John Gerrard <em>Flare (Oceania)</em> 2022 (still). Courtesy the artist, Uili Lousi and Pace Gallery, New York<br/>
© 2023 John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Myth, Matter and Satellites

Elliat Rich

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

I feel for satellites falling across the night sky. It must be so cold and quiet out there, their pace and trajectory strangely un-celestial. The matter that makes them, propelled away and divorced from the embrace and call of the planet.

It is often difficult to see beyond our own context. The modern built environment, from large-scale infrastructure to everincreasing digital spaces, is an uncompromising edifice of values and ideals constantly reinforced. Clues to possible world views that counter or question the ‘norm’ are subtle and delicate. But all this pales in relation to the collective experience of our species.

Humans have been using symbols for 60,000–80,000 years, discovering, developing, practising culture. Throughout that time we have derived meaning and understanding through observation. We saw that everything was connected and an integral part of ecologies – including ourselves. We understood the world as animate, undeniably alive, because we didn’t have strict distinctions between us and other. As language and culture rolled from one generation to the next we developed and held and told stories that reflected these observations. During this time we saw the world as relational, understanding what we observed and felt through (what we now term) mythos.

Our current, dominant world view has been active for, at most, about 2500 years. It is a world view embedded with certain values that demand we see and think through the lens of logos – the logical and rational – at the exclusion of the more visceral mythos.

A mythic mindset was the world view for 95 per cent of human cultural history. And akin to our ‘reptilian’ brain, our ‘mythic muscle’ is still held in our cells, still an intimate part of us. We think, learn and understand through stories, symbols, connections. Mythologies are multi-layered packages of knowledge – ecological know-how, morals and cosmology all wrapped together as interrelating symbols and the stories they move through.

Mythologies were discounted at a rapid rate in favour of philosophy during the Roman Empire. The Romans, needing to subdue and control different cultures and the associated lands, propagated the notion of myth as lie. Where mythic entities were too strong to be banished or erased entirely, they were coopted into new stories that served the empire. Morals shifted, ecological dynamics became unbalanced, we built spaceships.

In an increasingly secular world, where religious beliefs have mostly been coopted into power structures, how do we find, cultivate and pay attention to the subtle clues that ground us, that provide for possibilities outside of our immediate and demanding context?

Creative expression gives us opportunities to perforate the persistent reality of ‘empire’. Those moments when we are moved, when we find we can leap to new understandings, are when art touches those embedded mythic nerves. Art as a symbol that acts as an anchor, keeping our thoughts still enough to scaffold new (or old) realisations. Art as imagination that calls us back to the wonder of a planet. Art as reminder that we are simultaneously insignificant and an intimate part of an animate world.

Flare (Oceania), 2022, by John Gerrard is a symbol-laden piece. It communicates deftly. We immediately understand the dynamics of power and the current domination of fossil fuel agency, the tragedy of time passing over the slowly disappearing land of Pacific Islanders. The work – a real-time simulation – resonates with both hope and despair. There is a logic to point to, clear and concise, alongside an emotional reality of snowballing grief and loss and helplessness. But what happens when we squint and see this work through a mythic lens? What do we catch in the periphery, see with our senses, hear with our cells?

Transitions and transformation have a strong presence in many mythologies. In Flare (Oceania), there is a spatial transition: gas moves from its contained place in the ‘underworld’ up and out into the unbounded expanse of air. This shift also incorporates temporal change, from deep time to present. There is the transformation of physical states, from gas to flame to smoke and then other particulate forms that filter across oceans. From resting still for eons to one, bright instant of burning. What might these moments of metamorphosis symbolise? What story do they allow us to tell?

While fire can be seen as a positive element, there is something menacing about the thickness of the smoke in Flare (Oceania). I’ve never seen burning wood give off that density of darkness. It feels like there is a message hidden here. What entity is perhaps trying to communicate with us via flame and smoke? What happened that left them at the bottom of the ocean sending signals to the surface?

Moving from the molecular to the relational, do we take any comfort in knowing that something as flimsy as a steel pipe will not go the distance against the persistent press of salt water? It stands so sure of itself while so gently but surely eroding away. Is it a metaphor for a civilisation certain of its own longevity, until something corrodes its foundation and it recedes into memory?

Is there a mocking rhythm and regularity to the movement of the waves? The disjunct between the breeze and the rise and fall of water adds to the sense of discomfort. And the clouds – huge, filling the sky, but stagnant, a trickster backdrop. The relationships between the elemental forces seem uncomfortable, a sticky, unwilling give and take.

Flare (Oceania) is full of silence and emptiness. Nothing interrupts the ocean’s surface: no birds in flight, no glimmer of silvery scaled skin. It’s just the lapping of waves and mesmerising flutter of the flame, capturing and keeping our attention. Distraction or warning? It’s the missing ecologies in this work that tear at me.

To think mythically means to practise seeing the concentric contexts we simultaneously occupy. Flare (Oceania) so acutely draws us in, anchors us so we can see more of the story. We understand the symbolism flags have in relation to colonialism, but perhaps the object is not the most important thing. What if the object is the distraction? While the artwork is held within the frame and asks for our attention, we know the sea and sky go above and beyond these confines. Mythic thinking allows us to reframe at multiple scales and perspectives.

The influence of the new god(s) that have appeared through the mechanisms of modernity continue to pull us into an existence a lot like that of those satellites. Learning and thinking through only one lens, seeing in only one way, floating in sensual absence. To think mythically is to understand our plurally scaled, poly-temporal relationships to each other and the planet that holds us. It allows us to become grounded, to come in for landing, to embrace our deep-time relationships. May we not burn up on re-entry.

ELLIAT RICH is based in Alice Springs, Central Australia. She works across a broad spectrum of design for a diverse client base, remotely, locally and nationally. Her practice covers cross-cultural resources, exhibition design, public art and furniture, product development, one-off exhibitions, and editioned objects.