Sanctuary of the Unseen forest with 2 visitors - Eugene Hyland
'Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest' in Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, installation view, ACMI 2024. Photo by Eugene Hyland

Exhibitions like Works of Nature challenge the 'nature vs culture' split in Western thinking and point us towards Indigenous notions of "we" and "us".

The difficulty lies in the very expression 'relation to the world', which presupposes two sorts of domains, that of nature and that of culture, domains that are at once distinct and impossible to separate completely.

Bruno Latour

The philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour (1947–2022) studied how networks of actors, both human and non-human, form and influence the construction of scientific knowledge, social institutions and environmental issues [1]. When I was visiting the exhibition Works of Nature by Marshmallow Laser Feast, quotes from his books We Have Never Been Modern (1991) [2] and Reassembling the Social (2005) [3] sprang to mind several times.

Contemporary digital technologies have become a tool to challenge the colonial hierarchy of knowledge and the opposition 'nature vs culture'. As Latour emphasised the interrelation of the human and non-human, Works of Nature similarly guides us through a sensory journey that transcends individual experience and highlights our collective responsibility for the planet and each other.

Bruno Latour - long shot

Bruno Latour. Photo by by Nelson Oliveira licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.

Works of Nature delves into the profound split between nature and culture, a split steeped in contradiction and contemplation. The artwork 'Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest' prompted me to reflect on the relationships between the self and nature. On a vast screen you observe the process of breathing in a complex ecosystem centred in the majestic Columbian kapok tree. The elegantly visualised circulation of oxygen and carbon dioxide – the same substances that you inhale and exhale while standing in front of the artwork – naturally prompted me to ask myself the question helpfully written on the wall nearby: "Do you know where this kapok tree ends, and you begin?"

In front of this installation, I was struck by the notion of our responsibility as inhabitants and shapers of the Earth. As a Latin American academic working on the other side of the world, I couldn't help reflecting on some sobering figures: the annual rate of deforestation in the Amazon in 2022 was estimated at 11,568 km² [4]. For context, the Daintree – the largest rainforest in Australia – covers an area of 1,200km². As we grapple with the repercussions of climate change, biodiversity loss, and the depletion of natural resources, the split between nature and culture requires our attention as well. A better understanding of the intricate web of life would help us reveal the fragility of the ecosystems on which we depend.

A young boy enjoying 'Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest' Marshmallow Laser Feast, Works of Nature Photo by Eugene Hyland

'Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest' in Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, installation view, ACMI 2024. Photo by Eugene Hyland

Nature vs Culture within Indigenous knowledge

Within the colonial hierarchy of knowledge "we, the knowers; others, the believers", nature is perceived as "other" [5], and the process of "othering" involves creating a sense of alienation between humans and the natural world, often through cultural, social and economic practices. When nature is othered, there are often negative implications for biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability.

Works of Nature reminds me about the notion of nature in Indigenous knowledge. One of my favourite scholars – Marisol de la Cadena – specialises in Indigenous Quechan culture. In her writing, she encourages non-indigenous people to challenge their models of knowledge in order to understand the relativity of nature in the indigenous paradigm [6], and move away from othering models. Marisol emphasises the need for a complex "we", composed of both "us" and "them" in a partially connected time and place, where difference gives way to divergence, defining the essence of each individual [7]. This complex "we" merges "us" and "them", recognising that even in divergence, there could be symbiosis. Unlike the simplistic notion of "we", the complex "we" encompasses what exceeds the boundaries of the conventional understanding of self. And that, in fact, is one of the messages of Works of Nature: to experience the lack of boundary between self and nature by proposing a complex "we".

However, I'd like to be very careful when talking of a complex "we" beyond Western individualism. Interpreting Indigenous knowledge is not simply a matter of translating or understanding it through an outsider's lens: it requires an awareness of power dynamics, historical contexts and the limitations of outsider perspectives. Non-indigenous interpretations of Indigenous knowledge can often lead to misrepresentations and even appropriation. I find this particularly compelling as more often New Age spirituality appropriates cultural practices rooted in self-healing. In the name of blurring nature-human boundaries, New Age communities travel to understand the interconnectedness of nature and the self. For instance, in different parts of Latin America including my hometown Tepic in Nayarit, Mexico, we have had an influx of Westerners seeking to understand the Indigenous notion of nature by simply expropriating Indigenous cultural practices: designs of traditional arts and crafts are copied and mass-produced in China and the sacred healing ceremony of Ayahuasca is being sold to tourists like a theme park entertainment [8].

Works of Nature offers a mindful approach to the Indigenous comprehension of nature, though it still requires respect and awareness in the eyes of the beholder.

What is the role of technology?

Works of Nature, ironically, wouldn't be possible without modern technology. 'The Journey of Breath' – a room scale video installation – uses digital particles to illustrate the way oxygen travels through our bodies. I was captivated by this contrast: the sleek, futuristic exhibition showing the raw process of breath within human flesh and blood. There again, I thought that embracing tech to blur the boundaries between society and nature should be done mindfully and with respect. As Bruno Latour said, "We would be better off thinking of nature as a tiger rather than as a docile and compliant automaton that can never threaten our survival." This implies a recognition of nature's power and agency unlike the colonial attitude we are used to. 'The Journey of Breath' portrays nature in its complexity and independence, the digital particles representing molecules of oxygen are just a means of expression, yet ingenious and graceful ones.

Two young women in Marshmallow Laser Feast Eugene Hyland

'The Journey of Breath' in Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, installation view, ACMI 2024. Photo by Eugene Hyland

Hector Manuel Padilla Gil is a Latin American academic currently working at RMIT. With a focus on fostering climate adaptive and resilient housing solutions, his research delves into the relationship between society and materials. His professional background includes teaching Environmental Philosophy, providing him with a profound understanding of the interplay between nature, science and human experiences. In his free time, Hector is committed in setting up off-grid living arrangements in the southwest coast of Mexico.

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