Introduction by Professor Michael Gillings, Macquarie University
I became a Biologist because I am fascinated by the natural world. Its colour and its beauty, its serenity and chaos, its constant surprises; all provide an endless source of discovery, enlightenment and contemplation.
My two favourite places on the planet are the deep red deserts of Central Australia, and the crystalline blue of the Great Barrier Reef. People often think this is a curious combination. But to me, these places have many similarities. Both have an amazing diversity of organisms. Both are vast and ancient ecosystems. Both are some of the last wild places, distant from the crush of human population.
But both of these ecosystems, distant and isolated as they are, cannot escape the influence of human activity. And as a biologist, I cannot stand idly by while landscapes and ecosystems become degraded. The Reef, in particular, is in trouble. Biologists, climate experts and environmental scientists all know this.
We also know what the causes are. Human activities release excessive carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This raises global temperatures, including water temperature. High water temperature causes corals to expel their symbiotic partners, thus ‘bleaching’ the coral structures. Because corals depend on these partners for their nutrition, they starve and die, and their skeletons eventually get covered by ugly brown algae.
There is an even more insidious problem. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets absorbed by the oceans. This makes the ocean more acidic. And corals are made of calcium carbonate, which dissolves in acidic water. This means coral reefs are in big trouble. Some people think that reefs may not outlast this century.
It’s really hard to address these problems, because their causes are global. Using fossil fuels in Cairo, or Copenhagen, or Canberra; all contribute to the global carbon dioxide burden. And despite scientists collecting and publishing more and more data, and despite their warnings about the consequences, there is an inertia, and sometimes an outright denial of the facts, that prevents action being taken.
This is where Art and Artists have a really important role. Science and facts speak to the brain, whereas Art and Artists speak to something deeper: To our hearts and our souls. Enter the Artist, Laura Jones.
I first met Laura at the Australian Museum Research Station on Lizard Island. This is one of the most remote laboratories on the Great Barrier Reef, some 250 km northeast of Cairns. Laura had organized to be Artist in Residence on the island. She went there to understand reef ecosystems, and prepare for a major shift in her artistic practice. She wanted to record the reef, and witness the ongoing bleaching events at first hand.
We shared a laboratory for over a week, and it was one of the most interesting experiences I have had for a long time. We shared ideas, and learnt about how each of us practiced our art. Her curiosity, enthusiasm and drive were obvious, as was her concern.
Our conversations also confirmed things that I had suspected for some time. Art and Science are actually very similar occupations. On the negative side, we both have trouble getting funding. We both sometimes have our work copied, or stolen. On the positive side, we get to do something we are passionate about, and that makes us want to work every day. We are curious and imaginative.
There are also deeper parallels. Artists and Scientists use similar processes. We observe the world, we ask questions, and we draw conclusions. We then try to communicate these observations and conclusions to a general audience. We do this to make people feel; to make them think; to engage them; and help them understand what we see.
However, many people think that Art and Science are polar opposites. As long ago as 1959, CP Snow talked about ‘The Two Cultures’. He was referring to the two great areas of human achievement – the Sciences and the Humanities. It was his contention that the divide between science and the arts was a major impediment to addressing global problems.
So, I do want people to understand and address global problems. But the Science is done. More facts, more experiments, more publications; all these will do is improve our understanding of how soon, and how bad, the changes will be. Laura is part of the solution to this dilemma. She recognises that by starting a dialogue with scientists, she can influence and drive change, through her art. Re-uniting Art and Science, these two great human activities, has a great power to precipitate change.
The power, the beauty and the provocation of art is an effective way to get people to listen, and to act.
So as you admire Laura’s deft brushwork, her sensitive palette, and the beauty of her creations, I want you to think upon one thing.
All this beauty could be gone in a generation.
Catalogue Essay by Associate Professor Jane Williamson, Macquarie University
Laura Jones’ smile is magnetising but its not the most enticing thing about her. She has a passion for painting that is almost beyond her ability to control. It could be said that Laura is a vessel from which her art flows. It makes her driven, a perfectionist, and someone who cares deeply. I recognise this passion as it parallels the passion that I have as a scientist.
Laura’s “Bleached” is an important conduit between science and art and should not be taken lightly. The phenomenon of bleaching, caused by heat stress associated with warming waters, is one of the most catastrophic environmental issues occurring in our lifetime. Historically, the ocean has been a stable force with the capacity to buffer environmental change. More recently, however, we have reached a tipping point where oceanic forces can no longer maintain stability in the face of anthropogenic impacts such as urban runoff, pollution and those associated with climate change. Aspects of the oceans are changing at a rate faster than ever recorded in millions of years. Such rate of change is predicted to increase exponentially over time if we don’t change our way of life, particularly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Roughly the same size in area of Italy, it is the largest living structure on our planet and is clearly visible from space. Sir David Attenborough recently called it “one of the greatest, and most splendid natural treasures that the world possesses”. Two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef have now been severely impacted by substantial coral bleaching. The top third of the reef experienced intense bleaching in early 2016, and in the past few months the middle third of the reef has suffered from a more devastating bleaching event. The extent and severity of the bleaching over the past twelve months has literally left coral reef scientists, such as myself, in shock.
As Laura Jones’ art portrays, however, all hope is not yet lost and we should not merely give up on saving the reef. While bleaching of corals and anemones is commonly a precursor to death, many of these bleached animals are still alive but extremely sick. Once temperatures are elevated, corals and anemones release the majority of tiny symbiotic algae that they cultivate in their tissue as a desperate attempt at survival. These algae produce nutrients essential to the animals’ persistence and, providing the temperature does not remain elevated for longer than six to eight weeks, the animals may re-absorb and grow more algae and thus potentially recover. If an elevated temperature event extends beyond the animal’s resilience capacity, the animals will die. Resilience to such environmental perturbations changes between species and populations, and is largely determined by an animals’ genetic composition and state of health prior to the event. Therefore, a healthy reef is usually a more resilient reef.
I have smelt the rotting flesh of dead coral from severe coral bleaching at Lizard Island in 2016. Yet amongst the graveyard of corals there remained life. Individual colonies that appeared remarkably untouched by the event. Colour between a haze of grey. These corals were Laura Jones’ first hand experience of the reef and she was clearly amazed by their design and colour. While assessing bleached corals was a vital component of her journey for this exhibition, I felt it important that Laura also experience a healthier reef to understand the enormity of change. I therefore suggested that she also visit Heron Island, a coral cay in the southern Great Barrier Reef. The reefs around Heron Island hold an important place in my heart as my students and I have been researching this ecosystem for over 20 years. During this time, I have witnessed changes in the reef communities there: some good and some bad. To date coral bleaching has been an insignificant force at Heron Island and the reef still maintains vibrant and diverse communities of corals and other animals. The beauty and reverence of the reef that enchanted Laura at Heron Island is evident in her drawings and paintings from this trip.
Laura’s art has uniquely captured both the devastation of coral bleaching and the hope for recovery. She has achieved what many scientists have tried to portray – that we must keep fighting to save the reef. There is still time. Just.