Tourism & Society Vs. Utopian Ideals

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

What makes people chase that utopian destination and what happens when they get there?

Since 2013 I have been interested in how humans interact with the natural world, and have found myself investigating islands – isolated islands, World Heritage islands.

The first island I visited was Lord Howe Island, 600 nautical miles off the east coast of Australia. I have been visiting this island since 2001. The large main island and several small outer islands form a National Park and World Heritage Site. In 1987, the local governing body decided to limit the number of tourist beds on the island to 400. Thankfully today, they have only 398 beds so aside from walking trails, the place remains relative untouched. It’s wonderful, except for the ocean pollution; a continuous stream of flotsam and jetsam washes up on the shores. In 2014, as part of an onsite residency, I collected the debris to see what was there. I was methodical; I selected three beaches, and went on three walks, picking up everything I saw. This resulted in my artwork Corpses of the Everyday (shown above), a continuous stream of text just like the continuous stream of debris that washes up on these beaches.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands, 600 nautical miles off the coast of Ecuador. Like Lord Howe Island, the Galapagos are designated as a World Heritage Site, but unlike Lord Howe, they appear to have no “real” restriction on the number of tourists who visit it. In my research, I was shocked to find out that in 1990, 40,000 people visited. Ten years later in 2000, 60,000 tourists stepped upon its shores. When I visited in 2014, a staggering 215,691 tourists from 159 countries clambered to see this “utopian” ideal of evolution. My two-week journey traveling on the Cachalote, which carried 14 tourists, was pretty standard. However, there are larger vessels that carry up to 100 tourists at a time. On any given day, 95 ships are circling the archipelago. This is not a small problem. Each ship has a water desalination plant on board so travelers like me can have fresh water, creating (in my analysis) a problem with the brine discharge. These ships are required to anchor in the same place at each island so the cumulative effect could be catastrophic to this fragile environment. It was possible to see the beginning of these effects already.

I was left feeling that I needed to bring light to this issue. The tourists are, with the government’s help, slowly destroying that which they covet. So, I created Towards Dystopia. This work is not just about the Galapagos but also about Lord Howe, about islands connected by water currents across the globe.  It takes the problem of desalination and uses a process of water purification as part of its core.

A petri dish sits on the floor. In it, a coral ceramic form resembles favia speciosa, unique to Lord Howe Island. The dish is filled with highly saline water and its content is pumped into an adjacent fish tank. Filled with the debris collected from Lord Howe, this tank works like a window to the unseen world.  Water flows to a tea urn, a metaphor for contemporary society in all its banality and inertia. The tank heats the water which then flows back to the dish, a closed water circuit flowing in the same way the South Pacific currents flow from the Galapagos to Lord Howe Island.  A projection of an air bubble floating to the surface from a reef travels across the screen, reinforcing the utopian holiday.

My discussion here is not just about the plastic that can be seen in the tank or its ominous shadow on the wall, but also about hidden elements. Each ceramic has the text from Corpses of the Everyday written on its surface. It is small, yet its presence is a reminder of the plastic we don’t see, the small pieces that remain hidden, the micro-plastics.

In January 2017, I decided to explore just how far our influence had gone and went with the not-for-profit group Ninth Wave to Antarctica. It was not an ordinary 19-day trip as we were beset by storms. However, we did manage to spend 2.5 days on Deception Island.

My reason for traveling there was the need to bring our everyday world and contemporary lives to this place of isolation, and confront our impact. The video/sound installation Deception uses videos I collected from street corners of various cities around the globe. Projected onto a melting glacier/ice floe, these images of our contemporary worlds – street scenes showing the everyday movement of our lives – open up a dialogue around the role of contemporary society in global warming, and how remote places are being affected.

These works with their interdisciplinary, eco-critical vision, transcend the traditional boundaries between sciences and the humanities.

Deception is about deception. It is not just the name of the place where the work was recorded, but it is the way we, as a society, deceive ourselves so as to not see what we know to be true. The deception of our governments is in not taking strong and immediate action. The deception of the oil industry is in working to hide the impact of its practices.

Given Australia’s history and ongoing presence in Antarctica, Deception is just one part of a greater dialogue intended to increase awareness of our actions, which have a ‘butterfly effect’ on such a remote, utopian destination – a place one would expect to be unaffected by our society. This work and the resulting exhibition show how we are effecting and affecting Deception Island. Because of its isolation and surrounding waters, it and its wildlife, remain virtually invisible to our world.

(Top image: Corpses of the Everyday, 2015. Catalogue of collected debris from Lord Howe Island, hand-stenciled on clear builder’s plastic 3600 x 5000 mm.)

Lea Kannar-Lichtenberger, MA, MFA, (Sydney College of the Arts) is an artist exploring the connections between science and art. Lea’s art works were recently shown at the Jane Goodall Foundation Symposium Brussels, Stunning Edge Exhibition Taiwan, the New York Hall of Science, Harbour Sculpture (Sydney), Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize and in her recent Solo Exhibition Deception at Accelerator Gallery Ultimo. Since 2014 Lea has been delivering papers that relate to her research and resulting artworks, at conferences including Affective Habitat ANU in Canberra; 2015; AESS at UCSD San Diego CA; ISEAHK2016, Hong Kong; Arts in Society at UCLA Los Angeles CA and lectured at Spektrum (in association with Art Laboratory) Berlin.

About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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