Observing an artist who works closely with the community, especially the ones close to my heart is fascinating. John Dahlsen participated in the “Waste as Art” project in Bali, 2016, a project centred around collecting Ocean Litter debris in the form of plastic Styrofoam from the beaches of Sanur in Bali and making artwork from these found objects. He did this in a collaboration with students from the Indonesian Institute of Art in Denpasar. As a collaboration they created a series of Styrofoam totems. As an active participant in the community he responds directly through his art practice. This essay is the starting point of closely looking at his recent artworks using the plastic debris medium, especially from the beach.
John Dahlsen was born in Sydney in 1958 and graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1979. Just to name a few awards and commendations, Dahlsen won the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, where he was also a finalist in 2003 and 2004, a finalist in the Sulman Award at the Art Gallery of NSW 2006 and in 2004 his art represented Australia at the Athens Olympics. Dahlsen has work displayed in major art collections and has participated in residencies both in and outside Australia, establishing his reputation as an international artist. In the academic field, Dahlsen holds a PhD from Charles Darwin University with his thesis on “Environmental art: Aesthetics, Activism and Transformation”. He also has extensive experience as a university lecturer, and has authored a number of books including “An Accidental Environmental Artist” which was published by Alpha Academic Press, US, 2013 and “An Artist’s Guide to a Successful Career”, which was published by Common Ground Publishing House in the US 2014.
His career as an environmental artist began when he was collecting driftwood from remote beaches in East Gippsland, in order to make furniture for his new home in Byron Bay. During this time Dahlsen was struck by the sheer amount of plastic debris and waste. He wasn’t intending to collect the plastic debris, but its presence became unavoidable and he ended up collecting a significant amount, – in excess of seventy jumbo garbage bags and was inspired to create artworks from the challenging material. His intuition as an artist saw beyond the plastic debris as merely disposable objects, but instead pursued when he returned to his studio, to experiment with the essence of this medium and how it could be used as art. The recycled material in turn became integral for Dahlsen in conveying the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place and the beauty and degradation of the environment. He states, “…and as I evolved as an artist, these elements have deepened… through both my studio-based work and my own research as a practising visual environmental artist”.
His artistic process currently with his latest work, includes mixing micro plastics with ecologically sustainable plant based, clear resin. He paints the plastics onto stretched Belgian linen into abstract details or the shape of the Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean. It’s a meeting of his past painting and his current assemblage work. In viewing Dahlsen’s recent artworks, the immediate impression one gets is of colour. The celebration of colours. There is a different colour of each background of canvases, warm blue, cherry red, yellow and white. Harmony and contrast are continuously combined creating a unique landscape. It could be said that with the new work there exists a synergy in style to Fred Williams (1927-1982) who famously had the vision to envisage the Australian landscape in abstract painting. Both artists, working in different time and place, but both sharing a similar sociocultural heritage. Williams was also at one stage one of John’s lecturers in drawing at the VCA.