7 September to 20 October 2012
Urban Forest by Sharon Peoples
Dianne Firth's exhibition, Urban Forest, explores the street trees of Canberra and their impact in forming the city's urban character. Urban Forest is an assemblage of textiles examining street trees, at the street level. This is not only timely as the upcoming Centenary of Canberra reflects upon this Garden City's urban aesthetics, but also, and surprisingly, because many of the street trees have come to the end of their life cycle. As well, changes to climate, the manipulation of planting and planning of the landscape of Canberra, by both government (formerly federal and now local) and by Canberrans themselves with their domestic plantings, have seen the local climate change. This is demonstrated in the current state of our trees.
Firth's work is also timely in the context of textiles, textiles that reflect the sense of place. Her work does not so much hark to the traditions of quilting, the medium, nor the cloth of memory, nor sensorial. Her work is right here and right now. Stitched here in the now. Yet, the work is about everyday experience, and highlights how easy it is to forget to notice our street trees as we move through the city. It is only with seasonal highlights of autumn glory or dark cool green in summer that some of the old suburban streets display that we fully appreciate the legacy of trees.
The 1920s holistic landscape plantings of conifers and exotic deciduous trees are near the end of their lives. The post World War II plantings by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) with many short lived trees are now also starting to senesce. The recent drought has hastened the need for a full audit and responding action. The visibility of that age is distressing to many Canberrans as is the sight of trees being removed.
Opening up and central to our conversation was a question we both posed: why do we have street trees? Mine was more to provoke discussion on the ocular-centric nature of the study of landscape, but Dianne's was a question she had been considering for many years. Here in this exhibition she uses textiles to explore some of the answers to this complex question. As an adjunct associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Canberra who has sat on numerous committees and enquiries into the trees of Canberra, Firth knows the street trees intimately and professionally: the plantings on the verges in Farrer, the avenue vista of Benjamin Way in Belconnen and the Brittle Gums (Eucalyptus mannifera) along Northbourne Avenue. Her academic interest also follows the fashions of public landscaping in Canberra from the initial European formality, to the natural bush capital of the 1970s, to the contemporary mix today which is compromised by demands of developers. All are her stamping ground. Making textiles that demonstrate these intellectual concerns form the basis of Urban Forest.
Canberra has always been in the process of becoming: the politics, the city, the people and the landscape. Living things are constantly re-inventing themselves to survive. In this city, increasing in urban density, there is a need for renewal and reinvention, for re-envisioning the landscape and for bringing a new understanding to pattern recognition. The root of the word Art, is 'rta'. Coming from the Indian Rg Veda, this means the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created virtuously (Pirsig 1991). Firth's inspiration and the material reality of her art making is one aspect of her envisioning of the landscape and articulating patterns from the language of landscape which reinvents and replicates.
In asking herself, why street trees, Firth demonstrates question-based learning which addresses the situation, here these artworks are without preconceptions. Firth spends her time observing, reflecting, and 'making' questions to be addressed. Indeed, sometimes these identify problems but the important thing is that the questions (here in this exhibition) keep the dialogue plastic – keeping the landscape open to new ways of thinking and diverse futures for this city.
The two series, Removal and Replacement, each ten small vignettes, explore and comment on the attempts to manage the dynamics of the changing environment. The pieces are arranged in a chronological ordering of the processes that have become necessary to, in one sense, keep up appearances of our city. These works are not so much an exploration of the tensions between nature and culture, but more about the shaping of these eco-sculptural forms. These are the details of the spatial patterning and ordering through careful manipulation and management, from early formative pruning of the trees that accommodate the urban activities, to their maintenance, and their management of senescence. In some ways these graphic images are more than some sort of careful topiary discourse, but more akin to the attention required for bonsai. We might consider our trees to be large bonsais. These public assets need careful management and are costly to maintain in keeping. Yet, they easily become invisible, unnoticed in our everyday life, until something goes 'wrong'.
There can be a troubling connection between aesthetic delight in creating landscapes and the toil of producing them. This is hidden from view so not to interrupt the experience of pleasure with harsh realities of the labour required to produce the backdrop and the vistas of Canberra. In reflecting on the question of why we have street trees and the notion of the invisible, Michel Foucault came to mind. Foucault opened our eyes to the institutions that govern our modes of seeing and produce subjectivity. He highlights how power seeps into our bodies through cultural objects, such as uniforms. Considering how power is inscribed spatially, I wondered how power manifests in the street trees, how these institutions are apparent in our street spaces?
Firth's work interrogates the relationship between power and trees, perhaps in controlling their physical presence, but moreover in controlling our vision. Her work, Vista and the Eucalyptus mannifera series, show an ordered row punctuated at the end by a hill. This differs slightly from the European tradition whereby the vista ends with a building which is generally a monument of power or culture. Power and authority operate not by persuasion but by coercion. Textiles coerce well. In Vista, Firth draws to our attention to the landscape of our streets, and their connection with the broader setting. Through Firth's work we can see the power of the nexus of the city within the landscape.
Sharon Peoples, Acting Convenor, Museums and Collections Program The Australian National University