Easter in the Anthropocene (June 2020)

Thinking and making for the Tamworth Textile Triennial Tensions 2020, and beyond.
Dr Deborah Prior with Rev Andrew Prior

Easter in the Anthropocene is a long form, collaborative Arts x Theology project about living and dying in the Age of Anthropocene. 

Responding to the Climate Crisis, this project explores the familial legacies of colonisation in Australia and acknowledges our own complicity in environmental collapse, mass extinctions and the dying Murray-Darling River System. 

Encompassing textile and performative art practices, endurance action, philosophical musings and notes from the field, our project begins with the transportation of an artwork to the 2020 Tamworth Textile Triennial. This artwork is a collage of pictorial relics of a garden that once existed, embroidered onto a blanket woven at a woollen mill (also now extinct) from an era when ‘Australia was riding on the sheep’s back.’  

This blanket-artwork-burden will be carried by us as we cycle unsupported from Goolwa (South Australia) to Tamworth (NSW) following the Murray and Darling Rivers. 

We are cycling  

To bear witness to the drought and the dying river system. This is no ordinary drought: It’s a crisis hastened by a warming planet and the gross corruption and mismanagement of a natural resource that has been bought and sold to the highest (agribusiness) bidder. Cycling is slow. We will have time to observe, process, and engage.  

As an alternative to freighting an artwork via traditional fossil fuelled transport routes. (This is a very imperfect alternative: Andrew will cycle the return trip to Adelaide. Deborah will be reliant on fossil fuels because she cannot afford more time away from work. It is a potent demonstration of the limitations of individual action. We are all complicit. We are all beholden to a capitalist system of work and production that perpetuates escalating damage.) 

Because it is difficult and uncertain. We will be cycling approximately 2000km (700km of these on unsealed roads.) Andrew is well experienced on long-haul bicycle adventures. Deborah rode a bicycle as a child and is relearning this skill now at age 37. As a cyclist you are vulnerable to faster, heavier vehicles, the limitations of your own mind and body. Already this project has thrown her human frailties into sharp relief as she cycles through 12 months of endurance training. Once en route, our movements will revolve around water. Each day will be an exercise in ensuring there is enough drinking water for the next. Many of the towns we will be stopping at have no mains water left. More will run dry over the following months. 

Because we don’t know what else to do. How do you enact structural change on such a scale to slow – or at least be prepared – for a global existential threat? How do you halt the march of progress and of (jobs and) growth and consumption that is suffocating the planet? We don’t know. So we are building a memorial to a garden, and cycling.

The Blanket-Garden / Care Instructions for Plants 

Our (grand)mother tended a coastal garden with infinite joy and attention for two decades and more on Ngarrindjeri land. The last of her gardens, it was preceded by a garden atop a hill on Nukunu Land which grew up and outwards with three children and the seeming unending seasonal cycles of Australian Farm Life. There would have been earlier gardens too, but the details are hazy now, as she sits as small and bright as a bird – but missing words and movements and faces – in the shrinking world of the dementia wing. 

Joy, our (grand)mother, still loves the flowers we bring her. They are so bright and lovely even as their names and ours are missing. But a record of most everything she planted in her garden endures despite it all, because she carefully archived the plant tags from each nursery purchase into two display folders that were overflowing by the end. Even if she can’t remember, I know that she was very fond of Grevilleas, Kangaroo Paws, and Geraldton Waxes. It’s not perfect – the dense outcrops of succulents from around the rockery that are imprinted on my mind’s eye are not there, so must have been cuttings from neighbours or acquaintances she met on her walks – but it is enough. 

These care instructions for hundreds of plants that once thrived are now being sewn (sown) across a verdant expanse of green wool blanket. This new garden is a homage to a life well spent. It is a memorial to flora and fauna deceased and extinct. (Flowering plants – which feature heavily in Joy's collection – are also an integral part of many funerary and memorial rites.) Each care label is a botanical ex voto: a material vow and appeal for change. It is a shrine of both hopefulness and hopelessness for a planet in distress. Tamworth is due to run dry before our arrival. There may be no water for this garden. 

In her art practice, Deborah salvages and translates fabric relics to explore the wonder and fear of corporeality. She is interested in ordinary domestic textiles and the role they play in the rhythms of homes past, present, and future, and how they might form part of a rich tapestry of domestic craft, care, and material experience. Through a committed Feminist practice, she has contemplated domestic spaces as sites of both oppression and refuge and/or subversion. For the Blanket-Garden this domestic space extends outwards and beyond to the cultivated estate. 

Joy’s collection of plant labels provides an insight into a particularly idyllic type of rural-suburban life of benevolent landscape manipulation. As a type of domestic ephemera that’s often discounted, her care labels offer a nostalgic glimpse into several decades of evolving graphic design, typeface, and printing techniques. They demonstrate a gardener who was passionate about water conservation, soil regeneration, and native bird habitation. 

Her collection also reveals the complexities and tensions of settler benevolence and the calamities small and large of mis-plantings, well-intended invasive species, and the disrupted, colonised landscape. For example, at some point she tended a significant crop of Lantanas. Her beloved Geraldton Waxes, whilst native to parts of WA, are invasive pests outside of their natural range. Mostly, like all our immediate and extended family, she planted on land that wasn’t hers. Both native and introduced, her garden plants were labelled, classified and domesticated. The names I know them by are in English: Common names of baffling and/or offensive colloquialisms: Nellie Kelly, Ginger Megs, Winston Churchill, China Girl. The Scientific names – derived from Greek and Latin – recall the histories of Settler-Conqueror Botanists (It comes as no surprise to find many Banksias in Joy’s collection.) 

