Life in Your Hands: art from solastalgia, curated by Robyn Daw

18 March to 11 May 2013

Jeff MinchamFull Moon - Dry Lake (No end in sight - ruin January 2009) (detail) 2012. Photo - Michal Kluvanek.

Life in Your Hands: art from solastalgia by Robyn Daw

The relationship between a community and its immediate environment is, at best, balanced and robust: communities demonstrate resilience, cope with adversity and, by necessity, must accommodate change. However, when change occurs for the worst, people can become disempowered and separated from the very place perceived as home. Physical and mental health may be affected: the result of an accumulation of adverse conditions. This phenomenon has been identified and named as solastalgia by Professor Glenn Albrecht. Effectively this is a condition of homesickness experienced without leaving home.

Solastalgia has a variety of causes: environmental change, loss of connection to the past, economic change and political decisions, all of which impact heavily on communities. Unlike major catastrophes where a cause can be identified and collectively addressed, with solastalgia the change is chronic and incremental. As a result it is either dismissed or simply not recognised. Groups of individuals become 'disturbed' by solastalgia but, as it is not sudden and traumatic, a response is not always seen as being necessary.

Life in Your Hands: art from solastalgia has looked to the work of artists as a means to better recognise solastalgia. The idea was not to describe it as a phenomenon, but to see if art, craft and design could be a vehicle for social change and assist in countering solastalgia in affected communities. The Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky wrote of the potential for artists to explore life and to create spiritual treasures in which we recognise our own predicament and where we can find solace. For Tarkovsky, an artist 'is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life'1.

The artists selected for the Life in Your Hands project understand the complex layering of connectedness between the land and the life it supports, and acknowledge the ability of art to convey this situation. Their works in this exhibition have been created as a result of identifying and working with communities that are perceived as experiencing solastalgia. During the exhibition's development, artists and gallery venues from five states and territories were paired to work together: artists discussed with galleries the issues faced by their region, and were placed where the issues best aligned with the artist's own investigations. Each region experienced unique issues, but the commonality was the consultation process through which each community was given a voice. The gallery venues were asked to assist the artists to connect with groups that had identified issues creating conditions for solastalgia in their community, and to facilitate discussions with those groups.

The artists have drawn from the experiences of people who work to counter solastalgia and who often face enormous challenges in their attempts to do so. From the turtle hospital to the seed bank collection, work is being done to identify the problems, establish methods to combat them, and ensure ways of surviving. The artworks in Life in Your Hands are informed by, and imbued with, the sense of urgency that individuals and communities face on a daily basis.

The issues that adversely affect the wellbeing of these communities are as varied as the communities themselves: regional and urban people concerned about the decrease in biodiversity and its effect on their environment, the effects of noise pollution, destruction of marine habitats, environmental change and decline in ecological health, the ongoing effects of race-based removal, and the impact of major disasters at a local level. The enormity of these problems and the perceived inability for individuals to counter them is a major contributor to solastalgia.

As the major part of Australia's population clings to the coastal periphery of the continent, one would expect an awareness of the fragility of the ecosystems of the marine environment to before most in the consciousness of its population. The collective GhostNets Australia actively engages with and exposes concerns within, and extending from, coastal communities across the north of Australia. Its work is simultaneously an environmental cleansing and a creative construction through the redemptive process of making art.

In the Queensland city of Townsville, a group of scientists is working to protect and heal sick and injured marine creatures and to ensure their survival. As we celebrate the seven billionth person to be born on the planet, there are many species on the endangered list or facing extinction. Janet Laurence highlights the gap between what is happening in the wild to species as their habitats are damaged in our quest for resources, and the intensive care programs being put in place for their survival.

The long-term effects of drought on the environment concerned artists Jeff Mincham, Barbara Heath and Melinda Young. In the south-east of South Australia, communities dependent on the freshwater lake systems were irrevocably changed, with many people leaving and not returning. In Horsham the farms and gardens were flourishing once more but, faced with a worldwide economic imperative to favour monoculture farming practices, the future of biological diversity depends on saving seed from 'land race' crops. While the Canberra bushfire tragedy drew people together in its enormity, the aftermath –of dealing with the fire's ongoing devastation long after the event and the expectation to 'move on' –has created the conditions for solastalgia.

Sometimes these conditions are not based in environmental degradation, but political decisions that continue to have an enormous social impact. The ongoing challenges, and great sadness, that has come from the policy of forcibly removing children from Aboriginal families still resonates today. Douglas Archibald, Selena Archibald and Donna Fernando created possum skin cloaks, for a young man and an infant respectively, that recognise the struggle of recovering identity as part of coming-of-age, when the link to family, language and land has been removed.

Urban airport extensions are contentious sites of legal, environmental and global concerns, and Sydney Airport is no exception. Michelle Hamer produced works in consultation with No Airport Noise, a local community group which has maintained an ongoing discussion and dispute with airport authorities. Hamer's tapestries engage with the genuine fears of the community in relation to noise and pollution concerns surrounding the expansion of Sydney Airport.

Albrecht's solastalgia project was given a 'face' by Allan Chawner's photography of Hunter Valley mine sites within a rural community. There is nothing staged about Chawner's images; they show the raw effect of our need for resources to supply our twenty-first century demands for cars, buildings, food and technology. Without our needs, there would be no mines. It all comes at a cost. Sadly, that cost is often borne by the people who have always lived on and loved their land.

Life in Your Hands maintains an optimistic position in that the potentially redemptive nature of the act of making art can offer some understanding of the notion of solastalgia, provide a platform for discussion and offer a creative response. The search for resolution of issues is ongoing, and art can play a significant part in the restitution of a sense of well being in a community.