Artist Harry Pickering is soft spoken and lyrical with glowing eyes and an infectious smile. Suspiciously forest pixie-esque, it’s not hard to imagine that he has just popped out of a mossy, silken habitat to bless us with an equal parts magical and educational visit. Good Mourning Earth, hosted by Sydney’s DownUnder Space, teases many more exciting things to come from the thoughtful creator.
A beautiful body of work, the show’s title speaks volumes. Intentionally created as a ceremonial space for mourning, ahead of what Harry describes as “the sixth great extinction event in Earth’s history.” In his words, “it is both a reaction to the gross disregard for our planet’s health accelerated by capitalism, and a call to engage with acts of restoration.” The result is a somber ambience in which the viewer is encouraged to consider their own impact on the earth and how they contribute even in small ways to the mass extinction of other creatures and living things.
Harry’s love for the earth and ecology began in childhood, which he spent in Singapore. He and his family lived in the jungle for five years, ‘with geckos crawling down my back when I was trying to get ready for school, frogs in my shoes, snakes slithering under my door into my bedroom.’ He recalls being ‘absolutely steeped in all these interactions with other creatures.’
The show is carefully designed to take the viewer on a contemplative journey, beginning with a collection of handcrafted mourning lockets, inspired by the Victorian mourning ritual of carrying a picture of your deceased loved one at all times. Harrys’ lockets are made from laser cut pieces of plywood, decorated with rose thorns and mummified in black latex. Framed inside are Giclée prints of just some of the myriad of species that have gone extinct recently as a direct cause of climate change, including the Bramble Cay Melomy, Golden Toad, Bennett’s Seaweed and Great Auk.
The lockets are no bigger than the size of your palm, enticing the viewer to come in close, creating an intimate moment of respect and remembrance with each creature. This intimacy is the backbone of what makes the overarching message of the show feel so profound. The magnitude and urgency of our responsibility is palpable. ‘It’s really easy to talk about climate change and the resulting loss of biodiversity and feel really apart from it.’ Harry says. ‘We can’t separate ourselves as if this isn’t our issue, isn’t our fault. We’re in the middle of it, right now. We make decisions every day and those decisions matter.’ The mourning ceremony continues with a series of A4 prints on Edition Etch rag paper.
Impact Event depicts a crucifix constructed of microscopic worm photographs, cocoons and chrysalis manipulated to create a cross with prosthetic heart valves in the centre. The background image is a mountain range in Bolivia, taken from google earth. ‘This was another work that grew out of the process,’ Harry recounts. ‘I didn’t go into it thinking I’m going to make a cross and I’m going imprint it on this landscape. It was more about playing with these things and letting my subconscious roam and then interpreting it for myself. What was my subconscious telling me? Why did I think to compose these elements in this way?’
‘If you look at the history of colonialism, Christian imperialism and Christianity has always been employed as a justification,’ he continues. ‘A tool of justification for colonising lands, for grabbing resources from indigenous sovereign nations, for saying this is gods work and that it is morally justified for divine purpose. Christianity has acted as the right hand of capitalism and neoliberal expansion all over the earth.’
The brutal Impact Event sits beside the ethereal Untitled. This purposefully title-less piece depicts ‘the witch’—a symbol of indigenous ways of life, being, philosophies and alternative economies—subsumed by fog. ‘It’s about disappearing and erasure. The toxic smoke that’s obscuring us from gentle ways of being with the earth. It’s a cultural extinction.’
In answer to the weightiness of grief and despair Harry offers up a hopeful story: across from these prints hangs Heavy Metal Greed, an original poem laser cut on clear acrylic. Inspired by the myth of Orion, an arrogant hunter who while trying to impress the Goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus, who bragged to her that he could and would kill all the greatest beasts on the earth. Gaia, the Goddess of Earth overheard this and sent Scorpio to kill Orion and protect the delicate balance of creatures and ecologies on earth. Scorpio can still be seen today, endlessly chasing Orion across the night sky. This myth serves as a reminder to mortal men to avoid arrogance and boastfulness and to care for all creatures, large and small. On either side of the poem is a Scorpion, laser cut on clear acrylic, a symbol of regeneration and protection. It’s a fierce warning.
Harry isn’t sugar coating his message. On the opposite wall hangs Mace, a hand-painted black Banksia pod on a chain that serves a dualistic function. ‘On one hand it’s about how humans have taken natural elements and have instrumentalised them into weapons and turned them into devices of death,’ Harry says. ‘But on the other hand it’s also about how nature needs to defend itself, creating weapons out of nature for nature.’
This conversation about partnering with nature to preserve nature is continued as we proceed through the space, ducking under a spiky, glossy-black tree trunk, suspended from the ceiling with black chains. This is Bodies Meant To Remain Buried a three part series of exhumed tree bodies, ripped out of the ground. Cut into sections, they’re dismembered and fragmented, removed from their context and displayed as harvested dinosaur bones or petroleum. These tree trunks were salvaged from a construction site near Harry’s own home and repurposed for the show.
In direct conversation with this is Oil-Slick-Salivation an excerpt from a larger text Harry has been working on considering fossil fuels from a poetic perspective. In molten vine-like text he asks: ‘How long can we maintain the sublimation of Earth’s organs into atmosphere? Until we turn ourselves inside out? The vapour condensed so thick – a tropospheric soup – while pockets of our underearth lay hollow and waiting for return…’
A Growth, A Harvest, An Instrument, A Store of Capital and Webwork lead us to my favourite piece at the journeys end, Mother Bone. A glowing neon yellow skeletal sculpture adorned with purple liquid vials, Harrys’ masterpiece is a possible future-scape, if we choose it. ‘I wanted people to navigate through the space experiencing different visions of death and grieving, but then come to this room and have it be very meditative,’ he explains. ‘This is a symbol for the future. We can imagine many futures and one interpretation I had for it was creating or appropriating the technologies we have and applying them towards earth regeneration, rather than earth extraction.’
‘Under capitalism it’s all about earth extraction, about turning raw materials into capital and accumulating that capital. But under a different system, under a post capitalist system, we could be using these amazing technologies to clean up our mess. And that’s what this is about. The little vials hanging from the structure represent the small invisible forms of life, all the microbes, plankton, algae that are huge carbon locks, the most important agents in preventing climate change in the oceans.’
‘This body of work is acknowledging the mourning that’s leading to our own death,’ Harry says.’It’s a funeral for ourselves, unless we get our act together. We’re going to choke ourselves out of this planet. And probably 97% of everything will die off. And it will regenerate over millions and millions of years. We humans just won’t be here. And we will have fucked up our chance to use the amazing powers of technology, of consciousness, of collective social enterprise and human activity for good.’
30% of any artwork sales were donated to Rainforest Action Network’s Protect An Acre program, whose ‘grants contribute directly to forest communities struggling to protect their rainforest homelands, and the natural resources on which they rely.’