Last night (Thursday August 18) was the official launch of UNSW Gallery’s Troubled Waters exhibition. There was a huge turnout including students from UNSW Art and Design and the UNSW Science, as well as academics and their friends, colleagues and families. If you haven’t heard about Troubled Waters, it’s the result of a long collaborative process between Professor Richard Kingsford and other members of the Centre for Ecosystems Science, school of BEES. They have been working alongside UNSW Art and Design and local Australian artists to produce works which demonstrate both the natural beauty and the destruction of Australian ecosystems, particularly wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin. Water from the basin is often diverted by dams for irrigation and industry, and this has been shown to massively impact the health and function of wetland systems downstream. The work is featured in “River Journey”, one of three sections of the Troubled Waters exhibition.
One of Kingsford’s long-term projects is to conduct an aerial survey of waterbirds across Eastern Australia. It is one of the few large-scale projects that quantitatively monitors waterbird distribution and abundance, and is a useful tool for detecting changes to the condition of rivers and wetlands. Every year Kingsford gets up in a plane and looks down, counting and identifying all the birds he sees in over 2000 wetlands. The whole process takes about 100 hours of flying time each year, and 2016 will be the 34th year! I spoke to one of Kingsford’s honours students, Jess Rooke, who said that listening to the recordings of one of these flights is very overwhelming.
“When analysing the data you have to slow the recordings down because they are so unbelievably fast. It’s a non-stop train of species names and counts that goes on for hours: 50 Mountain Duck, 500 Grey Teal, 500 Grey Teal, 10 Pelican, 2 Yellow-billed Spoonbill…”
The exhibition, among other things, features actual footage and photographs taken from these surveys, and if you listen carefully, you can hear Kingsford counting.
The show was very engaging. We really got a taste of what the researchers are seeing and doing, and I felt that the artists fully utilised multimedia to interact with their audience. It was was not only visually appealing, but was also educational without being confrontational. The works that struck me most were a series of landscape etchings, in which dead trees are contrasted with with the mirror of water from which they emerge. In one particular photograph, the roots are exposed revealing impossible structures beneath the tree trunk. These images at first sight are beautiful, and then you realise that damming and artificial draining of the area is what has caused the trees to die, and the ground to sink. However, despite the grim subject matter, this exhibition showcases the interesting and important work being undertaken by Kingsford and the Centre for Ecosystems Science that has already informed changes to management policy of the Murray-Darling in recent years. Overall it was a great night, and it’s always fun to share a few drinks with your professors.
Troubled Waters will be showing from August 19- November 5, with guided tours by artists and scientists this Saturday, August 20. For more info, and other exhibitions and events check out UNSW Galleries.