What is the sense of becoming in John Dahlsen’s latest body of work? Is it that which any artwork may be seen to possess, its existence or meaning always in flux, shaped by each viewer encounter? Or is it something more, a deeper intrinsic quality about this work, and does it necessarily strive for emptiness?

Since the mid-1990s, Dahlsen’s preferred medium has been plastics – more precisely, the plastics and other debris he finds washed up on beaches. These have been used in paintings, assemblages, sculpture and photography, with work in Echoes including a foray into woodblock printing. The exhibition is presented as part of Dahlsen’s final assessment as a PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University, accompanied by his written exegesis: ‘Environmental art: Activism, aesthetics and transformation’.

Dahlsen may figure as a kind of plastic surgeon/doctor, attending to the health of the planet and the cultivation of an environmentally conscious, social aesthetic. He rids the beaches of plastic and other ‘rubbish’ and repurposes this as art. It is a simple, direct action of ecological rescue. What better way for art to upend late-capitalist gluttony than by up-cycling its non-biodegradable waste?

Dahlsen is all too keenly aware of art itself as a late-capitalist commodity – as a self-avowed environmental artist and as someone who has maintained a practice and for the most part living as an artist since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in 1979. His Absolut Vodka commissioned work for Sculpture by the Sea (Sydney, 2004), a large-scale replica of the Absolut bottle bedecked with multi-coloured thongs, courted significant controversy in this regard. How could such blatant branding pass as serious environmental art? And yet Dahlsen’s environmental activism was also equally and widely branded, with the work brazenly titled Absolut Dahlsen. His ultimate message on/in a bottle about ocean litter did effectively reach many distant shores.

Dahlsen graduated from VCA as a painter and a painter he remains. We see this in works such as Pink Plastics Painting (Triangle) (2015), which directly involve paint (acrylic and oil, along with pencil and ink). We also see this in works which involve no paint at all but for which Dahlsen’s painterly foundation persists, in ‘being acutely attentive’, as he puts it, ‘to aesthetics in the use of composition, colour, line and form’. This applies to his fusion prints combining digital and woodblock printing, as well as to his large-scale totem sculptures.

The painting, or mark-making, for Pink Plastics Painting is applied directly and minimally to a digital print on canvas of a finely crafted, highly detailed photographic image which documents a large-scale assemblage by Dahlsen. The assemblage might also be called a painting in plastics; the ‘pinkness’ of the image is more an effect of colour harmonics, with many other coloured plastics also masterfully making the palette. Like looking at refuse through rose-coloured glasses. There’s a good deal of optimism in Echoes even while serving up the indigestible truths of ecological crisis.
At the centre of Pink Plastics Painting is a triangular prism, which replicates one of Dahlsen’s three geometric designs (along with the square and circle) for woodblock printing and for his totem sculptures. The prism appears transparent or mirrored, and is bathed in a soft white halo much like it is in the fusion prints. It gives an air of solemnity, of contemplation. It disrupts the picture plane and makes us more conscious of the act of looking and of what we are looking at. It is, in effect, a kind of spiritual portal, transporting us into and beyond the plastic litter landscape.

The prism belongs to a sacred geometry, which Dahlsen has depicted throughout his career. As a form it crystalizes the work’s sense of becoming – the changing state and representation of its plastics as well as the work’s transformative potential for the viewer. The prism becomes an anchor of stillness and emptiness in a scene otherwise brimming with objects and detail. It channels the ebb and flow of consciousness to make us pause on its subject of ocean litter and environmental degradation.

Dahlsen first began collecting coastal debris while scouting for driftwood to make some furniture. Initially he had no grand ideas about what to do with it, the compulsion to collect and categorise (by colour, form) simply driven by the strange, foretelling beauty of the plastics. Admittedly, driftwood also found its way into this collection and its eventual transformation as art. Similarly, Dahlsen’s PhD set out with a different set of objectives. Initially it was going to be as a written thesis only, examining the role and place of environmental art in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. It then changed to include his studio practice as a key dimension and manifestation of the research, later extending into ‘paintings’, which are simultaneously photographs and assemblages, and into prints, which blend digital and time-worn analogue technologies.

An echo has no clear sense of beginning or end. It is a residual trace as the works in Echoes are also traces of former works by Dahlsen, of the multiple lives and journeying of its objects and material sensibilities. We see Dahlsen’s conservationist ethic in the economy of this approach, the drawing out and repetition of his key imagery and motifs which, unlike plastic surgery, deals more in the metaphysical, in the emptying out of conscious thought towards an eternal state of potentiality, of becoming.

Maurice O’Riordan August 2016

Maurice O'Riordan is a Darwin-based arts writer. He is currently director of the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, and was former editor of Art Monthly Australia magazine from 2008 to 2013.