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Exhibition review

The Archive and the Contested Landscape, Cambridge Festival of Ideas, October 2018.

Does the historical landscape contain a hidden message for humanity - a warning about climate change?

Tapping into contemporary art’s ‘archival impulse’, the research collaboration leading this exhibition not only crosses the disciplines of art and geology, but also geography - the first part of this exhibit took place in Cambridge whilst the second will be taking place in Basra, Iraq in 2019. The 56 disparate practitioners assembled by curators Kelcy Davenport and Nawrast Sabah Abd Alwahab explore the interplay between historical evidence (the archival), environmental conflict and resistance (the contested landscape). The result is an array of multi-medial works.

Exhibited across three diverse venues, the spatial experience is as varied as the work presented. Navigating the corridors and crossing thresholds adds to the tension and disorientation generated by the sheer amount of work – there is a too much to see in one visit. Luckily the exhibition catalogue guides the viewer through the disjointed spaces as well as providing a comprehensive commentary for those who have missed out on the accompanying events; a one-day symposium and film-screening evening. In situ labelling enables consideration of each of the artworks – some existing work, some new.

The curatorial challenge was to give all the exhibits the air time they deserve. “Ideally I’d like to give each artwork a day in one space” commented the curator, Kelcy Davenport. But then what would become of the opportunity for parallels to be drawn, new relationships fostered, and collaboration promoted across the disciplines?

Aptly located in the Forensic corridor of Anglia Ruskin University, Ian Moffat’s Lunette: A deep history of Australian climate provides annotated visual evidence from the salt lakes of central Australia. There is a stark beauty to the sequence of six forensic-like photographs, from the coloured strata in the first photo to the steel grey sky juxtaposed against the arid ground of the last, it serves to document the extremes of the environment. Composed by a geo-archaeologist, the text and image interact in the style of a fieldwork journal, to transcend the disciplines of art photography and science.

Lunette: A deep history of Australian climate (ongoing), by Ian Moffat.

The impact of human activity is alluded to by the bootprint in the third photo, but Moffat leaves the viewer philosophical space to reflect on the cultural significance of this in the context of the local indigenous population. What Moffat doesn’t leave to the viewer to deduce is a stark warning: “In a time of climate change denial lunettes are forensic monuments of climate change and tangible proof that Australian landscapes have never been static. The climate recorded by Australian lunettes experienced temperature changes of nearly 10°C driven entirely by natural variations in the earth’s orbit…”. Moffat suggests that “It is inconceivable that having increased concentrations of C0₂ by nearly 30% from 1950, similar self-inflicted changes do not await people in the future”.

Despite the ‘noise’ and navigational challenges, a major strength of this exhibition is the opportunity for cross-disciplinary networking and creative knowledge production. Through the exhibits we can explore the connections necessary to respond and adapt to the predicament we find ourselves in as a species.

Written by Sarah Strachan.

All quotes taken from the exhibition catalogue or personal communication with curators and artists/practitioners.

The Archive and the Contested Landscape - Exhibition for the Festival of Ideas, 22nd – 28th October 2018, Cambridge.

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