When we reflect upon damaged landscapes, areas of environmental disaster, our focus often tends towards the political and the social. For example, the visceral nature of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been gradually displaced by arguments about compensation, accountability and pension funds in the media. The aesthetic dimension of the Gulf of Mexico spill or the Maralinga stretch of Australian desert, an area long contaminated by nuclear testing, is what shapes our initial emotional response and subsequently, how we reflect upon our relationship to the environment.
Ruthless Jabiru – London’s all-Australian chamber orchestra – are next week performing a concert at Union Chapel as a form of tribute to the latter landscape, Maralinga land in remote South Australia. The ensemble’s conductor, Kelly Lovelady, explains that she has ‘chosen a programme to evoke the loss and the chemical strangeness which has become a part of that landscape.’ Three new works are bookended by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. We could attach commonplace adjectives to those pieces, such as ‘haunting’ or ‘meditative’, but to do so would limit the scope of those works and the richness of the references they carry with them into this setting.
In artworks, exhibitions and concerts that engage with strong subject matter, the term ‘evocation’ is sometimes used in an apologetic way. There is often a sense that because an artwork cannot fully encapsulate a powerful landscape or event, that all that can be offered is a partial semblance. In the press release for Ruthless Jabiru’s concert, the events at Maralinga are described as ‘a complex tragedy of secrets, spies and international relations’. Maralinga, as an altered landscape and the setting for a scene in a larger political narrative, is too complex a web to be fully captured in a single concert. However, it is a programme that has the potential to be genuinely ‘evocative’.
Evocation implies a process of creating anew through the power of the imagination. The potency of the programme’s bookends are already semantically rich and create a frame of mourning, memory and meditation. Both pieces invite a particular way of listening, a space for contemplation and opening the imagination. The three new works then are perhaps, on some level, the evocation proper. Their contrasts can then suggest, provoke and colour that space. More importantly, new pieces, particularly Matthew Hindon’s work which directly engages with the Maralinga landscape, can forge a new web around questions of politics, rights and environmental damage.
In considering the work of the German artist, Gerhard Richter, the art critic Gertrud Koch suggested that Richter is conscious of art’s inability to capture traumatic events accurately. Koch argues that he instead registers this unresolved state in a set of ‘diverse and innovative ways’. The shape of Ruthless Jabiru’s programme, and its engagement with Maralinga, could be read in a similar way. While the concert’s press release has the title ‘tribute to Maralinga’ and the concert is titled ‘Maralinga lament’, I think the word evoke is the crucial one: an imaginative re-creation anew of the aesthetics of a damaged landscape. It is in that evocative place, in that state, where we can reflect meaningfully on our relationship to the environment.