Chop You Down - Press Release
Mark Gerada’s exhibition of new drawings and paintings is the convergence of two stories about shelter.
The first begins with the artist’s own quest for a home. In 2011 he moved to a property in the town of Leura, upstream from the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park. He was looking for a place to build a nest for his family, and he was retreating from an unaffordable city unsupportive of his creative practice. Like increasing numbers of Sydney-based artists unable to secure housing and studio space, he looked for the silver lining in a difficult situation. Life in the mountains offered possibilities to live according to different values. These are values that can be found already woven into Gerada’s work, from Koala Land to City wilderness trail (collaboration with Tega Brain and Diego Bonetto). A life according to these values might make time to produce beautiful art and might make space for decolonising the way humans live with other species: it could keep creeks running (Govetts Creek runs through his property) and forests growing. While it had title boundaries, their nest was a habitat that provided shelter for many species.
In 2014, when a neighbour began felling the giant eucalypts behind their property, Gerada was devastated. He stayed in his studio, blocking out the noise of the bulldozers, chainsaws and falling trees. There was a brief silence followed by the sound of black cockatoos circling the bald spot of land, ‘crying’ with confusion and sorrow. Kookaburras raised their voices struggling to find yabbies in the now muddy creeks awash with erosion from the newly cleared block. Then Indian Minahs arrived, edge dwellers migrating up the train line and highway corridor looking for easy prey at the frontiers of suburban development.
Gerada was angry. He remembered his campaign as a teenager to save a giant palm tree from the chop in his family home. Influenced by the Franklin River protests, Gerada made a ‘save the tree’ placard and stood steadfast in the backyard. Then, the only person who really needed convincing was his father. And eventually, impressed at his son’s perseverance, he put his axe back in the shed, muttering under his breath about a useless tree that made a mess.
The situation in Leura is in some ways much more complex. In others, it is just as simple. While the work in Chop You Down features more vibrant colours and dynamic shapes than his adolescent activism, his visual response has always been intuitive and emotional.
The artworks in this show are the result. Hybrid mashups of trees and machines struggle for a shared future. Chainsaws and bulldozers grow from the limbs of towering gums, dwarfed by their beauty and almost undetectable in their complexity. Landscapes are characterised by ambiguous voids, scarred by human activity yet giving way to breath and light. While there are no human figures in the pieces, we are there in every one of these assemblages. We are the machines: chopping, destroying, clearing and forgetting.
The second story in this exhibition is also about eucalypts but is historical in its underpinnings. On a drawing trip to Lunawanna alonnah (Bruny Island, Tasmania) Gerada was mesmerised by the enormity of the Blue Gum trees with hollowed bases. He drew these tree spaces obsessively, imagining what and whom they had sheltered over time. People could only understand the value of such spaces when they respected the centuries of growth that produced them.
It is not difficult to imagine how, before colonisation, these hollows were used as cooking areas and social spaces by the Nuenonne people, part of the South East tribe of Tasmanian Aboriginals. French biologist Jacques Labillardière, in the late seventeen hundreds, included these trees in his observations that the Nuenonne were a peaceful people existing in a bountiful place with plentiful resources.
‘We were filled with admiration at the sight of these ancient forests, in which the axe had never sounded’
In this exhibition, Gerada creates a life size drawing of a Lunawanna alonnah tree hollow, reflecting on how the First Australians lived with other living things. He asks how considering this relationship more deeply might help Australians find and create value systems that waste less and shelter more; that one day we may face a tree without the impulse to Chop You Down.
Dr Alexandra Crosby