Creative Community: How art contributes to ecological issues

20 July 2016

For Senior Lecturer Jon Bywater, being an art critic is a responsibility. Within Elam School of Fine Arts, this manifests through the encouragement and development of critical thought in his students; questioning and understanding art’s role in the world. This is coupled with a wider obligation to the community. "I believe in the potential of art," Jon says. "Not all art is good, but art has the potential to be good, and to do good. As an art critic, you're interested in drawing attention to things which are succeeding – sometimes through discovering new possibilities. I see it as a pleasure – and a responsibility, but a fun one."

Having served as a judge of the prestigious Walter's Prize several times in the last decade, Jon is bringing his expertise and a personal passion to the Estuary Art Awards, hosted by Uxbridge's Malcom Smith Gallery. The awards, now in their tenth year, are the only contemporary art prize in the country with a focus on ecological issues. This year, entrants were asked to produce a work responding to the Tāmaki Estuary in East Auckland. Jon was invited to adjudicate the awards through a professional connection, and keenly accepted. "I am personally interested in ecological issues, and in the question of how artists can respond to them," Jon says of why the awards appealed to him. "The issue of what it means to live in a place, to relate to a local landscape, never really goes away. It's a rich topic for artists to respond to. Having this as the purpose of the award gives it a distinctive character."

Art can play a vital role in wider ecological, social and political issues, according to Jon. "What role could art play, as a specialised minority interest activity, in relation to something as urgent and important as climate change, for example?" he asks. "The meaningful contribution comes through paying attention to the subtleties – new forms of feeling and ways of thinking can be presented." He cites French philosopher Bruno Latour, who has suggested that critique may have 'run out of steam' in relation to issues such as climate change. Therefore, the gravity of the situation needs to be delivered via different methods. Jon agrees. "Art itself is not going to save us, but it is true that art is a place where ideas can be developed and then further utilised in mainstream contexts."

For the Tāmaki Estuary in particular, there has been considerable local attention brought to the state of the waterway, its role and future within the local community. "There are some very well known facts about the issues facing the estuary," Jon says. "I might not have been personally familiar with the levels of zinc in the water, for example, but this is something else art can do; provide information in a different way. It may keep something at the forefront of our thought; it might remind us of something we had forgotten; or it might show us something we didn’t know or hadn't considered. My role in judging the submissions was to see how well these facts and issues were communicated." The works were each supported through an artist statement, giving Jon context and insight into the thought process of each artist, touching on how they believe their work could provide a meaningful contribution to the situation.

Jon reviewed over 90 entries via digital files, and selected 34 works for installation as part of the final exhibition. "There was a mixture of popular forms and genre-based work, some quite traditional and others very contemporary," he recalls. The Estuary Art Awards exhibition will open with an awards ceremony on 28 July, once he has had the chance to review the physical works in situ. "Certain pieces have caught my imagination and I am looking forward to my final consideration to see how they present in the gallery context,"Jon says of his impending final decision.

Jon will be speaking about the selected exhibiting artworks as part of a public programme in August. He is looking forward to engaging not only with the gallery public, but also more in-depth with the Tāmaki Estuary conversation. The community facet of the award is not lost on him. "It's important to me to be able to contribute to things like this," he tells. "I enjoy being involved with something which is based in a broader notion of art. It's important to recognise that good art can and is being made at a community level, and it has something to contribute to a conversation like this. The Walter's Prize may be the fine dining of the New Zealand art world, but that doesn't mean there aren’t satisfying meals being cooked at home," he laughs.

The Estuary Art Awards opening commences at 6.30pm, Thursday 28 July, where Jon will award the prizes. Be sure to follow Malcolm Smith Gallery on Facebook and Instagram for snippets of the exhibition and public programmes. For more information, visit the Uxbridge website.