Australian artists respond to climate emergency and the fossil fuel legacy of their parents with art activism

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Deborah Hart at the newly opened CLIMARTE Gallery, in front of a work by Barkindji artist Kent Morris. (Supplied: Julian Meehan)

When eight-year-old Deborah Hart and her family drove into Port Arthur, Texas for the first time she gagged because the city stank like rotten eggs. It was 1971 and Port Arthur was home to the largest oil refinery in the US; she remembers her father describing the stench as “the smell of money”.

Hart’s father, Richard Koerner, was an engineer with expertise in the energy sector, so she grew up immersed in the culture of the global fossil fuel industry.

In 1959 Koerner oversaw the construction of the steel frame that housed the boiler in the Hazelwood Power Station, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

But today, he lobbies for the closure of the power stations he helped build.

His daughter, meanwhile, has carved her own climate activism path: in November, as UN delegates negotiated at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, she opened the world’s first gallery devoted to art that responds to the climate emergency: CLIMARTE Gallery.

The Melbourne gallery also aims to provide a space for community to process the grief and despair associated with the climate crisis.

“We aim to elevate the role of artists in this most urgent public debate,” Hart told ABC Arts.

“We want to support honest and genuinely democratic and inspiring public discussions about what we do and don’t want our future to look like.”

CLIMARTE’s inaugural exhibition, HEAR, honours First Peoples’ deep knowledge of and care for Country and presents the work of Indigenous Australian artists Professor Brian Martin, Kent Morris, Deanne Gilson, James Tylor and Peter Waples-Crowe.

“These are the kinds of voices that we need to listen to, if we are to find our way through the climate emergency,” says Hart.

Hart is adamant that the arts have a profound role to play in addressing the climate crisis and planning for different kinds of possible futures.

“Artists are incredibly resourceful, they’re complex systems-thinkers, they’re resilient, and in my experience they’re the best communicators,” she says.

Guarding the climate

Hart cut her teeth in the arts world in the 90s, working as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Business Council, which seeks support for the gallery from the business community.

“I loved being part of the NGV and contributing to that incredible institution, but I was part of legitimising antisocial and ecocidal companies through the fossil fuel economy, whether it was directly fossil fuel companies or their financiers and enablers — their accountants, their banks, their consultants,” she says.

After starting a local climate action group, Hart left the NGV to dedicate herself to activism.

“I had to be able to look my children in the eye,” she explains.

Part of Hart’s activism included co-founding ClimActs, a climate performance collective, with researcher and activist Liz Conor.

The group’s first “act” was a performance by the Climate Guardians: activists dressed in angel costumes who use “satire and spectacle to highlight the urgency of the climate emergency”.

In the years since, the Climate Guardians have performed nonviolent protests to bring “environmental justice” to sites across Australia such as Latrobe Valley’s Yallourn power station and open cut coal mine.

Hart has also performed the character of Coal Digger Coral Bleach, the CEO2 of the Billionaires United Mining Service (BUMS for short), in parodic skits staged outside the High Court, CSIRO and at AGMs of the major banks.

“Absurdity typically breaks the ice, even with the staunchest of adversaries. It allows really powerful points to be made in much less confrontational ways,” says Hart.

But her deployment of humour and irony conceals fear, anger and pain.

“Like so many others, my father went into the energy industry to advance humanity, not to dig up and burn everything for short-term profits,” she says.

“High-level decision makers in the fossil fuel industry established strategic, global campaigns to mislead and deceive policy makers and the public about scientific facts, data and evidence.”

“[This] is beyond heartbreaking, and clearly having tragic consequences for us all.”

Meditating on the crisis

Hart is not alone in turning to art as a way to process a complicated parental legacy.

In 2013, Adelaide-born artist Hartmut Veit spent 400 hours over three months in a pine plantation in the Latrobe Valley, carving a large burial canoe out of a fallen tree and suspending it above the ground.

This work drew on the burial traditions of the St’át’imc and Lillooet First Nations peoples of North America’s Rocky Mountains.

“The canoe work began with the smell, physical sensations and associations with the surrounding pine trees – which triggered memories of Canada,” says Veit.

“I lay in the suspended canoe for hours meditating on my often-fraught relationship with my father, and my childhood memories of connecting with nature.”

