by Dominic Redfern
In 2014 I was invited to submit a proposal for the 2015 Guirguis Art Prize, held at the Ballarat Art Gallery every two years. I had been thinking about weeds and reading a bit of environmental history amongst which was Alfred Crosbie’s Ecological Imperialism (2004). Crosbie makes the case for what he calls the ‘portmanteau biota’. It is a compelling theory about the success not of Europeans alone but rather the colonising power of a group of organisms the Europeans brought along. This collaborative group includes humans but also their domestic animals such as sheep and horses, plants like wheat, pathogens like smallpox, vermin like rats and weeds such as gorse.
The vision of humans as but one player amongst a co-evolved ensemble appealed to my Darwinian bias and I had been compiling lists of weeds by region and thinking about doing something in my own area with blackberry or agapanthus. But Ballarat is home to the Gorse Task Force and the epicentre of the state’s gorse problem and so my choice of subject was made. I proposed a work, Weeding, based on gorse (Ulex europaeus L. ‘spiny European shrub, as named by Linnaeus’) and its relationship to the natural and social histories of Ballarat.
Growing up in NSW, I knew little about Ballarat besides the fact that it is, or was, a gold rush town and home to the Eureka Stockade. I started researching possible sites. I was looking for an area of infestation within city limits…it wasn’t hard. I got down to a short list that included the Black Hill reserve, spots along the Yarrowee River and on the Canadian Creek at the foot of Sovereign Hill - an historical theme park based on the gold rush era. I liked the contained and central location of the creek and so I dug a little further. I knew it was on the goldfields but hadn’t realised it was the very spot where gold had been first found and was thus the reason for Ballarat’s existence - grazing preceded the rush by about a decade but the gold rush accelerated development significantly and made it the regional centre it is today.
Along my chosen stretch, bookended by two small bridges and as close to the spot where gold was discovered as can be certain, the creek is quite degraded. It has become an unseen, untidy and banal backdrop for commuters, joggers and dog walkers. It has been, and still is used as a dumping ground by the less civic minded and is overrun with weeds that choke its flow. This was my perfect site, a place where natural and social histories could be clearly seen co-informing one another. It was unofficial and uncelebrated but significant and full of a species emblematic of the story I wanted to tell.
Gorse was introduced to Australia as an ornamental (conveniently for me it has a sweet golden flower) and hedge in the 1800’s and had naturalised by 1889. Whilst hard to believe given how much of a problem it is, it was still being planted as a hedge in the 1980s. Gorse is a fire hazard that chokes waterways and very effectively out competes all other plants once it takes hold. Sheep and horses can eat young gorse shoots but when mature it can only be eaten by goats - an effective agent being used in its eradication (Gouldthorpe 42). Complicating the picture, gorse is a legume and as such aids in fixing nitrogen in the soil (McNeill loc. 685 of 8684). The huge increases in atmospheric nitrogen since the industrial revolution are a major element in the global warming story, leading to ozone depletion and acid rain (McNeill loc. 1739 of 8684).
Weeds, exotics, invasives or ‘introduced species’, like gorse, occupy a special place in the Australian psyche. As an introduced species, gorse allegorises and evokes encroachments by non-indigenous people, plants and animals. Settler Australia is the poster child of invasion ecologies with stunning examples across our environment from camels and carp to blackberries, cane toads and the whitefellas who brought them all. Weeds are an ecological element that flip flops from being invisible (the urban pedestrian) to being all that can be seen (the gardener or farmer) - our view of them is highly context dependent. They are at once a social construct and a genuine ‘problem’.
Weed is not a scientific term; it is a cultural one, a value judgement (for a comprehensive summary see Dwyer p. 297-300). What is more, there are voices speaking out for weeds as a productive element in the fight to restore soils and protect environments in Australia. Agricultural outriders like Peter Andrews and David Holmgren make a case for weeds as a stabilising force. Andrews has been controversial for some time as the curmudgeonly practitioner and advocate of Natural Sequence Farming1 but he has also been outspoken on weeds. He believes that weeds should be allowed to grow, thus stabilising disturbed soils and then cut down and left in place to improve soil nutrients (Ecofilms). He shares with Holmgren2 a passion for willow in riparian zones3 to stabilise creek banks, filter sediment and nutrients from run off and provide stock feed through pollarding (Holmgren)4 .
