A comment on Aesthetics of Survival

By Dr. Megan Evans, Melbourne based artist, writer and curator, 2006

One could ask what aesthetics has to do with survival? When a friend recently moved into my house for a brief stay, I discovered how much my survival, as an artist, depended on my aesthetic environment. It felt painful to have my aesthetic disrupted by things that seemed unattractive to me. I was unable to explain why it was so important to have things look a certain way. As a non-Indigenous Australian I relate this to my experience of place and realise how different it is to an Indigenous experience. I view my environment. Leonardo Ortega’s work explores the distinction between a European perspective and an Indigenous perspective.

The notion of an Indigenous ‘view of the world’, as a specific and unique perspective, is an element that is being revealed through the investigations of the South Project. In a simplified way it comes down to a relationship to land that is beyond land as real estate. It is about land as ‘self’, something more than a quasi spiritual, sometimes ‘new age’ metaphor.

As we begin to understand more about gene technology we are learning that we can be genetically connected to many things. Indigenous people in Australia are faced with health problems that should shame any first world country with a federal health care system. But when you consider that Indigenous Australians have lived in countries on this continent, living in one place for over 2000 generations, you begin to understand that their ‘health system’ was defined by their genetic connection to and reliance on, the land. Their food was their medicine. When someone had a symptom they ate the right food to deal with that symptom - this was part of lore, story, custom and culture. When Europeans travelled to the other side of the globe they suffered without access to their natural medicines. Their plants and animals were at odds with this new land. When they moved Indigenous peoples off their land in a belief that they weren’t using the resources, they deprived them of their natural medicines. Culture, land and language were all lost with disastrous consequences.

In this context the aesthetics of survival has a very different meaning. So, perhaps aesthetics from an Indigenous perspective is more about ‘being’ rather than ‘seeing’. Given my ancestral history on this land is at most fiv generations I consider my relationship to the land as necessarily superficial. This connection, is like a leaf’s connection to a tree. The

tree is rooted into the ground and draws its very sustenance from the earth. It is through the process of growth; the falling of leaves, the rotting, the feeding of the earth, that the leaf, becomes part of the tree and the land. There have been many dialogues about identity amongst non-Indigenous Australian artists. But wonder why we are so perplexed

by our ‘identity’ if we know where we come from? Perhaps it is because we don’t. Our heritage has been stunted by colonialism. The technology that allowed us to move about the globe robbed us of that heritage.

Ortega’s work is about more than the environment, it is about a value system that is ancient and has survived through aesthetics with the aid of culture. It is through dance, song story, painting, and rituals, both everyday and spiritual, that these values have survived in cultures all over the world. This value system can be seen as a politics of the aesthetic –an aesthetics concerned with the being of human being–. When things look right and feel right at the level of survival we are at one with the planet and ourselves. Ortega is in search of an old wisdom, but he is wise enough to realise that wisdom is not necessarily old, it exists in a contemporary form in many Indigenous cultures across the planet. In his work he warns us to ignore it at our peril. He represents the Indigenous with plants as a way to deconstruct and demystify the ‘noble savage syndrome’ and point to another logic that exists independent of the rational Cartesian model of the world.

A logic that is sustained by the land.

Indomite (1).

Article written by Leonardo Ortega in 2007 for ArtLink Magazine, Volume 27 #2, The South Issue, New Horizons.

I have always felt a deep fascination during the contemplation of what we call ‘nature’, its circular logic, its monumentality, its disorderly perfection. In my first artistic journey, to the Brazilian rainforest, 10 years ago, I painted the fruits, the trees, the people of the bush. The landscape always opened a question the size of the universe in my mind and along with it the infantile fantasy of a different reality from that of my own, one lacking excessive apparatus and less separate from the rest of what is living. It seems to me today, when sitting down with Aboriginal people – whose customs so nearly resemble that fantasy – and when talking with them, that there is the possibility of an answer to that unutterable question. I admire the fact that during thousands of years of history, the tribes of this region of the world, like those of so many other places, learnt to use what the environment offers, actively working and changing it, like using fire, but in a way so as not to risk the extinction of any species or damaging the fine balance of relations (2). I ask myself then, how can I read into their words, to drink from them the liquid knowledge that I intuit and seek? I don’t know how much of that knowledge is left –much of it is secret– I can’t avoid the speculation, and I am not even free of that mistake which made, and still makes, these people fall prey to the misunderstanding of being measured with the standards belonging to the so-called ‘progress’ of European civilisation. The task implies an effort to open the mind to the reality of another one. According to our contemporary epistemology this is, in any case, an impossible task. 

