ESSAYS / REVIEWS
‘Narratives- Realties, fictionalising the present and contaminating the fantastical wilderness’
Review by Charlotte Watson
Ara Dolatian’s ‘Narratives-Realities’, now on at Crowther Contemporary, is a sculptural installation that feels calm and clean. With sharp whites and fleshy pinks Narratives-Realities is a new direction for Dolatian, who is most renowned for his sculptures that employ water, plants and terrarium-like systems to comment on social and environmental concerns. While in a similar vein, Narratives-Realities doesn’t have the apocalyptic call to action that often comes with themes surrounding humans, science and nature. Rather, the show pushes those themes from a place of ‘what if’ and into the realm of ‘when’.
Though not his first foray into ceramics, ‘Narratives-Realities’ brings the medium to the forefront and demonstrates Dolatian’s sound aptitude for the material. Earthenware forms, lunar in their crumpled and collapsed state, are placed sparingly around the room on Dolatian’s trademark stilts or bulbous, stylised stands. Coupled with the gallery’s cool blue walls and tiled floor, this new body of work is reminiscent of some futuristic, minimal utopia, that perhaps could have adorned the fictional, architectural interiors of the likes of Superstudio or Archizoom. These ceramic sculptures cross into quasi-functionalism, as they spill, contain or overflow with materials in which nature is either sustained (as with water crystals in Autonomy or Fragment), or stymied (such as the silicone in Fantastical Wilderness).
Also new is Dolatian’s inclusion of photographs. Striking microimagery lends to the sense of otherworldliness, and a nod to his previous installation work. These images sit well against the three-dimensionality of the show, hung above and below standard eye height. The imagery, made from submerged plant matter and glass terrariums, has a planetary feel, and in the context of the show leaves an impression of the kind of ‘landscape’ decor one may have in a future time and place.
This new direction in Dolatian’s work is an interesting and exciting move, suggesting precarious utopias that still contain error or slippage. One wonders if these objects are indicative of some ‘designer’ sustainability, in an inevitably resource-savvy future. Narrative-Realties sees a shift in Dolatian’s work from that of ecosystems which rely on one another, to that of eco-object. With these new works Dolatian suggests a mode of living which, in some future context, will be the commonplace retainer of life.
Charlotte Watson is a New Zealand born artist and writer. Her written works include curatorial essays for Five Walls and Tinning Street Projects, as well as short non-fiction and interviews for Niagara Galleries and The Physics Room. She graduated from the University of Canterbury with a BFA in Sculpture in 2011 and has been based in Melbourne since 2012.
Exhibition catalogue: Curated by Charlotte Cornish
Water is part of an integrated, continuous whole. This is true for the world in which we live and for biological systems. We can’t live without water, and yet there are many troubles that come to the fore when engaging with water as a subject of artistic enquiry. In Staying with the Trouble – Making Kin in the ChthuluceneDonna J. Haraway outlines a theory about ecological connectivity, arguing for a re-evaluation of our approach to troubled times. Rather than working toward an idealised utopian future or view devastation as too far gone, she suggests that we focus on the uncomfortable present to find solutions: “Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.” The curatorial parameters of Waves stems from an interest in Haraway’s proposal. The exhibition presents various artistic interpretations of humanity’s relationship to and reliance on the expansive subject of water.
Clouds of mist permeate from within Ara Dolatian’s interconnected biomorphic sculptures. To control and contain the distribution of water between two systems, Ara has constructed self-perpetuating environments that interlink water from the natural world with industrial processes in a symbiotic relationship. The audience is protected from contaminating the interior self-sufficient environment, yet the interior environment and its function are also visible to us through the translucent plastic form. We can see the porous and borderless mist seeping out of gaps in the translucent forms, and the water transferring from one form to the other through an array of tubes and pumps, powered by electricity. Propped up but sitting precariously on the wooden tripod, their organic form and function appears as if landing within the gallery from another time or world. The connectivity of these environments expresses a system of interdependent processes, between the natural world and industrial worlds, a symbiosis between a living and non-living ecologies. The water flows between the forms, which activate the work, but it would fail to do so if it didn’t rely on electricity to power the pump. In this way, Ara’s work occupies a precarious middle ground between the natural and non-natural worlds. This is a space where there is reliance on industrial processes, but an awareness of the need to build sustainable and mutually beneficial inter-relational systems.
