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‘Stop killing the canary in the coalmine’ – Q&A with artist Bettina Kaiser

CAMPERDOWN: Sydney-based artist Bettina Kaiser’s Natura Morta exhibition challenges viewers to recognise the climate crisis and to act on it in several ways, including collecting rubbish off their local streets in return for one of her artworks.


Natura Morta (literally “Dead Nature” or “Still Life”) is quite a disturbing and compelling title for your exhibition at Chrissie Cotter Gallery (May 26 – June 6). How did the title/theme come to you and how is it woven through the works?

Natura Morta/Dead Nature sounds very hard and harsh indeed. I want it to be taken literally, to be clear and not sugar-coating anything. I have been using my time in the studio to explore my own emotions and feelings about the state of the environment but I also hope to start conversations and maybe even prompt actions with my works.

All works in Natura Morta are related to the state of nature, the environment and the climate crisis. Some express the fragility of our natural environment, some are calling for action, others are observations following the 2020 fires.

An unusual aspect of the exhibition is that you invite viewers to get active and collect waste in exchange for some of your art works. What prompted this approach?

While working on my small still lifes of trash that I had I collected by the road side, called “Waste Life”, I was thinking about how the works can have a meaning beyond an interesting framed work or observation. So, I am now offering an exchange system, where visitors can collect rubbish off their local streets and bring it in (or send in a photo) and in return they can pick one of the still lifes and take it home. My hope is that the work then also acts as a reminder to make it a habit to pick up rubbish and help our waterways and animals from plastics in our stormwater and rivers.

You tell a story about picking up a piece of eucalyptus leaf 18 years ago (when you must have been relatively new to Australia from Germany) that was sprayed fluoro pink, and which you kept. How did this “seed” germinate into Natura Morta?

I did not keep a note of the location where I collected the leaf but I just found it again in one of my 2013 sketchbooks where I had kept it. About a third of it had this thick line of pink Mark n Spray over it. This little leaf perfectly expressed how we humans treat the precious nature that we have. The stark contrast of the extreme artificial colour against the beautifully shaped leaf captured that and stayed with me. It seeped into my works over the past decade or so. And yes, coming from Germany, which is much more densely occupied than Australia, I had experienced a new awe, in the true sense of the word, of nature. And I am very protective of it, as you can see in my work.

“Tell the truth: Declare a Climate Emergency” is one message in the risograph-printed Climate Emergency and Koalas Burning posters you are giving away in the hope that people will paste them publicly. Given that you also have a young daughter, what do you most want the Australian Government to change in its current approach to climate policy?

Where to begin? These posters were created in the wake of the 2020 bushfires. (Along with two other works in the exhibition that came directly from that visceral moment we all experienced. “Mallacoota Morning” and “Mount Wilson Death Masks”). But to your question: the first step is for the government to accept the truth of the climate emergency that we face. That is what the posters are about. I would call on the government to declare an emergency and behave accordingly. An emergency implies that we have to act urgently and make changes now, not in 30 years’ time.

Just like there is a reckoning and demand for truth telling in many other areas of life, this slow, but devastating climate crisis, needs truth telling, and immediate action. And while all the personal steps we can take are good, I believe big changes are necessary and must be accomplished through government policies and regulations. A first step would be for Australia to change its energy policies and invest in renewable energy, storage and transportation. We must also protect what we have with stronger regulations. I would go as far as considering giving rights to the land, the forests, and the rivers, as living beings; learning from indigenous knowledge. There is so much to do!

“Requiem for a Canary” is a small installation in Natura Morta reflecting on the little birds used in coalmines to alert miners of toxic gases. Can you tell us more about your exploration around “canary vs coal” and the role of the artist as a sensitive harbinger of danger?

The saying, and with it the image, of the canary in the coalmine kept coming back to me time and again. So, I investigated how the birds were taken in their little cages into the mineshafts. Their lives were put on the line to alert miners to impending danger. A keeled-over bird served as the warning system for the miners. The image speaks to me on so many levels. The small animal being sacrificed in our hunger for fossil fuels. The small bird as a sentinel species— able to sense the danger where we humans lack the ability. Species that are dying or becoming extinct, that are more sensitive to the changes in our environment, foreshadowing where we are headed.

While researching this theme I also found a quote by writer Kurt Vonnegut where he muses about how artists, being more sensitive, are society’s canaries in the coalmine, and therefore take on a role as messengers. I do believe art will play a role in the changes we must make.

This year you designed and illustrated a book by author Kate Liston-Mills, Dear Ibis and discovered you were exploring similar fears in your art as in her writing. What has your collaboration with Kate added to the exhibition and your vision for it?