Veit’s father, Gottfried Veit, was a ‘sprengmeister’ – a mining explosives expert who trained in Austrian mines before migrating to Australia in the early 50s.

Veit and his family ended up living in mining towns in Papua New Guinea, Germany, Canada and Australia.

It was in a town in Canada’s Rocky Mountains that Veit first witnessed the impacts of mine closures: “It became a ghost town overnight … everyone lost their jobs; anyone who could leave, left.

“The mine itself, apart from eroding the landscape, left behind mine tailings (waste) with concentrated levels of arsenic, draining into the surrounding landscape and into rivers and streams for decades to come.”

Gottfried died at age 62 due to silicosis and lung cancer — the result of a life working in mines.

Hartmut subsequently turned to art as a way to process his childhood, the death of his father and his concerns about the climate crisis.

“I really felt very conflicted about my background, with my father being in mining and in extractive industries, and the damage it’s doing,” he says.

As news spread of Veit’s durational art performance in the forest, workers from the nearby Hazelwood open-cut coal mine would occasionally stop by.

“It was a gradual thing of earning their trust and not being a fly-in, fly-out artist and activist.”

When the Hazelwood mine caught fire in February 2014, burning for 45 days and causing the nation’s worst-ever air pollution event, Veit was already working with Hazelwood’s brown coal dust as an art medium.

“Coal is made out of fossilised wood, so it was a natural extension of the canoe carving,” he explains.

Over the next three years, Veit created a series of works under the title COAL, in the neighbouring town of Morwell, which was deeply impacted by the mine fire.

To do this he approached the Hazelwood mine managers and convinced them to excavate a tonne of coal for him, which he used in various ways over a series of exhibitions staged in derelict shops in Morwell between 2014 and 2017.

As part of this, he invited community members to experiment artistically with the coal dust and talk about their experiences of living in a mining town.

This interactive element ended up becoming an unofficial part of the community recovery efforts following the fire.

“For a lot of people in Morwell, when I was doing these exhibitions, it was the first time that they had actually seen coal close-up …It was a process of engaging with the community and giving them a voice,” says Veit.

Veit has now built his own contemporary eco-art and yoga and meditation space, Stanley Ave Studio, which will open on January 17.

“We all need to reconnect and transform our relationships with self, other and the living world in response to the climate emergency,” he says.

“Linking the imagination and creative arts with embodied yoga and meditation practices offers a sustainable path to do just that.”

Finding hope

Like Hartmut Veit, Brisbane-based painter David Hart (no relation to Deborah Hart) had a father who worked in the mines; his dad drove ‘locos’ — the trains that transported iron ore out of one of the biggest base metal deposits on the planet, in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Kevin “Pro” Hart was able to quit his mining job when he became famous for his paintings of the Australian outback and country life (including his portraits of miners), which are collected in galleries throughout Australia.

His paintings of ants and dragonflies, in particular, became pop cultural icons.

“I remember hot summer nights in Broken Hill, you’d walk outside and one of the big flood lights would be going, and down on the ground there would be a huge dragonfly and all these big black ants pulling its wings off,” his son David recalls.

“Dad would take notice of those sorts of things.”

The younger Hart has also devoted his life to painting, and draws most of his inspiration from the natural world.

His most popular works are still-life portraits of vibrant, textured flowers as well as outback and beach scenes.

“They’re illustrations of life and I know that when people see those scenes they can have this connection and it takes them to a special place,” he says.

In recent years, Hart has been working on Our Secret War: a book and 50-painting series, created in consultation with Indigenous advisors — including Dr Anita Heiss and the writers and researchers behind Sydney Aboriginal history website Barani.

The paintings will be exhibited in early 2022.

“The impact of the First Fleet on Indigenous Australia has made me think a lot more broadly about how we impact everything we do … the footprints that we make,” Hart says.

“There are big contributors to climate change – the big factories, car manufacturers and coal mines – but we all [have an] impact on everything we do. I don’t drive much, but we still consume things — and it’s impossible not to make a footprint. We’ve got to spin them around so that they count for something positive.”

Hart believes that in times of crisis, art has the capacity to bring joy and hope back into people’s lives.

“If you don’t have hope in the world, what have you got? You’ve got to have something that can push you on and inspire you.”

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