Exhibition catalogue: Curated by Elyse Goldfinch, September 2017
thing in itself
‘A sculpture that physically reacts to its environment is no longer to be regarded as an object. It merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a “system” of interdependent processes. These processes evolve without the viewer’s empathy. He becomes a witness. A system is not imagined, it is real.’ - Hans Haacke, 1968
thing in itself is concerned with the hybridised and symbiotic relationship between human and non-human ecologies. Exploring the poetics of viewing objects within the new geological age, artworks exist within an entangled ecosystem, exploring the mutually dependent web of living and non-living materials. Artists Ara Dolatian, Kath Fries, Hannah Rose Carroll Harris, Zhu Ohmu and Kai Wasikowski employ the aesthetics of nature through complex and embodied encounters with the natural world. This exhibition will unpack anthropogenic processes that have allowed humans to inexorably change the environment around them and to act as a provocation towards the destabilisation of humanist thought.
This exhibition adopts its title from Kant’s theory in which objects in nature exist in a world that sits beyond the rationality, the human mind rendering them intrinsically unknowable. Contemporary philosophies particularly post-humanist theories like Object Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism have attempted to understand the potentialities within objects – whether living, synthetic, conceptual or otherwise. Likewise, this exhibition rejects an anthropocentric way of thinking about the world but imagines one in which nature and the mind are intimately related. Foregrounding the importance of non-human objects, these artists reject the correlationist dyad of subject/object as artworks adapt, transform and dissipate beyond human intervention.
Artists seeking to expose the economics of power embedded within global catastrophes such as climate change, disrupt our comfortable understanding of the things around us and speculate on the conditions of living in urgent times. European philosopher Santiago Zabala posits that the biggest emergency today is the very absence of a sense of emergency in the hermetic circles of politics, big business and the mainstream media. This is, in part a legacy of the Kantian divide between object and subject which has led to the disembodied language of the global climate crisis.
Ara Dolatian’s practice examines the relationship between contemporary cultural landscapes and natural ecosystems. Gendered Machines resembles a hybridised biological experiment that uses a circulatory system to pass water between two transparent biomorphic vessels. Here, water is an ephemeral and transitory element that flows and dissolves into an incorporeal vapour from one ecosystem to another. This fragile process conjures the visible barriers controlling real and imagined ecologies as the futile act of endlessly transmitting from one place to another whilst imitating the relentless flow of data and energy circulating the earth. Dolatian states, ‘The work has the characteristic of a mechanical metropolis, seen as an imaginative projection of a new place where commodification of biological material, space and technology is visible.’ This work speaks to the failed potential of science fiction and speculates on the utopian future that never arrived. The relationship to the organic world is prefigured by the mediation of the synthetic, sterile plastic, yet not entirely enclosed the mist escapes and evaporates beyond its boundaries.
The artists in thing in itself are concerned with the complexity of material transformations to imagine a nature beyond human understanding. They collapse the boundaries between the organic and synthetic through experiential and sensory manifestations. This exhibition demonstrates that the interdependent relationship between humans and the things they are surrounded by act upon each other - existing in a space of aesthetic awareness. Shifting away from the notion of pure ideas and objective experiences this exhibition unfolds within a realm of interconnected relations as we advance towards a transcendental anthropocentrism.
Exhibition catalogue: Diego Ramirez - Progress & Passivity - June 2017
The Nightmare of Nathaniel Ward
Progress and Passivity by Ara Dolatian is an exhibition comprised of sculptural terrariums with alien biomorphic forms that speak of mobile places. These objects contain local plants within deformed spheres (unlike spherical terrariums, these are warped and twisted) that are supported by long thin legs. Even though they are fully functional and capable of sustaining plant life for the length of the exhibition, they evoke unnamable shapes – wicked entities that exist somewhere in between a camouflaged insect, a floating island, and a corrupted household object. These uncanny effects are exacerbated in some of the pieces with the use of a misting system and seemingly polluted water, both of which create a worrisome atmosphere by conjuring the otherworldly and the impure. However, Dolatian’s sculptures are also beautiful, as they are shaped by glossy surfaces, a careful execution and uplifting materials (I dare you not to feel good while staring at plants on timber).
When the sculptures are looked at from below, one also notices that the outline of the timber that supports the containers are reminiscent of the geographical delineation of nations, cities or suburbs. With this gesture, Ara Dolatian concretes a fantastical scene, in which the biomorphs appear to be on the verge of departure, seemingly ready to disappear from our gaze and carry their micro-worlds somewhere else. In fact, this act of containing and transporting is intrinsic to the history of terrariums.
The terrarium as we know it was first devised by an amateur botanist from London in the 19th century: Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. Originally known as the “Wardian Case”, Ward manufactured these containers in response to the pollution that was killing his plants (his house was surrounded by factories). His “discovery” (a nauseating word that evokes the repulsive archetype of an illustrious-white-man enlightening the world with his uncontrollable genius) took place by accident when he sealed an unsuspecting moth with moist soil in a jar and later noticed sprouts growing inside the container. He observed that the moisture condensed on the glass and then returned to the soil, maintaining a continual state of humidity that allowed the vegetation to survive without watering.
