Among the works representing Australia at the last edition of documenta was Momento Mori (2017), a two-part installation showed between Athens and Kassel. Visitors to the Athens School of Fine Arts Gallery found themselves facing what Bonita Ely (b. 1946, Mildura, Australia), the artist behind the work, would refer to as a natural history museum of the future. Merging scientific information and historical narratives, Plastikus Progressus – this was the name of the installation – reconstructed the chronology of the antidote to plastic pollution in the trans-ecology of water. Pivotal points of the timeline were: 1907, year of the invention of bakelite, the first synthetic plastic; 2017, when plastic pollution was officially recognised as an environmental catastrophe; and 2054, in which AI creatures will possibly help humanity cleaning after themselves, feeding on their plastic leftovers.
The other half of the work, exhibited at Palais Bellevue with the title Interior Decoration, focused on the trauma of war and the post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) that propagates from it throughout different generations. The material and objects composing the installation were gathered in relation to places and events linked to the cities of Kassel (the tragedy of WWII) and Sydney (the legacy of colonisation), providing pre-existing cultural references with a contemporary context. Momento Mori offers a comprehensive illustration of the wider practice of Ely, an interdisciplinary artist active since the 1970s, whose projects address environmentalism, feminism and socio-political issues.
Ely’s career began internationally. Her work was in fact first exhibited in 1972 in London, whilst the multimedia installation C20th Mythological Beasts: at Home with the Locust People (1975) – which later grew into the various iterations of Interior Decoration – originated in New York. During the 1970s and 1980s, performance was Ely’s favourite medium to initiate a debate or encourage political discussion. She tackled themes such as Aboriginal Land Rights and womanhood through performances like Jabiluka UO2 (1979), which drew attention to the process of uranium mining in the Northern Territory of Australia, Breadline (1980), where casts of the artist’s body made of bread were served to the audience with pouring milk, or Women at Work (1980), a demonstration built around the recipe for a drink containing polluting substances from the Murray River. This river, and the controversy deriving from its contamination, has remained at the centre of her research in following works developed within The Murray River Project (1978–2014).
During the 1990s the breadth of Ely’s interest expanded to also embrace sculptural projects. An example in this sense is a public sculpture commissioned in 1998 for the Children’s Cultural Centre in Hue, Vietnam. The work unfolded from a close study of the territory and the customs of its inhabitants and it was made of local materials such as the Citadel’s traditional bricks. From 2002 is Longevity: Scissors and Sickles, another public sculpture in Hue, which symbolises the idea of long life through lattice reproductions of the scissors and sickles made by the local blacksmiths.
Ely’s relationship with Vietnam grew further as in 2006 the artist was invited to take part in Hue’s 4thInternational Sculpture Symposium. On this occasion, she produced a glow-in-the-dark sculpture, Lake Thunder, representing the energies of the Earth in relation to the natural scenario of the Thuy Tien Lake. The link between water, energy of the thunder, electricity and fire reflects the principles of Taoism, for which the interrelation between these natural elements epitomises the ultimate reconciliation with a true essence, spirit and knowledge. This inspired the development of Ely’s PhD research subject, based on the influence of Taoism on contemporary art. Energy in fact returned as a topic of investigation in more recent project such as Thunderbolt, devised for the 2010 Sydney’s Green Olympics. The sculpture incorporated a recycled windmill activated by solar energy to sign the consumption of energy by the community during the night, through a variation of colours from yellow to red.
Ely’s oeuvre to date encompasses a diversity of projects whose ramifications oscillate between science, anthropology and activism, and despite the different mediums employed and the various contexts explored, show a solid, guiding concern: the interrelation between human beings and the ecosystem they live in. If one wanted to sum up her practice with a few words, these would probably be colours such as green for the environment, red for the politics around conflict and human rights and blue for the depth of her investigations and the hope towards conceiving of a better future.
Bonita Ely is an Associate Professor in the Sculpture, Performance, and Installation Studio, University of New South Wales (UNSW), and a founding member of the Environmental Research Institute of Art, UNSW. She lives and works in Sydney and is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
Featured Image: Bonita Ely, C. 20th Mythological Beasts: At Home With the Locust People (2013). Image courtesy of Milani Gallery.