In January this year I was asked to design and illustrate Kate’s book Dear Ibis. It was uncanny how Kate also expressed her deep climate future fears and real-life experiences from the 2020 bushfires in her short stories. Kate is living on Yuin Land in Pambula, where the fires hit so hard. Some of the texts are hard to read. Some of her scenarios are apocalyptic. I relate to it very much.

Kate too has small children and this adds yet another level of fear for the future for both of us. Kate also uses birds in her stories as allegories, messengers, antagonists or protagonists. I found it very serendipitous that I was asked to work on her book.

The book will be launched at my exhibition opening so we will have it for sale in the gallery, but I also will have a small room with a small installation of mine where visitors can listen to recordings of Kate reading some of her stories.

Because I am inviting people to come reflect and act on the state of our environment in my exhibition I wanted to add another voice, Kate’s, which is powerful, direct and I hope will speak to some visitors.

For one of my installations I asked Kate to write some microfiction for me – this is for “Requiem for a Canary”. The texts with blew me away when I got them. They are written in the voice of the canary and once again, they are direct and talk about the harsh reality and future scenarios. Haunting.

I printed the stories using the risograph printer and it became a series of 10 prints. It actually became rather dark and I found myself pretty disconcerted when I put it all together.

There are quite a few birds in your work and in Liston-Mills’ work. What roles do they play? I’d particularly like to hear a little more about the crow …

I think birds are ancient, fabulous and smart creatures. They are called by some scientists now “avian dinosaurs” because of their direct lineage. Maybe in my mind that gives them some extra clout. I think birds are very special animals.

It makes me so sad to see every day in the high school across the road from where I live how the big, shiny crows rummage through the garbage or fly away with a plastic piece in their beaks.

Kate too has birds in her stories that we learn from. There is the Ibis musings, on being a majestic bird in the wild, a bin chicken in our cities. But also small birds that represent hope, despair or fear.

I love your works that feature spindly black plants and a soft suffusion of pink in the background and especially how they capture the beauty and fragility of nature. They also resonate with my own ecological grief. As you grieve about what Stanford University academics in 2017 described as the “biological annihilation” of the Earth – how do you soothe that grief, apart from through your art?

Yes, you’ve described my feelings in that piece perfectly. These works, titled “Fragile Nature”, came to me from plein air drawing in the Royal National Park and local remnant bushland areas along Wolli Creek. I wanted to find a way to capture the fragility of these environments. I guess I do not trust us humans to take good care of it or leave it alone. All these areas are constantly threatened, and these are just my local pockets of bush. The loss is enormous when I look on a national or global scale.

Being out in nature is for me one way to deal with the grief, realising what we have, taking strength and purpose from it. At the same time turning the grief into action helps me. From local bushcare to attending protests or changing small aspects of my daily choices and educating myself and others, are all ways to turn the grief into something else and still keep some hope to turn things around for us. It is very important to stay alert and to fight complacency.

“Nature isn’t just beautiful and intriguing, it’s our life support system” writes Lucy Jones in Losing Eden: Why our minds need the wild. Research has established green is good for us, but humans are destroying green spaces at an alarming rate. Where do you get your green? How important has being in nature been to you while creating Natura Morta?

I have an intense longing for the outdoors that is getting stronger year by year. If asked what I currently really want to do my answer is “being in nature, hugging trees”. I want to walk and breathe amongst trees, mosses, lichen, insects, earth. I want to slow down, feel the earth under my feet, admire it.

Spending time in nature calms me down, it untangles my mind. Because I am now living in the city, I came to believe that the chaos that I find in nature, that my brain cannot follow, or sort, or fully comprehend, allows my mind to relax and be in the moment. I love the Royal National Park, and am exploring the Blue Mountains area more recently.

Most works were informed by the beauty of nature or it being disturbed. I am trying to help change the way we all have become complicit in complacency.

BirthStrikers are a movement of women and men who have decided not to have families because they are worried about bringing children into a world of environmental collapse and widespread political inaction. Do you think their actions are too extreme?

I can very much relate to this choice. While I have not looked deeply into this particular form of protest and life decision, my initial thought is that it is very sad personal sacrifice to have to make. But I can absolutely understand that young women and men do not see a liveable future for children and in fact this concerns me very, very much for my own daughter.

What key message and/or action would you most like people to take away from Natura Morta?

What I hope for is any action, any discussion, that comes out of the exhibition. We, together, must act now, we must change our ways and demand our governments take a leading role in addressing the climate crisis and loss of flora and fauna. I hope to initiate actions. I am hoping to have interesting dialogues and maybe new inspiration for how I best can use my skills and passion to work against an unliveable future and to protect the precious nature we have left.

Natura Morta
Bettina Kaiser
Chrissie Cotter Gallery
Pidcock Street, Camperdown
May 26 – June 6: Thursday and Friday 11am-2pm,
Saturday and Sunday 11am-4pm,
or by appointment – 0403 445251
or mail@bettinakaiser.com


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