In 2000 I had the opportunity to know Nicolasa Quintremán Calpán, member and figure of the Pewenche(3) community of Ralco-Lepoy, in the highlands of the Bío-Bío river valley, in the south of Chile. The ex-National Company of Electrical Energy (ENDESA), privatised during the military dictatorship (in a process of privatisation of Chilean State companies which has been referred to as the Looting (4) and finally sold to Spanish transnational company ENERSIS, was taking on a great hydroelectric project at the Bío-Bío valley, that involved the removal of hundreds of Pewenches from their ancestral lands and their relocation to two ranches the company arranged for that purpose. Nicolasa and her siblings, along with a few other families, resisted leaving their lands and had been fighting for years against the power of the gigantic company in different ways, including several legal methods. I asked Nicolasa about the reasons for her fight and she tried to explain her spiritual engagement with that landscape, about the spirit of the river, the volcano, forests and gods… all these would be lost forever under the dam water, including the cemetery with the Pewenches’ ancestors’ tombs. The rain struck the ruka’s (5) roof and the wind breezed through the gaps between the axe-cut wooden planks of the walls, stirring a little the smoke of the fire that maintained the warmth in the room. I admired the determination of this elderly woman who for long years stood against the same power that has defeated so many people in so many places around the world, where the people tried to resist the demonic forces that impel the wheels of the tragedy of development. (6) I asked her where she finds her strength and she spoke to me about knowledge, she criticised the custom of writing and said that they think with both head and heart(7); and when the two are in alignment, then they know. I asked her about the alternative of a more ‘modern’ life, with better comforts. 

"Comfort, ENDESA always says" –she answered. "Comfort in my culture is this. You see? Look at my fire. When it’s very cold I put two big logs on and then puff! That is my native culture, brother. Then it seems like I have my parents standing beside me and I think thus: This is the way I was brought up and this is the way I’m supposed to be." 

With that background I came to Australia, full of wrong ideas about its big cities, some information about the abuses against Aboriginal people while developing modern Australia i.e. Stolen Generation, Deaths in Custody; but mainly a big ignorance about many aspects of reality as lived in Aboriginal communities. Nowadays, being a media trainer in the ‘remote area’, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many communities and to establish some level of friendship with some Aboriginal people. Material collected while preparing INDOMITE, and that collected for another version of INDOMITE shown at Galería Metropolitana, Santiago in January 2007, accumulates as a process of learning. 

In May 2006, I brought living plants with me from Central Australia to Melbourne, to be used as a representation of the rich knowledge held by desert people. To the video interviews of Aboriginal activists I did in the main cities, I mixed a sequence of gathering and preparation of irmankga-irmangka medicine by elder Kumenjai Militjari at Mimili Community. Then, I took the plants, along with timers, electricity, hoses, water and chemicals and tried to set up a device for self-reflection. 

The transit between the Western cities, which I consider as the core of my own culture, to the very outer boundaries of our world, where we can find others, deeply rooted in something different, and sit down with them and communicate about our approaches to reality, is the main material of my work. I try to document diverse human subjectivities in a world that tends to homogenise those experiences. I try to rescue difference in a time when equality has stopped being a real humanistic value. My actual works are the chronicles of a man living in the late period of an unfinished and cruel colonial epoch.


1 Indomite. \In*dom”ite\, a. [L. indomitus.] Not tamed; untamed; savage; wild. Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. No tiger so fierce…no not any creature, so indomite, but that it was subject to man’s dominion, while man were subject to his Lord and Maker. Salkeld, John. ‘A treatise of paradise’ 1617. 

2 Peter K. Latz Bushfires and Bushtucker, Aboriginal plant use in Central Australia IAD Press, Alice Springs, 1995.

3 Pewenche: cultural branch of Mapuche nation, one of the aboriginal peoples of Chile and Argentina. Mapu means earth, che means people. Pewén is the fruit from Araucaria Chilensis tree, traditional Pewenche dietary basis.

4 María Olivia Monckeberg El Saqueo de los grupos económicos al Estado de Chile (The Looting by economic groups of the Chilean State), Ediciones B, Santiago, 2001.

5 Ruka, Mapuche house, traditionally built up from a circular base, with a fire in the middle and a hole in the roof, made of wood and adobe (clay and hay), with impermeable hay in the roof.

6 Berman, Marshall, All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982.

7 The word for ‘heart’ that Nicolasa used in Mapuzungún (Mapuche language) that day, sounds approximately like pewke.