This allowed Ward to grow plants in his polluted urban environment, but more broadly, it also solved a colonial issue: how to transport plants during long voyages at sea. In 1833, he successfully shipped British plants to Sydney, and received Australian plants in return. The most interesting aspect of this story being that this is probably how invasive species and noxious weeds landed in your latte-sipping suburb.
In sum, Ara Dolatian’s Progress and Passivity captures the utopian sentiment but also the pessimism associated with this process of colonial exchange. With the idea of progress having quickly decayed into a perverse ideal that has justified environmental destruction, imperial expansion and human exploitation, it seems appropriate to articulate this notion with forms that are equal parts familiar and unhomely. The terrarium catches this sense of passivity, as it is a decorative item that brought fragments of Britain to the home of many Australians at the cost of irreversible environmental damage. Dolatian registers this deterioration of the colonial dream by building terrariums that seem to have mutated into strange shapes during a nightmarish turn.
Hershey, David R. “Doctor Ward's Accidental Terrarium.” The American Biology Teacher, vol. 58, no. 5, 1996, pp. 276–281
Reflection as Ideological Hallucination, 2016
3 June – 24 July at Incinerator Gallery
The body of work “Reflection as Ideological Hallucination” contains a series of micro biospheres containing local biological materials collected from inner-city manmade parks, ponds, wetlands and water sensitive areas that surround the Incinerator Gallery. The biospheres have the morphology of cells and bacteria combined with architecture speculating a hybrid territory and terrain.
Simultaneously the small local habitats and the miniature biospheres function and have the capacity to sustain a certain amount of biological materials. Any disruption can be intrusive and even ecologically destructive.
The apparatus at the gallery space uses technology to keep the water flowing between three systems presented at different heights, one system contains biological materials, the other two act as a filtration and oxygenating setup. The apparatus gives the illusion of sufficiency; nevertheless the biospheres are inadequate and fragile reflecting on the illusions of autonomy and symbolic artificial constructs
The different structures have the characteristics of a metropolis, seen as an imaginative projection of a new place where commodification of Flora and Fauna is visible. Economic value placed on nature and ecosystems seized by private investors. The landscapes, terrains become inhibited territories, engulfed by visible barriers controlling the flow of biological agents.
We are becoming a geological agent. We have the strength to change the landscape with a growing freedom to manipulate the environment, we may call it freedom, but it’s more or less a marginal act driven by economic desire.
Ara Dolatian July 2016
Exhibition catalogue: Kent Wilson - Terrains 2016
There are reasons for why we like to say that an idea is planted like a seed, or that concepts germinate in our mind, or that an ideology takes root in a society. The fields of our cultural endeavours are the fertile grounds of natural inclinations. While we extract rocks, liquids and gases from deep within the earth and synthesis these into plastic, chemically-bonded artificial substances, we are also repeating patterns born into our own human DNA through millions of years of cyclical realities and complex patterns of growth and decay. We are but monkeys tinkering with the soil and propelling ourselves through time and space to the rhythmic beat of the seasons, the solar orbit and the collective breath of the planetary atmosphere.
Ara Dolatian is a conjurer of systemic overlay – a pattern player and network knitter. Drawing from a deep knowledge of social configuration and finding his expressive outlet in material propositions, Dolatian cleverly communicates forms of information transfer as both self-sustained enclosed system and as self-generating expansive network. Employing a system aesthetic he makes art that uses the system as a type of medium. Something connects to something else, information or data is transferred via that connection, more connections and relationships are articulated, directing more information and data across the system. Feedback loops are built in to allow information to ‘feed back’ on itself and close in certain flows through the system.
Look closely at the choice of materials and you will notice specificities of indigenous flora, of architectural and domestic products and waste. What you might recognise at first as metaphor, as an ecosystem of natural and artificial components, you’ll come to see as scalable expressive reality in and of itself. After all, you are the one bringing life to the plants with your breath and your heat and your quantumated attention on the experimental subject. You are now networked into this system and sustaining it with your physical being. So too the gallery lights, the gallery ventilation system, the finances Dolatian had to raise to pay the exhibition fee, the photos shared out on the internet, and a plethora of invisible pumps and pipes that hold this artwork together and extend its life beyond the room of its display.
Think of the force of gravity working with the electrical currents in the generation of the water cycle in Dolatian’s Terrains. Then think about where the electricity comes from, down the wires in the street that come from the substation in the next suburb that is fed by coal fired in concrete towers in a provincial valley. Think of evaporation, of carbon dioxide and oxygen transfers between plant and animal. Think of domestic ponds and industrial engineering. This is Dolatian’s gift – a molecular structure carefully composed and delicately balanced on an equilibrium of artistic concern and philosophical contemplation.
