ART - AUSTRALIAN - JULIET LEA - CATALOGUE ESSAY
“No Junk Mail Please” sign on my letter box did not stop the ACT
government delivering a brochure boasting that within ten years Canberra
would be recycling all its waste. That was also the day on which
Australia Post delivered Juliet Lea’s package of background
information to help me prepare this essay.
that I live surrounded by books, it was not surprising that the image
that first caught my eye was of her 1990 installation “In
the Dust of all Words: a poria (an other story)” in which piles of
books form ranks on a grimy floor while more volumes block the light
from three widows. The suggestion that book-learning could obscure as
well as clarify reminds me to write for the reader over my shoulder.
mood of this installation seemed to be that books were decaying into
another kind of junk for the ACT government to recycle. We hear that the
Net will make dead-tree editions redundant. More disturbing are reports
that fewer people are taking their information, let alone their
comprehension, from print media. One impact of the television screen is
that the past is flattened into a continuous present where, in keeping
with the paranoid’s universe, everything is connected to everything
else in a totality of menace. The loss of cause and effect that flows
from this ironing out of historical specificity encourages the evasion
of responsibility. No cause: no blame. As I toyed with these responses,
I also appreciated that my doubts about the visual had been stimulated
by an instance of the visual.
reading the decline of Guttenberg into this installation, had imported
the decay of literacy from images of her 2001 work “Patho
logo”, where the degradation is at once global and explicit? That
piece showed a relief map of the continents made from food which had
been left to rot. The title “Patho”
invoked the spread of infectious agents. Its pattern mimicked the logo
of the United Nations.
decomposition of the kind of world that the UN represents is
discomfiting to those Australians, mostly of a progressive bent, who
retain faith that its charter will one day provide the basis of law
between states and inside every nation. Lamentations that Australia’s
international reputation will be damaged by our responses to indigenous
people, of refugees, or carbon levels focus on what the UN will think.
Surely, it it is the reputation of the United Nations that should make
its members feel shame. Its financial corruption and bureaucratisation
are legendary. Its subversion by United States imperialism began before
the founding conference in 1945, was exposed by the Australian writer
Shirley Hazzard in her Defeat of
an Ideal (1973). These crimes were compounded by the appointment of
the Nazi Kurt Waldheim as Secretary-General, and lately, by CIA
penetration of teams of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. In brief, when
the UN has not been impotent, it is a stalking-horse for the US security
state. The United Nations is
as rotten as the animal parts in “Patho
logo” became after weeks on display.
logo” can be seen it as a tiny example of the avalanche of waste
to which it alludes. The art work contained more protein than nourishes
some human beings in their lifetimes. Our species produces more than
enough food to sustain its billions in a healthy diet. Millions starve
each year because of its mal-distribution and millions more become
chronic invalids because of too much of the wrong foods – too much fat
or sugar. The pathology of these contrasting malaises has to be sought
in social relationships, not the Human Genome.
groups have pointed out that the “recycling” industry is not what it
claims because sorted rubbish is ending up as landfill. Yet, even if all
our trash were to be recycled, the impact on the environment still would
be damaging. First, the making and use of the originals, following by
their recycling and then their second-round of making and usage would
remain. No matter how well designed a product is in its energy use while
in operation, those savings need to be matched against the energy that
goes into their production or recycling.
year, I throw out more than a fifth of the world’s people use in a
lifetime. Although writing this essay on screen, I will nonetheless use
more bond paper than some children see in their entire schooling. The
reasons for that lack are not just poverty. A US trade embargo against
Cuba keeps kids writing on slates and scraps. Perhaps what seems to us
as deprivation is a desirable goal for conservation.
debate population policy as a choice between Tim Flannery’s 6-12
millions or Richard Pratt’s 50 millions for Australia is beside the
point. Australia cannot sustain that Flannery’s minimum number if
every adult were to drive a Toorak tractor. We would fare better with 50
millions on push-bikes. That substitution can be applied to every item
of the material that is scheduled to be recycled should never have been
cycled. Our planet cannot afford sustainability paid for by ceaseless
growth. For instance, most of the 20 billion PET bottles in Europe in 1999
would never have been produced under South Australia’s “No
Disposables” bottling laws that require a 5c refund on soft-drink
issue is whether capital cannot survive in stable state. By its nature,
capital must expand or implode. To beat off competitors, each firm seeks
to reduce its unit costs through replacing labour with machinery. That
investment can be afforded only by pushing out ever more commodities to
keep up profit rates. The needs of capital induce endless needs in
competition has intensified with globalisation and monopolising. As each
conglomerate seeks to capture all the sales, their combined output must
exceed the total effective demand.
talk about moving into “Natural capitalism” indicates that its
proponents know nothing about the workings of either capital or nature.
They fail to see that the waste from competition is how the capitalist
system thrives. Equally, they assume that biological change is efficient
in the way that capital seeks to remain profitable by eliminating its
competition. In the case of nature, evolution requires waste in the
spawning of mutations which may help a species to survive a changing
environment. Design in nature thus is not perfect adaptation but more of
a rough fit. To think that capitalism can follow nature is as false as
the 1940s belief in the Soviet Union that inherited characteristics
could be acquired to hasten the creation of a communist utopia. Before
1953, the Soviet biologists had the excuse that genetics lacked the
proof that came with the double helix. Today’s advocates of natural
capitalism have no justification beyond a need not to challenge the
dominance of capital.
spending is attacked as waste, as something which the world does not
need. Few of the weapons that are produced are ever used in war, and so
can be classified as wasteful. Were they to be used, they would create
ever more waste. Yet within the logic of capital’s expansion, they are
never wasteful. Yet rulers in the impoverished states that spend up big
on weapons need guns to oppress their populations, and to plunder.
Similarly, in the richest empire, the USA, its proposed anti-ballistic
missile system is not necessary for protection. Rather, it is very much
needed to secure the health of the corporations that contributed to
George W. Bush’s campaign funds, that is, necessary to keep the arms
industry running as a motor of capital expansion.
1876, Frederick Engels pointed to the devastation of landscapes that had
come as the unexpected outcomes of progress. For instance, the clearing
of Italian forests had destroyed dairying and increased the destructive
force of run-off. His hope was that science would help us to recognise
and thereby master our destructiveness. Much that Engels knew 125 years
ago was forgotten by the Soviets. Some of it was learnt again only as
our species acquired the capacity to destroy life on earth. Since then,
the spread of ecological consciousness has battled to keep pace with the
destruction of habitats.
For the future, we can be certain that the survival of the planet will not occur by accident. The unintended consequence of plundering natural resources will never be their sustainability. That necessity demands conscious interventions by those who have the least to gain from the waste that expands capital. Art cannot save a single tree. But it continues to deepen the awareness required for us to learn and to act.