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irrational emotions: on activism and art


Artwork by Sophia Dacy-Cole, 2014. Photo: Timothy Casten

Artwork by Sophia Dacy-Cole, 2014. Photo: Timothy Casten

The culmination of Sophia Dacy-Cole’s residency at Friends of the Earth (FoE) first presented itself to me as its title, Irrational Emotions. The itchy two-word phrase struck me like a mosquito bite and my attempt to navigate a way around it only increased the need to scratch.

Unless the title is tautological or false, it suggests emotions can be either rational or irrational and that the show in question deals with the latter. This assertion conflicts with my use of the two concepts; one is not qualifiable in terms of the other.  Yet I speculated that the phrase refers to mental illness – often described or dismissed as irrationality.

However the converted mezzanine space at FoE housing Dacy-Cole’s installation appears willingly devoid of overt emotional content. The works are not frenetic or ‘hysterical’ as the title might have hinted, but measured and carefully considered, relying exclusively on documentation and found resource material.

Climbing ropes and tools that have been used by environmental activists have been cast in cement containing Gladstone fly ash (a coal combustion residual). The sculptures are contextualised by sprinklings of the ash as well as rubble generated by the casting process. The preservation of this debris suggests archaeological ruin, as though the objects were historical artefacts, records from a time that’s past.

Accompanying the objects are two instances of a selected quote displayed as both a video and an enlarged photocopy. The video includes archival footage of a climb conducted by Quit Coal and the photocopy documents a page from a FoE publication in which the quote appears.

The quote reads:

‘… [FOE] must be studied… in order to appreciate the fanaticism and coercive fantasies that romantic primitive and anti-industrial philosophies contain, and to understand the sources of appeal to the most primitive and irrational emotions’

It is here that the exhibit sources its name. The phrase ‘irrational emotions’ is not used to denote mental illness as I had first anticipated, but to describe a yearning for something that is perhaps unattainable, difficult or anachronistic. We learn from the list of works and materials that the text was first published in The Australian Journal of Mining in 1987 and then quoted in the FoE publication Friends of the Earth: 30 Years of Creative Resistance.

A curious aspect to the use of this text is in its consideration of FoE in retrospect. Not only is the quote itself over 25 years old, but from the way it’s written you’d be forgiven for wondering whether the organisation was still in operation. We are prompted to study FoE not so that we can engage with or support the cause, at least not explicitly or urgently, but so that we might understand it as though it were something in history, something distant from ourselves and the here and now.

Yet FoE is an incredibly alive global network of pragmatic environmental groups striving to address pressing social and environmental concerns in an ongoing effort to shape a sustainable future.

Within the active, future-oriented, working space that is FoE Melbourne we find the contemplative, inoperative qualities of contemporary art. While FoE aims to change the future through actions in the present, Dacy-Cole reflects on the past in resignation to the present. Disconnection from the present moment is a depressive trait and I am reminded of the term ‘irrational emotions’.


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