Exploring a sense of place through art

12 December 2022
How do creative artistic practices add depth to how we experience our environment? In this review, SEI 2022 Honours Fellow Olivia Mulligan explores the work and ideas of conceptual, place-based artist Professor Daniel Peltz.

By Olivia Mulligan, School of Geosciences

Art is intuitively responsive to its environment. Music, film and visual arts often bring acute awareness to our experience as individuals and communities existing, feeling and moving within the spaces we are occupying.1 However, creative arts as a practice can also foster alternative ways of being within and knowing spaces beyond our usual inclinations.2

Engaging with this ‘performative value’ of art is embedded within the work of conceptual artist Professor Daniel Peltz, who led this year’s inaugural Gilbert Fellowship lecture, How to enter a place, held in October. Peltz, who is visiting the University of Sydney in partnership with the SEI and from the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, specialises in site- and situation-specific art. In his presentation, he demonstrated his interest in tapping into ‘unbridled’ and ‘bridled’ curiosity through artistic practice. His projects have reached a wide audience, enlisted the participation of local and international communities, artists and performers, as well as combined a range of media forms. His talk revealed how creative artistic practice can function to bring attention to our shifting roles and knowledges of the environment within which we exist.

How to enter a place: a philosophical exercise

Peltz opened the lecture with an audio clip of his then seven-year-old daughter reading aloud a short reflection on ‘how to enter a place’. She invited the audience to imagine entering a place like an unemployed elephant – referring to the elephants who had been employed to collect wood harvested from the Burmese teak (timber) plantations in Myanmar but are without work since the trade became economically unviable. The refugee-like state of precarity of these unemployed elephants makes a reoccurring appearance in his works, standing in for Any Thing, person or place coming to terms with being cast aside by the workforce and cycles of production and consumption. He highlighted how embodying the elephant’s uncertainty challenges conventional spatial and temporal boundaries; entering like we ‘were always already inside’ may help us embrace our shifting identities in relation to place, while also re-valuing the space (as a place to practice refuge, for example). It also may enable us to enter a place with some knowledge and connection but without fretting for any particular knowledge or objective for that situation – allowing any insights or situations to unfold organically.

Tom Price case-study: when we dig, things come up

Following this exercise, Peltz introduced one of his site-responsive projects. The project, when we dig, things come up, was developed between 2013-2015 within the regional iron-ore mining community of Tom Price in Western Australia. It was commissioned as part of the biennial ‘future recall’ exhibition run by Spaced – an art event series whose objective is to promote and showcase contemporary socially engaged and context-respondent art. This art project contributed to this aim by drawing attention to Tom Price’s identity which is defined by the mining activities of American steel manufacturer Kaiser Steel Ltd.

Acknowledging his American roots, Peltz observed that entering the town with the intention to carry out the study paralleled the actions of the Vice President of Kaiser Steel Ltd., Tom Price, to the site more than 50 years prior. Notably, the town and its community continue to participate in the exploitation of the Hematite deposits of the Hamersley Range in the Pilbara Region and exportation to China and Japan for processing.3 The two-part work consisted of an Opera – performed by a Chinese Peking Opera company in Mandarin – and a series of Chinese landscape paintings of the area, which re-enacted the story of Price ‘founding’ the town. Multiple smaller performances were meticulously and thoughtfully carried out to mirror the spatial manipulation of the value of the town and community. These included the piecing together of information ‘extracted’ from encounters with members of the local community, imposing a ‘65% minimum quality standard’ on the works, and shipping these works on the same trade routes as the iron-ore in order for the script to be written. Peltz said, “…I was interested in these forms – the Peking opera and the Chinese landscapes as akin to iron-ore; having a kinship to iron ore, as resources embedded in the Chinese landscape that I could dig up and use to process this ‘narrative-ore’ of [Tom] Price.”4

Chinese landscapes panels and Peking Opera on exhibition at Spaced.

