Artist and activist HAYDEN FOWLER on the Australian bushfires

Artist and activist HAYDEN FOWLER on the Australian bushfires

After his recent encounter with the Australian bushfires, Sydney based artist and activist Hayden Fowler wrote an intimate letter in which he calls us all to foster a culture of life rather than death. Ecological loss and its effects on the human psyche have been ever-present themes in his work.

Provoked by exploitive industrial practices in the devastation of the environment, Fowler’s melancholic yet very poetic works and performances lament the relationship between capitalism, humanity and the natural world.

In line with the ideas of Donna Haraway (“staying with the trouble“), Fowlers works suggest that before anything else we must cultivate responsibility that works and feels for both the human and the non-human.

Hayden Fowler, Together Again
Hayden Fowler, Dingo, Performance, Sydney Contemporary 2017

The Australian Bushfires.
Hayden Fowler – Sydney – January 2020.

The unprecedented and catastrophic fires of Australia come as no surprise to many.

They are just the latest manifestation of the ecological and cultural destruction that has unfolded across Australia under European occupation.

But, they are also something new. Not just in their ferocity and scale, but in their triggering of a profound and far-reaching human reckoning.

As I returned to Australia this week, I descended into a smokey haze.. the ashes of countless sacred places and sacred creatures mixed with the toxic stench of burnt cars, burnt plastics, burnt houses and burnt roads.

Thousands of birds, like this Rainbow Lorikeet, washed up dead  amongst charcoal on Mallacoota beach, January 2020. Photo: Justin McManus.
Thousands of birds, like this Rainbow Lorikeet, washed up dead  amongst charcoal on Mallacoota beach, January 2020. Photo: Justin McManus.

Like so many of my friends, I finally wept, deeply and unconsolably.

Precursors to these fires have been creeping, ominous and equally horrifying in scale.

In 2019, 25,000 spectacled fruit bats (a third of their entire population) died of heat exhaustion in a single day. Since 2016, more than 50% of the great barrier reef (the Earths largest living entity) has died due to ocean heating, the prognosis for the rest is essentially terminal.

In the Southern summer of 2018-19, millions of fish died in a series of mass die-offs in Australia’s iconic Murray- Darling river system, now toxic and de-oxygenated.

So far this summer at least one billion native animals have been burnt or choked to death in the wild fires – a figure that doesn’t include bats, insects and amphibians.

Estaurine Swamp with burnt forest in background, photo credit: Hayden Fowler
Estaurine Swamp with burnt forest in background, photo credit: Hayden Fowler

There are predictions that hundreds of species may be made extinct by this disaster.

These are losses for which there can be no realistic hope for natural recovery in the face of what’s coming. And certainly not within whatever remains of our own human history.

Irreversible mass extinction and ecological collapse

Photographic work of Australian artist Bonita Ely, responding to the mass fish die-off. | Menindee Fish Kill, January 2019, Artist: Bonita Ely; photographer: Melissa Williams-Brown
Photographic work of Australian artist Bonita Ely, responding to the mass fish die-off. | Menindee Fish Kill, January 2019, Artist: Bonita Ely; photographer: Melissa Williams-Brown
Artist and activist HAYDEN FOWLER on the Australian bushfires 6

These are not the early stages of mass extinction and ecological collapse..

we are already far down that line.

The majority of earths wildlife and ecosystems have been destroyed and consumed by industrial Modernity, most of the worlds megafauna destroyed before that.

The nature that remains is depleted, fragmented, fragile and forever changed.
This depth of environmental grief is not new either.

It has existed for centuries. Aboriginal Australians, like most indigenous peoples of the world have been suffering a perpetual grief since the first moments that Europe invaded their beaches.

Large surviving goanna (approx 1.5 metres in length), Photo credit: Hayden Fowler

Generations of genocide and dispossession; denial of cultural duty to country; and witnessing the desecration of a land and nature they had been embedded in for one hundred thousand years.

The complexity and intimacy of their environmental knowledge, science and philosophy is likely beyond most Western imagination.

The complexity and depth of their grief, even more so. Although perhaps now, many others have had a glimpse of a comparable pain.

Areas with complete burning, including forest canopy, photo credit: Hayden Fowler
Areas with complete burning, including forest canopy, photo credit: Hayden Fowler

Over the past weeks I have been relentlessly haunted.

Flooded by the memories of each and every profound encounter I’ve ever had with an animal in Australia’s forests and bush lands.

The depth and intimacy of our exchange replaying in my mind as I lay awake with an aching heart.

Of all the ways I’ve imagined this unfolding, this suffering and loss of wild animals was beyond my imagination.

To re-inhabit a culture of life rather than death.

Within these depths of my own despair, a life-time of environmental grief and anxiety has definitively shifted. It has crossed a new line.

A place where enduring loss and sadness is finally accepted, embodied, and galvanised into a recognition of absolute duty, to our planet, our biosphere, and to each other – plant, animal, river or human.

This can be our only purpose, to try and save everything we hold dear and help it to flourish. To focus on what has real meaning, to turn away from what human ‘civilisation’ has been reduced to.

To re-embody our own power, kindness and empathy. To feel ourselves recover and flourish alongside the forests.

To re-inhabit a culture of life rather than death.

Hayden Fowler – Sydney – January 2020

All projects and latest news about Hayden Fowler´s work can be found on his website.