We are designed to design. We are designed to care and to nurture. We recognise an affinity for life and we want to try to build and grow. Dolatian’s Terrain provides us with contemplative moments that illuminate the factual presence of life before us and the broader expanse of our own networked realities.
Kent Wilson March 2016
Exhibition catalogue: Natalie Kate Kamber - Convergence & Navigating with uncertainty - 2015
The Wound can be Healed Only by the Spear Which Smote It
The historically and culturally conditioned concept of nature and the relationship between man and nature, in its external and internal dimensions, has become one of the crucial concerns in our modern or late-modern age. Confrontation and mutual enrichment between ecological thinking and the wealth of knowledge we owe to psychoanalysis appear to me to be worth exploring and locating, especially with reference to the relationship between mankind and nature that our technological civilization has rendered increasingly problematic.
A psychoanalytic perspective of ecology elucidates the innate kinship between modern, critical ecological thinking and the assumptions on the nature of the human animal and the ‘drives’ underlying Freudian psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud was very interested in Thomas Hobbes’ analysis of Homo homini lupus, which is a Latin phrase meaning "man is a wolf to [his fellow] man", and refers to what he calls the state of nature, whereby people are believed to have behaved in a way comparably in nature to a wolf, the wolf being an aggressive creature, an animal rather than one whom is civilized. Freud made some analysis of the axiom, locating the wolfishness of humanity within the influence in society of instinctual drives and motivations, these things being kept necessarily in check always within, and for the benefit of a civilized world.
Critical ecology engages with the issues posed by a meaningful, ‘sustainable’ design for the relationship between nature and culture; psychoanalysis investigates and engages therapeutically with human self-relations in the field of tension existing between the culture-imprinted and culture-productive self. In applying a psychoanalytic reading to critical ecological thought, my work explores Freud's central concern with the balance or strivings of ‘internal nature’ and the requirements posed by the production of the self via culture and its implications seen in nature.
This work therefore represents the relationship between cultural landscapes and the natural ecosystem. A hybrid ecosystem simultaneously resembles a semi functional apparatus, the model of a utopian city and a biological experiment. It also compares a number of theoretical positions around the use both literally and conceptually of an ‘apparatus’ itself: the Freudian concept of the psychic apparatus (the id, the ego and the superego), with what Slavoj Zizek calls the techno-scientific apparatus. Finally, what I think this work opens up in the end is the possibly that the third apparatus is something different, neither human nor nonhuman but ‘inhuman’.
In the course of history, the accidental relationships between nature and culture have hardened into a dualism. Whatever was wild nature was supposed to be civilized by culture but whatever was culturally molded could not be considered natural. It is through this conceptual antagonism that to this day, we perceive our natural environment. I am reminded here of McKenzie Wark’s post-Marxist account of “shared life,” and his theory that any of its moments amounts to a fetishizing alienation: “Our species-being is lost from shared life when we make a fetish of a particular idea, a particular love, or a particular labour”.
As Zizek puts it:
“The power of human culture is not only to build an autonomous symbolic universe beyond what we experience as nature, but to produce new “unnatural” natural objects which materialize human knowledge. We do not only “symbolize nature”, we—as it were—denaturalize it from within”.
By Natalie Kate Kamber (BLS, MA)
Natalie Kamber completed a MA which examined the politics of pain and victimhood, and the im/possibility of getting over the loss of one’s family, friends and country after war and violence. Her PhD will expand on this, and investigate ‘pain’ in a more complex and comprehensive manner. By using psychoanalytic theory it will examine the pain of loss under Communist Rule in Eastern Europe through a reading of dissident writers and their experience of displacement and exile. It will examine the working-through of subjective/psychic/political trauma, mourning and melancholia through the works of dissident writers Dubravka Ugresic and Herta Muller. It asks whether one can ever bring the couch into the polis? If dissidence only occurs where revolt is facilitated and revolt is engendered, first and foremost, within the realm of subjective interiority. Natalie spent many years working with refugees and asylum seekers who were victims of torture and trauma, and she has spent the past 3 years teaching in political science, sociology, criminology and literary studies at the University of Melbourne. She is also training in Clinical Psychoanalysis with the Australian Centre for Psychoanalysis (ACP).
 Hobbes, Thomas (1991), Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck, New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Sigmund, Freud (1962), Civilization and Its Discontents, [Ed. and Trans.] James Strachey, New York: Norton.
 Zizek, Slavoj (2014), Ecology Against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek onMolecular Red, Blog, Verso Books cited at:
 Wark, McKenzie (2015), Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropopene, Verso, p. 107.
 Zizek, Slavoj (2014), Ecology Against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek onMolecular Red, Blog, Verso Books cited at: