John Dahlsen: Purge
‘A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist. To organize this mess of corrosion into patterns, grids and subdivisions is an aesthetic process that has scarcely been touched’.
- Robert Smithson in Sedimentation essays (cited in Jeffrey Kastner (ed) & Brian Wallis, Land and Environment Art, London: Phaidon Press, 1998, p 27)
Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American public intellectual acknowledged as one of the founders of the modern ecological movement, made a point of emphasizing the political significance of what he called ‘the art of walking’. Thoreau believed that venturing forth into the landscape on foot, eschewing destinations and concrete objectives, was an unqualified good in itself. Not only did walking lift one’s spirits: more importantly, it served as a constant reminder of the mutual dependence of humankind and nature, of the imperative to protect the environment from harm. More than a century later, the British artist Richard Long literalized the ‘art of walking’ by transforming his walks through the landscape into artworks. In these poetic renditions of land art, Long documented the subtle and ephemeral traces of his acts of walking: the faint line left in grass after his feet trampled it, the simple patterns created after he removed pebbles from his path. In contrast to the massive excavation exercises that comprised the earthworks of pioneering land artists such as Americans Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, Long’s works strike a decidedly gentle note: a quiet but nonetheless insistent call for a different kind of environmental work grounded in the ethics of care.
When Australian artist John Dahlsen began his littoral walks over a decade ago, he was in some respects honouring Long’s tradition of exploring the relation between humankind and the environment through daily, ritual, embodied interaction. In the case of Dahlsen’s practice, however, the ecological dimension was more explicit, for during these saunterings along the coast of his local area in Northern NSW, the artist would collect the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore. Unlike Long’s engagement with the natural environment, Dahlsen was actively harvesting from ‘nature’ the many- times-removed products of human manufacture: the raw material extracted from the earth, processed into commodity, used, discarded, and returned by the tide to human use.
For a time, the very act of walking and coastal care comprised Dahlsen’s work, recalling not only Long’s land art, but also other environmental-conceptual works that focused on the cleaning and care-taking of everyday environments. (These include the works of Merle Lader Ukeles, whose performances entailed sweeping, scrubbing and foregrounding the sanitation of particular urban settings, and Helen Meyer Harrison and Newton Harrison, who documented the pollution of the Sava River in Yugoslavia, before devising a counter-pollution strategy.) Soon, however, Dahlsen grew inspired by the objects he collected to create sculptures and assemblages, so that his practice came to combine walking with object and image-making.
The objects yielded by the tide prompted a key question for the artist: how does one give form to the formlessness of detritus? Dahlsen was well aware that the organizing principles he chose would determine the meaning of any work he created. He began by sorting the found objects into material, natural or manufactured, then into colour and size, his process a self-reflexive examination of categorization. These categories suggested particular works: totem poles constructed from buoys or thongs, wall-based collages of driftwood, and, eventually, coloured plastics assembled into abstract fields that came to evoke landscapes. Unlike most environmental artists, Dahlsen made his work not from conventionally ‘natural’ materials — soil, grass, stones, for instance — but rather from the ‘artificial’ materials that nature has reclaimed and sculpted through erosion. His works actively mobilized the unstable boundaries between what is human-made and what is natural.
These works not only transform rubbish into objects of value, raising questions about the assignation of cultural worth. They also compel the viewer to make links between the cycles of production and use of everyday functional objects, and those of art. What distinguishes a piece of plastic ground to crystal-like translucency by time and water, from a work of art? Can art shift our thinking on matters of sustainability, or is it complicit in the exploitation of the earth’s resources for human consumption?
For many of the original land artists, the move to sculptural form carved out of the outdoor public domain was a reaction against the isolation and supposed ‘purity’ of abstract painting. But for Dahlsen, land art-inspired sculpture and assemblage have paved the way for a recent reengagement with painting. Before turning to the found object some ten years ago, Dahlsen’s practice had comprised primarily of gestural abstraction. Now, the time spent exploring environment-based, sculptural and conceptual approaches has radically transformed his painting. For Dahlsen, painting has emerged as a new way to explore the relationship between waste and use, form and formlessness, and environmental empathy and destruction.
Dahlsen’s latest series is appropriately titled The Purge Paintings. To purge is to radically cleanse, to empty out or permanently delete; purging has connotations of violent persecution, as well as of healing and rebirth. On a personal level, Dahlsen could be said to be purging his previous practice in the new work, with all the ambivalence that entails. The term also refers directly to the amorphous extrusions created when a plastics moulding machine is cleaned at the end of a production run. Dahlsen began collecting these cast offs — destined either for landfill or recycling — while researching a public art project for a plastics manufacturer. The brightly coloured and completely random forms are extremely suggestive, generative of all kind of interpretative possibility. Dahlsen treated them at first like readymades — sculptures in their own right. He then began experimenting with their potential as still lives: a quintessentially contemporary still life subject, given their synthetic quality, their disposability, and their integral role in the petroleum industry, a key perpetrator of environmental disaster.
Robert Smithson once claimed that ‘art can become a resource that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist’ (Kastner: 32), in reference to his many (unheeded) proposals to mining companies to participate in projects of land reclamation. Dahlsen’s retrieval of the waste product of plastics manufacturing partakes of the same spirit, serving to remind us of the interconnectedness of environmental issues, but also attempting to reclaim waste and the destruction of nature in the beauty of art.
Dahlsen’s treatment valorises purged plastic as an object of acute visual interest and cultural importance: the blobs are rendered large, exalted on a plinth. The colours are flat and close in tone, the compositions crossing the genres of still life and abstraction: the materiality of the plastic flattens into pattern, then springs back into organic matter. This play between abstraction and figuration, between synthetic/organic matter and immateriality in the purge paintings, has been applied in Dahlsen’s most recent works to landscapes — dark works whose subtle references to environmental degradation all but disappear before forcefully catching you unawares.
This tension between inorganic abstraction and emotionally charged organism lends these works particular resonance, given their inception in the politics of environmental art. They play out, in elegant and economical aesthetics, the unstable boundaries between the natural and the artificial, reminding us of Wendell Berry’s paradox that ‘the only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity’ (Kastner: 17).
Dr Jacqueline Millner
University of Western Sydney