The title of Roderick Camilleri’s current exhibition, Ecotopiasrecalls Ernest Callenbach’s utopian novel, and perhaps, on a secondary level, the 1987 Ecotopia Oregon Chamber Jazz Quartet album. In the fictional society of the novel, the members struggle for a balance between themselves and nature, a view which, in today’s world of frantic selfishness and environmental disasters, this novel, published in 1975, gradually looks more like a chimera.
Humanity is not featured in this collection of artwork in various media as the artist focuses on the beauty of uncorrupted nature, far from the ravages that have brought the planet to the brink of ecological catastrophe, more in tune with the dystopian pessimism of Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
The artist strives to create a discourse on ecological balance and environmental management against the constant search for consumption and appropriation of the implicit consumer society. Ecotopias is still part of his socio-ecological approach that defines his work.
Huxley said, “Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.” Humanity, through its age-old quest for unquenchable progress, has lost sight of the Garden of Eden. Human beings are the devils in this equation of damnation, draining the planet of its resources and acting like parasites, excreting waste and pollution as a byproduct.
Ecotopias is a painful reminder, with its intrinsic poetic beauty, whispering like a prayer, hushed and contemplative. Camilleri remarks, “Through visual tropes of natural life forms and organic compositions, these works reveal topies or habitats where nature prevails.
Camilleri is in a search for authenticity and a constant struggle to spread thought and consciousness, to infuse audiences with a sense of consciousness and thought through his artistic expression. The call to action, an underlying characteristic of artists concerned with the degradation of the environment around them, is secondary in this case.
Trees dominate the pristine landscapes, suggesting prehistoric or post-apocalyptic centuries. The planet’s paleogeology indicates that the planet reinvented and renewed itself many times, a wandering asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, other life forms exploiting this hierarchical vacuum and eventually taking over, the last of the list being Homo sapiens.
We realize that no utopia is possible if humanity does not revalorize itself and rid itself of the mass hysteria of nationalism, ideology and established religion, while denouncing its self-proclaimed centrality in the great thematic diagram, an error propagated by the three monotheistic religions. A harmonious coexistence with our fellow human beings is what is the basis of Far Eastern religions, in particular Buddhism, which denounces the concept of humanity conquering nature.
In this exhibition, Camilleri delivers an alternative message away from the dystopia that has characterized some of her previous exhibitions. Ecotopias is in search of an ecological utopia, a redemption from the human-induced mess we experience every day. It shows a way out of the disastrous bottleneck, to re-engage with nature as our ancestors once did.
Through visual tropes of natural life forms and organic compositions, these works reveal ethereal topies or habitats where nature prevails.
Camilleri’s work resonates deeply with a symbiotic interconnectedness of everything, expressed through the sensitive and restrained palette, “imaginative biospheres” straddling the lines between abstraction and representation. They evoke a spiritual well-being that can be found in the paintings of Odilon Redon, who once said: “My drawings inspire, and do not define themselves. They place us, like music, in the ambiguous realm of the indeterminate,” music from spheres that so-called progress and industrial revolutions have stained with overwhelming dissonance.
The Maltese multidisciplinary artist suggests that the response to humanity’s descent into the underworld of his own creation is a recalibration of priorities, to resort to a kind of “affirmative action” that aggressively tackles the madness of industries that upset the precarious balance of natural ecosystems.
“Artistic expression revolves around a desire for a better place and/or an artistic representation of alternative places where the natural environment is given its due role and value”, emphasizes Camilleri , the concern for ecological transformation and sustainability being the soul of its general and global artistic expression.
Carlo Mattioli is the artist who devoted most of his work to the representation of trees in their natural environment of the Italian Pianura Padana. In the case of the Italian artist, the trees are representations of actual trees, deeply rooted in the ecology of this large patch of land covering most of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. The contrasts are sometimes striking, the trees represented as empirical components of a barely undulating landscape, in which the flora appears sparse and worthy of respect.
Camilleri’s trees integrate and merge with their surroundings, while occupying space and shaping new landscapes. They create a seamless narrative, an invocation, of uncontaminated peace, reminiscent of the words of American novelist Richard Powers in his masterpiece The dominant story“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures — bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful — make the decisions, make the air, and eat the sunlight. Without them, nothing. We are actually loudmouths in the natural order of things, troublemakers prone to self-destruction. Creation would be much better off without us.
Quoting the exhibition’s mission statement: “These works reveal the artist’s mental images linked to his constant concern to draw attention to socio-ecological messages, to recreate modes of expression that promote a better understanding awareness of ecological balance, to promote empathy, reflection and better connectivity between human and non-human communities of life.
It is very sad and quite ironic that we have to go against the grain to become one with nature. Humanity recognizes today that it is on the road to disaster, tackling problems with half-baked efforts and through ever-changing timelines for a carbon-neutral world. Through this exhibition, Camilleri shows that it doesn’t have to be so, if we open our eyes and relieve the world of its 21st century madness.
Ecotopias, curated by Melanie Erixon for Art Sweven and hosted by Mqabba’s Il-Kamra ta’ Fuq, until July 11. Check the event’s Facebook page for opening hours.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.