Just as Deborah is learning to cycle, she is also learning about gardening, farming, and land management. A primary source for this research is Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which she is reading in alternative states of deep despair and a little hope. It’s a text where the link between colonisation and environmental degradation – and thus the climate crisis, is writ large. But planting is always hopeful. There might still be time for soil repair, for better grains, re-forestations, and new carbon sinks of Mangroves and sea grasses and more.   

Cycling a heavy Woollen-Blanket-Garden 2000km across a continent is difficult. It is a heavy physical and psychic load. Although she doesn’t anticipate any absolution, Penitent and Pilgrim are apt descriptors and are themes that have previously surfaced in Deborah’s practice. The Blanket-Garden is too large for a bicycle pannier so will be hauled in its own bicycle trailer. The trailer will also dictate much of the formal arrangement of the garden: in order to fold down for transportation the individual labels (of firm card and plastic) will need to follow folding / fencing lines. The trailer has a fluorescent yellow canopy – together with a green blanket it forms a strange parody of Aussie Aussie Aussie parochialism – which will protect the Blanket-Garden from the worst of the elements. However, wind and dust and sand and mud will find their way into most places and the garden will bear traces of the journey. This grubby, wind lashed trailer will be exhibited together with the Blanket-Garden. It will provide a material link to the performative element of the work and will cradle the surplus plant labels when Deborah runs out of space on her green woollen turf (Joy had lots of plants). We hope to make it to Tamworth in one piece – Father, daughter, and Grandmother’s Blanket-Garden. Planting a garden is always a speculative, uncertain endeavour.   

Biographies & Theology & Tensions 

Easter in the Anthropocene is a collaborative project between a Daughter – Father duo who are both thinkers, writers, and makers. The project has expanded from a straightforward arts project to acknowledge the tensions of our shared histories and the problem(s) and possibilities of faith.  

Deborah’s life has been entangled with the Church from conception. After her birth in the desert in 1982, her formative years were spent in the on-campus student accommodation of a theological college while her mother and father studied to be Ministers of Religion. Later, she was obliged to live between a series of Manses (church housing) and her Christian Girls College. As the child of two Reverends the inevitable conclusion was art school and later, a deliberately disgusting PhD project on corporeal feminism and the transgressive potentiality of cloth and yarn.  Despite (or because of) the revolting thesis, she found herself working in a church office. This is confusing. The Church – as institution, socio-cultural force and driver of colonisation – is a continual source of concern and contention within her Feminist Art Practice.  

Deborah will be sewing/sowing the garden, learning how to ride a bicycle, and pondering art and activism. 

Andrew’s first solo road trip at the age of three was disrupted by a passing traveller who brought him and his little red wagon home from a mile up the Laura Road. Childhood spent in the southernmost remaining scrub of the Flinders Ranges grew into bushwalking and distance running, and then long-distance cycling as a spiritual practice.

He has Bachelor's degrees in Agricultural Science and Theology. Both have been of occasional use and occasional exercises in futility. He finds that the land grounds his spiritual instinct and protects it from the weeds of Christian institutions, and from imagination which has been too long indoors. He writes alternately about theology and cycling. Like Deborah, he finds the church as an institution a continual source of concern and contention in his own life, and sometimes inspiring. It is confusing! 

Andrew will be mapping, keeping the duo healthy on the road, and navigating the theology. 

Joy and Wendy
Joy and Wendy are, two accomplished rabble-rouses and mothers, and taught us everything we know.

It would be easier to discount our church histories. Deborah has serious reservations about inviting the spectre of the church into her arts project. Christianity is unfashionable. It’s not necessarily safe or inclusive. She’s experienced the best and worst of it in her own life and in any case is deeply suspicious of all this God business.  It would be easier, but dishonest, to omit this history. Because whilst we are both working within a denomination that has occasional flashes of radicalism (in keeping with the historical Jesus) and has been urging children and adults alike to strike for the climate, the catastrophe and trauma of Colonisation has always been aided and abetted by Christian-led Missions. 

This damage is ongoing with a Prime Minister who belongs to a Christian sect with no regard for climate science, preferring to worship at the altar of mining oligarchs and corporate interest promoted by his Prosperity Gospels, whilst he waits for the coming rapture where he and his will ascend to a God-appointed paradise. He, and many powerful men like him, believe Easter will always come again. Traditionally a time of rebirth and resurrection, Easter occurs at the time of the (Northern Hemisphere) Spring Equinox, one of many celebrations absorbed from ancient, pagan festivities that centred on the seemingly endless cycles of the seasons and the promise of spring. The seasons are falling apart now. This is Easter in The Anthropocene.

We are both deeply concerned about versions of belief systems that see adherents plundering the planet of natural resources whilst waiting for the book of Revelation to play out. We worry that many good people who are unfamiliar this mindset underestimate its sway on the global stage. 

So, what to do about this? Although we are not street preachers, this might be the apocalypse. Perhaps we are two (tired and worried) inner-city loonies proselytising for the planet.  Andrew’s faith embraces doubt, questions, criticism. It is a vocation of social justice and environmental stewardship. His starting point for our project is that if Christianity cannot speak to a humanity which is discovering that its own species is facing extinction, then as Christians we have nothing to say. Deborah is fascinated by the intersection of material and spiritual lives. She holds out hope that collective actions and the application rituals like votive gifting or shrine building and invoking notions of the sacred might compel people to consider how to care for and respond to a natural world in crisis. We both know that the knowledges, faiths and practices to care for the earth were already here, thriving, for 80 000+ years. We will be constantly unravelling the damage of our arrival. So we will start cycling.


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