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— Exhibition Essay by Charles Nodrum


Charles Bush, Wheels of the Wimmera, 1971, oil on board, 61 x 121cm


All landscape paintings express the climate of their subjects.  From the desolate wastes of poles and deserts, through the agricultural prosperity of the temperate zones, to the seemingly unstoppable opulence of the tropical forests, all these different climates can be easily recognised. 


In Australia we have four of these bands: the cooler, temperate climates of Tasmania and Southern Victoria; the warmer, Mediterranean climates of northern Victoria and the southern parts of New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia; large areas of desert in the Centre; and smaller areas of tropical forest in the north of Queensland. This exhibition covers them all – and takes the liberty of stretching into urban landscapes, marine painting, and surrealist visions of the beginning, or end, of the world. To comforting visions of fertile land and gentle seas are added the usual downsides: storms, droughts, floods and bushfires. 


That climate does change over time is widely, if not universally, agreed. Evidence shows several catastrophic changes many millions of years ago, wiping out huge numbers of species. The most recent, relatively minor, change occurred a mere 15,000 years ago when a serious rise in global temperature brought an end to the Ice Age and caused a major rise in sea levels, submerging large areas of the continental shelf  and turning Australia and Tasmania into islands. Since then, microclimatic changes have resulted in, for example, Lake Mungo drying up and the dispersal of the Aboriginal population which flourished around its shores.  If the causes of these changes remain unclear, the same cannot be said about our current situation, where the vast increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the Industrial Revolution, first in Europe, and now continuing on a far higher scale over much of the world, is raising global temperatures.


The sceptics question the claim that human activity is causing the problem, given that previous changes occurred before humans had evolved. This particular argument is impossible to refute since there is not one single, direct and unique cause to neatly explain the situation, rather several contributing, and sometimes yet unexplainable, factors involved.  But a similar difficulty arises with, say, lung cancer: some non-smokers contract the cancer, yet the majority of smokers don’t, so the claim that smoking causes the problem is tricky. Medical authorities thus have recourse to statistics: far more smokers contract lung cancer than non-smokers, so it seems fair to claim that tobacco is a serious contributing factor – hence their advice to smokers to quit.


The other issue that seems to cause difficulty is the fact that such small shifts in temperature can have such grave results.  But this is part of a wider problem – what might be called ‘the mystery of tiny percentages’.  When the Reserve Bank moves lending rates by a fraction of 1% it is virtually impossible to find a single micro-economic decision being changed as a result, but a result does appear over the economy as a whole. And with climate, a small rise in temperature or reduction in rainfall can just tip the balance.  Some optimists assure us that “we will adapt”, but it begs the question as to who ‘we’ refers to: prosperous Westerners, probably yes; but nomadic Sudanese herdsmen, probably not.


But aside from this, the issue of climate change connects with a wider ecological movement that has been working on various fronts for many years.  Chemicals have been prohibited (DDT, leaded petrol, asbestos, fluoro carbons, etc.) as injurious to health, and EPAs now monitor emissions, effluents and rubbish disposal to keep our water, air and land as clean as possible.  It works.  When London authorities curtailed the use of coal in 1956, the famous fogs stopped and mortality rates fell.  Beijing and New Delhi both suffer now as London used to, and will presumably continue to do so until action is taken to curb emissions.

Art can’t solve any of these climate and energy debates; paintings can only ever represent what is, not what was or will be.  But whilst images in any medium can thus never capture the notion of change itself, an exhibition of landscape paintings can help extend the debate as, hopefully, you will discover when reading the notes by Joelle Gergis and Penny Whetton to accompany selected works in the show. 


Dr Joelle Gergis is an award winning climate research scientist at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on reconstructing climate variability over past centuries using a range of historical records.  From 2009–2012 she led a South-Eastern Australian Recent Climate History (SEARCH) project (funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage); the aim of this landmark initiative, spanning the sciences and the humanities, was to reconstruct the region’s climate variability from first European settlement in 1788 (http://climatehistory.com.au) to the present. She is the author of over 70 publications on climate variability and change in Australia (and the Southern Hemisphere) and is currently completing a book on the subject due for release by MUP in March 2018.


Dr Penny Whetton is an Honorary Research Fellow with the University of Melbourne and formerly a Senior Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship.  With CSIRO she worked on the development of regional scenarios of future climate change for use in impact and adaptation assessment and has played a leading role in the CSIRO's latest (2015) climate change projections, as well as in earlier projections released in 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2007. These latest projections were drawn upon in many of the captions in this exhibition and can be found at https://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/en/. Dr Whetton was also a lead author of each of the last three assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  In the last couple of years she has had the opportunity to explore some of her other interests, particularly history and painting, and is delighted to have had the opportunity to be involved in this exhibition.


Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.