Long-term project in Rejmyre, Sweden

Other projects introduced in the lecture include his ongoing, 15 year-long engagement with a community in the rural town of Rejmyre, Sweden. The town has relied on glassmaking since 1810 and continues to be overtly reliant on this practice for sustenance – now more for tourism, rather than for the manufacturing industry. It is yet another space shaped and shifted by changing economic viability. Starting with a project in 2007 called tourist information / a pilgrim in Rejmyre, Peltz continued in 2015 with seeking an Any Thing from an uncertain time in the ruins of Rejmyre’s future where both the labour of glassmakers and the teak elephants are considered a ‘tourist spectacle’ and are framed as an aesthetic and performative gesture. The project orchestrated such a performance, including (but not limited to) the recording of a YouTube video of the employed elephants in Myanmar on vinyl, dropping the record encased in custom-made glass plates (named an ‘Any Thing’) into the icy waters in the Hunn Lake in Sweden, retrieving it a year later, inserting the film that documented this performance in the local news, and exhibiting both the vinyl and the film in the Rejmyre Historical Museum.

An ‘Any Thing’ created as part of the project seeking an Any Thing from an uncertain time in the ruins of Rejmyre’s future.

The Any Thing as it is lowered into the Hunn River, Sweden to be retrieved a year later – “anything made to be lost and perhaps later found, perhaps in early spring, perhaps when the ice is still thick and clear”.

His most recent and ongoing project, Refuging in Rejmyre, has seen the design of a 5,000-metre tensile tile structure as a proposed place of refuge. Although it has not yet been built, the project would follow on from the performance of the Any Thing, by aiming to allow the community to create what he termed a ‘pre-history’ for those in need of refuge and to revaluate multiple situations of abandonment and economic redundancy. Both thought-provoking and functional, these works feature in his book, co-edited with Hanna Lundborg, and published as a ‘pre-study’ of the contaminated site in Rejmyre. It has been given to the municipality’s working group charged with decontamination as a legitimate option for their efforts to remediate the site, along with a signed contract committing to treating this artist-led study as co-equal to all of the other expert testimony.

The thought that these art projects might be sitting on the desk of Swedish bureaucrats as legitimately as a hydrological study is something of a breakthrough. As an environmental studies student, I have over the past few years become well acquainted with contemporary environmental issues such as resource extraction, land remediation and environmental management. However, the artist’s role in these issues has perhaps been all too absent. Peltz’s appetite for organic and flexible place-based research means that his projects are intrinsically oriented towards the sorts of creative multidisciplinary environmental inquiry that SEI (and the environmental humanities more broadly) showcases. Whether or not Peltz’s artistic practice can compete with scientific assessment in Rejmyre remains to be seen, there is power within practicing creative arts to actively unravel philosophies and conceptions we have about knowledge, self and space that make art intrinsically worthy – vital even – within contemporary environmental discussions.

To learn more, watch the recording of Peltz’s Gilbert Fellowship Lecture.

This artist in residence was funded by Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) and the Sydney Environment Institute.

1. Kitchen, Rob, and Nigel Thrift. ‘Art and Geography’ in International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Elsevier Science, 2009.

2. Peltz, D and Hanna Lundborg, Detox, Clean it up!: A pre-study of the contaminated land in Rejemeyre. Academy of Fine Arts, University of Arts Helsinki, 2022.

3. Peltz, D and Shridan Coleman. A company Town. Critical design, Critical futures, n.d.

4. Peltz, D. How to enter place [lecture] The University of Sydney, October 6 2022.

Olivia Mulligan is a 2022 Honours research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in early 2022, majoring in Environmental Studies and Italian and has just completed Honours with the School of Geosciences (Faculty of Science). Olivia’s research aimed to measure the public’s access to information about the Warragamba Dam Raising Proposal using the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.

Header image: Daniel Peltz, ‘Not for Export’, lecture performance documentation, video still.

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