Both Andrews and Holmgren have encountered stiff criticism for their views from people pursuing, or quoting, mainstream science. For example, CSIRO studies have found removing willow increases aeration in streams and leads directly to increases in native fish populations (Landline); that they choke streams; and that up to 5.5 megalitres of water are required annually per hectare of willow canopy (Doody, Benyon and Theiveyanathan 934). However there are also voices amongst academia that counter the received wisdom on the evils of weeds. Like John Dwyer's research, the work of environmental historians like Libby Robin puts our vitriolic attitudes to weeds within their cultural context (Robin et al.). Geographers like Monash’s Haripriya Rangan complicate the entire notion of invasion ecologies (Rangan) whilst award-winning UNSW scientist Angela Moles questions the native/exotic dichotomy through the study of rapid evolution in introduced species (Buswell, Moles and Hartley 214–224).
Whilst weeds emerged as a concern from the earliest days of Australia’s colonisation, post WWII they became a national priority. This occurred in parallel with the greater emphasis on native gardening, a movement largely indebted to Edna Walling who began writing about and designing native gardens in the 1920s (Robin et al. 5-6). It is in our gardens that the sovereignty wars are fought, because by far the greatest proportion of problem plants in Australia are garden escapees (Robin et al. 1-2). This war on weeds that emerged as we moved to the suburbs and began to cultivate native gardens in greater numbers can be seen as part of an embrace of our unique flora and a shirking off of the cultural cringe as post-war generations grew in confidence.
The flip side is that weeds represent an aspect of whitefella guilt - we are the ‘invasives’. Weeds can serve to remind us of the vexed history of our settler societies, representing the colonising influence of humanity across the globe and the transportation of non-native species into environments where they threaten local species and so reduce bio-diversity. Our awareness of the complexities of this problem has grown with us as a nation-state but it has taken on a new significance in the anthropocentric moment as we focus our attention on the big effects of global change, including bio-diversity. There are competing voices in this space from those who make the, perhaps cynical, claim that we are increasing local biodiversity even as global biodiversity diminishes (Nordhaus, Shellenberger and Blomqvist) to those who claim we are seeing the beginning of the 6th major extinction event (Kolbert) and those who deny the existence of negative human impact on the environment (Rintoul).
It is important to remember however that weeds are simply life forms occupying an ecological niche, just like human beings - similarly successful and pervasive. Weeding used these contradictory ideas about gorse as a departure point for a video installation that considered the thorny problem of the irreversibility of changes made to the Australian ecosystem whilst simultaneously problematizing our attitudes by privileging the beauty, and innocence, of gorse.
Over the five or so months between being given a place in the Guirguis prize to its opening, I visited the site a couple of times a week shooting and collecting. My final work consisted of three elements across three screens: an inventory shot on site of the various weeds growing on the site; studio shots at greater detail of the gorse in the varying stages of its life cycle; and footage of me clearing the site of all eighteen cubic metres of its gorse.
A large part of my interest in this project - as well as my other work with weeds and my works on rubbish - is concerned with aesthetics. This part of the project, that which occurs once the contextual field is set, is based upon my own observation of my aesthetic sense, my curiosity at that which compels my attention. As I have set out above, through preliminary ‘non-making’ research I create the context for the work. This contextual research generates the boundary or site for the work, not only physically but conceptually. Having established the conditions I am free to exercise my craft and it is here that I wear a different hat and an entirely different mind-set takes over. I am no longer concerned with what I am doing or why that work is done. I am now entirely immersed in the place, trying to see it more clearly.
Aestheticizing or re-seeing the traditionally banal or ugly is an established principle of art. In the words of Callum Morton, etched in my mind as a third year art student, “the history of modernism is the history of the elevation of the banal”5. In my own terms, I consider this process as a circuit breaker for the standard semiotic glasses we wear. Instead of ‘reading’ the world in linguistic shorthand - ‘dog’ ‘road’ ‘tree’ ‘man’ - we see the flow of form and line, surface, texture, depth, volume - the lessons learnt in life drawing 101. But importantly I am not interested in an art of form or material exclusively: to me this a depressing prospect. It matters what we look at, not merely that we look.
This process serves to expand our conceptions of aesthetic pleasure, beauty if you like, and the way that aesthetic experience can then challenge our values. Like dirt, weeds threaten our sense of order (Dwyer 298). Order is about what belongs and what does not. In art, this is the heritage of modernism; valuing art that irritates, art that breaks the pattern. Indeed often the history of modernism is begun with a challenge to order, the Salon des Refusés of 18636. Wherever we begin, the mythology of modernism is defined by its rejection of the past. The period after modernism has allowed us to bring back into the fold the weeds and rubbish of the past and reject rejection. We now see modernism’s rapid turnover of styles and innovations as a continuous expansion of aesthetic possibility.
