A chlorophyll goddess, sprouting leaves from her head like Medusa’s snakes, births a flaming deity dressed in butterfly wings. A chorus line of hybrid creatures traverses a verdant landscape suddenly overshadowed by storm clouds, or smoke. Dancing figures divide and multiply in kaleidoscopic patterns, replicated across two mirrored side-by-side screens. In The Gods of Tiny Things, Deborah Kelly creates an animated collage that reflects upon climate change and environmental destruction, envisioning its possible ramifications. In a speculative future, hybrid beings generated by the excesses of settler profligacy cavort and collapse in a vulnerable landscape.
The animated entities in The Gods of Tiny Things emerged from a collaborative collage workshop held in 2018 on the unceded lands of the Wodi Wodi/Yuin people (New South Wales). Kelly put out an open call for participants for a collage camp at Bundanon Trust. Living and working together for a week, a group of artists and musicians experimented with the artist’s collection of abandoned books and ephemera, creating a collective of characters.
Made in this collaborative environment, the deities in The Gods of Tiny Things have specific histories and intentions. For instance, participating artist Joanne Albany, a Kalkadoon woman, created the two characters who bookend the work. The first appears at the beginning, a vulnerable body with a waratah flower in place of her face, wearing part of a British military uniform, at once a colonised and colonising figure. The second is an ancestral being comprised of bones and a death mask, who holds the disembodied faces of unidentified, possibly stolen, First Peoples within her skirts. Her teetering yet powerful, dancing body suggests survival of the violent histories and ongoing trauma of invasion.
In another opening sequence, Alana Ambados’s oracle portends an ominous future. Threatened animals such as the ocelot appear, while foxgloves and cats’ eyes multiply across the screen, invoking the ravages of feral flora and fauna. References from art history books and monuments of western culture are torn down, ripped apart and made anew. Justin Ashworth gave Michelangelo’s David the head of a sand shark, shiny bling and and a great swinging clock, while Lex Lindsay created a muscular hybrid of bodybuilder and blue-ringed octopus with wriggling tentacles, the hyper-masculinity of these characters signifying the depredations of the patriarchy. Meanwhile, a reproduction of Francesco Laurana’s 1470 Bust of a Woman cut from the pages of a 1920s art encyclopaedia – with Albertus Seba’s blood-toned coral creeping up her throat and moth wings created from drawings by colonial-era botanical illustrators Harriet and Helena Scott – births a multitude of eggs, producing a vivid metaphor for the collapse of history and suggesting the obliteration of this fragile environment by unchecked expansionism.
Given life and movement by animator Melody Pei Li, the figures dance and twirl across the screens, accompanied by a sound composition designed by Justin Ashworth. Central to the restless energy of the work, the score includes an orchestra of clicking Stanley knives wielded by the members of the collage camp, as well as the discordant sounds of a grand piano filled with discarded books, played by Lex Lindsay. In re-animating and reinterpreting images from these obsolete publications and classical monuments, The Gods of Tiny Things creates its own histories. In this reflected and refracted world, where hybrid figures multiply and collapse into one another, binaries refract and shatter.
The work builds on the roots of earlier animated collages made by Kelly, including Beastliness (2012) and LYING WOMEN (2016). Beastliness, a queer feminist imagining, contains the high-heeled legs and disembodied lips of women cut from the pages of magazines and given new life as riotous hybrid animals, unruly and fierce. In LYING WOMEN, reclining nudes of the western art canon are liberated from the pages of art history books, their supine bodies offered relief from long-held constraints as multiple printed versions swarm across the screen.
As the animated collages build on one another, The Gods of Tiny Things itself can be seen as generative: its first iteration was projected onto two giant boulders covered in rock orchids in a natural amphitheatre, in an atmospheric installation as part of Bundanon Trust’s spring festival SITEWORKS in 2018. Since then, the second iteration has been shown in multiple international film festivals and most recently as a two-channel installation in The National 2021: New Australian Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Here at ACMI, where the mirrored floor refracts the image even further, audiences are invited into an immersive and disorientating space.
Envisioning the collective as a potent social model for change, collaboration is at the heart of Kelly’s practice. Her distinctive collage-based projects are often created through these participatory workshops, in a slow, labour-intensive and contemplative process.
Kelly has a long-established practice of collage workshops, notably for the making of No Human Being Is Illegal (in all our glory) (2014–19) for the 19th Biennale of Sydney, in which around 100 participants worked together in relays, interpreting and cutting images from discarded encyclopaedias, reference books and magazines. Across nine months of collage workshops, participants listened to the words of twenty portrait subjects while gluing paper cut-outs over their life-sized photographs. This collaborative process slows time, allowing the exchange of ideas and intimacy within a non-hierarchical structure.
During the making of The Gods of Tiny Things, the group listened to the writings of Bruce Pascoe, Ellen van Neerven, Donna Haraway and Leonora Carrington, and watched Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki. Sustained listening and looking together sparked countless connections between collage camp participants, their materials and making.
By practising collaboration in this way, Kelly explicitly chooses the collective as a form of political protest or action. In 2001, the collective boat-people.org, which she helped found, projected an image of a First Fleet ship onto the Sydney Opera House, with the words ‘Boat People’. The unauthorised projection was enacted as a protest against the federal government’s (continued) inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, drawing attention to the 1788 invasion of this country by boat and subverting the insidious use of the phrase “boat people” to describe asylum seekers and refugees. On 4 June 2009, Kelly created a twentieth anniversary memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, through a work entitled Tank Man Tango. Video instructions to choreography based on the actions of the anonymous Tank Man were distributed online in four languages, and participants performed a dispersed, dancing monument in countries around the world.
The artist’s latest work is the co-operative, cumulative founding of a crowd-sourced religion called CREATION. It is a multi-disciplinary, invitational project that will continue to expand on and generate the ideas expounded throughout her practice. She describes CREATION as a response to climate change denialism, political inaction, the excesses of capitalism, and a lack of faith in leadership, proposing the new religion as an inclusive and insurgent alternative: something to believe in, at last.
– Julia Murphy