning isn't the point. These works aren't trying to make a hectoring statement. Rather, they are documenting change. "We haven't made these pieces for them to be primarily useful or to educate people, but rather to meditate upon and record these places and their stories. If people then want to use these works as educational tools, they are free to do so. As the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria invite people to make use of their extraordinary collections, our art is a resource we invite people to make use of if they wish to do so." Beauty also isn't the point, though the works are visually stunning and crafted across mixed media on paper, oil on linen, photography and transparent digital prints overpainted in oil. "People sometimes imagine that art is useful because it’s beautiful, but since the rise of modern art, it's no longer justified by beauty, nor can we assume a greater purpose - art doesn’t have to be useful."

The Symposium which accompanied the exhibition, AFTERSTORM: Gardens, Art, Conflict, further explored ties between art and gardens. "We invited academics and artists and scholars to talk about their research in connection with gardens, and for example we had a scholar who’s been researching gardens in the baroque period, where artists were often commissioned as engineers, to craft displays for festivities and spectacles to commemorate key events which historically took place in gardens." The Symposium also featured Indigenous artists and scholars discussing their thoughts about gardens via the lens of contemporary art. Indigenous Australian’s experience of gardens has been one of conflict and turbulence. Melbourne's gardens, such as Alexandra Gardens, were once places of habitation and cultivation for Indigenous people and they were often transformed into gardens by European settlers. Indigenous people were gradually excluded from the  places they were once relegated to and lived in. Our Gardens surely hold complicated histories for indigenous people. "

Don't miss the chance to see Brown, Green, Cattapan and Gough's remarkable artworks showing at Turbulence, Conflict and the Garden of Remediation, running until Sunday 3 November at Domain House, Melbourne Gardens. 

Published on