Kant felt the Dutch could not grasp the sublime, as they were too concerned with the worldly (100, 143). Right there you have the seeds of Morton’s ‘elevation of the banal’. It is indeed the Dutch still life and landscape traditions - their profound feeling for the worldly - that inform the modernist pivot towards the everyday. One can trace a clear line from the Dutch landscape tradition to Turner and thence to the impressionists. Or from Dutch atmospherics to Constable and onto Courbet and the Barbizon school (for me these are the origins of modernism). When we see the expansion of the aesthetic indexed to the world, our scope for creating meaningful questions also expands. Questioning beauty means questioning our values.
I do not wish to misrepresent my work as programmatic in this sense however. I do not set out to challenge aesthetic values as an end in itself. I make work that embodies the questions I have, and those questions are asked in the lingua franca of art: aesthetics. But importantly for me, I think that work can best be done in the field. It is by turning outward that art practice can not only challenge but be challenged.
For their contribution to Weeding I’d like to thank: sound designer Lizzie Pogson; Matt Berka for shooting the actual gorse removal; and Ken Cox from the City of Ballarat for whom no problem was actually a problem.
Buswell, Joanna M, Angela Moles and Stephen Hartley. “Is rapid evolution common in introduced plant species?” Journal of Ecology 99 (2011): 214-224.
Crosbie, Alfred. Ecological Imperialism. 2004. AZW3 (Kindle file). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Cunningham, GM, JH Leigh and Geoffrey McIver. Plants of Western New South Wales. Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing, 2011.
Doody, Tanya M, Richard G Benyon and Tivi Theiveyanathan. “Quantifying water savings from willow removal in creeks in south central NSW .” 2006. Weeds Australia. 24 October 2015 PDF.
Dwyer, John. “Messages and metaphors: is it time to end the 'war on weeds'?” 18th Australasian Weeds Conference. Ed. Valerie Eldershaw. Melbourne: Weed Society of Victoria Inc., 2012. 297-305.
Ecofilms. “Peter Andrews On Weeds.” 28 October 2015 Web.
Gouldthorpe, Jonah. “National Gorse Task Force. Gorse: national best practice manual.” 2009. Weeds Australia. Department of Primary Industries and Water. 12 November 2014 PDF.
Holmgren, David. “Willow Management for Agricultural Landscapes.” 2008. 25 October 2015 PDF.
Kant, Immanuel. Kant: Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings. Ed. Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer. Trans. Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth extinction: an unnatural history. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Landline. "War of the Willows". 16 June 2013. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 25 October 2015 Web.
McNeill, John Robert. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World. AZW3 (Kindle file). New York: Norton, 2000.
Nordhaus, Ted, Michael Shellenberger and Linus Blomqvist. “The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review Of The Evidence.” 11 June 2012. The Breakthrough Institute. 25 October 2015 Web.
Rangan, Haripraya. Transplants - telling stories of humans through plant movements. 2015. 3 November 2015. Web.
Rintoul, Stewart. “The town that turned up the temperature.” 12 December 2009. The Australian (archive). 27 October 2015 Web.
Robin, Libby. Moore, Joslin. Willoughby, Sharon. Maroske, Sara. “Aliens From The Garden.” 29 November 2011. State of Australian Cities, Conference Proceedings. University of NSW. 27 October 2015 PDF.
- Natural Sequence Farming uses major earthworks to trap water as it flows across land to reduce salinity and erosion whilst encouraging plant and animal life. P.A. Yeomans' Keyline farming is a precursor, although the relationship between the two practices is not a causal one. Keyline involves the exaggeration of contours in a landscape to slow and trap water as it flows through the land. Andrews' work, developed independently, also slows the flow of water and combats erosion with greater sedimentation.↩
- Holmgren was the co-originator of Permaculture with Bill Mollison and an intellectual descendant of Yeomans.↩
- Riparian zones are the spaces where the land gives way to a stream or river. These are one the 15 terrestrial biomes and are identified by unique ecologies of plants and animals and as a critical zone for soil erosion.↩
- Pollarding is technique for harvesting the tops and branches of trees for stock feed and wood.↩
- I heard Callum Morton speak at an artist’s talk addressing The Expanded Field, his collaborative work with Danius Kesminas and Anna Nervegna at 200 Gertrude St in 1996.↩
- At this (in)famous event, and after some protest, the rejects from the annual salon were hung in the same venue and seen by thousands of viewers along with the official selections. The Salon saw the passing of currency and relevance of the official academic artists–favoured by the establishment–to the more progressive artists whose work had been excluded.↩