Essays
Contents
Trace (Exhibition Book)
Michael Shiell (2011)
Danielle Smelter
 
Trace: Exploring Alternative means for documenting Ephemeral Environmental Art
Michael Shiell (2011)
Sites of ExChange
Danielle Smelter (2010)
 
The Changing Sense of Social Space in Relation to a developing Ephemeral Art piece
Michael Shiell (2007)
 
What is Environmental Art
Michael Shiell (2004)
 
Bone Fire: Artistic Expression in the Arid Zone
Michael Shiell (2003)
 
Shelter and Survival
Michael Shiell (2002)
 
Sites of ExChange
 
Danielle Smelter
   
“As opposed to landscape based art of earlier times [environmental] art was not a depiction or representation of land, it was an interaction with space” – Michael Shiell
 
 
For environmental artist Michael Shiell art has increasingly become a celebration of process in which site and material are inseparable. Persuaded that the experience of art can be both fleeting and private, a surrender of notions of audience and permanence has been the basis for a flourishing art practice. When understood as a profound exchange between the artist and their environment Shiell’s installations invite our participation within that interaction.
 
Shiell’s process of construction is highly personal, and customarily begins with a demarcation of space through a circling exploration of site. The materials used in the constructions are reflective of the site and are preferentially drawn from within the demarcated space. As the materials harnessed to build Shiell’s structures return to the environment from which they were sourced their changing form allows the work to evolve into something different and beyond the artist’s control. The artist is interested in the “continual evolution of society’s connectedness to that space through the work.” i
 
Environmental art was born largely out of a reaction to the products of modernism in which audiences and artists began to feel disconnected from contemporary forms of art and sought a human element as a point of entry to the artistic dialogue. In discussing environmental artists Shiell explains that, “although the expression is individual, the method of interaction with the environment harkens back to ruddy, earthy cultures for which community was central. In this sense, environmental art offers a hopeful connection to a socially disjointed, individually centred population.” ii
 
Academic and writer Tony Birch has explored the need of Western settlers to affirm their presence by erecting permanent structures within the landscape for the purpose of memorialising . Birch’s work, which references monuments including those of the Major Mitchell trail, explores disparities between this Western mode of marking occupation with less tangible, yet enduring, indigenous interactions with place that exist, generally without physical monument. Shiell’s work engages audiences through ephemeral monuments which, through their devolution, produce something more akin to indigenous modes of connecting significance to place.
 
A key element of Shiell’s practice is documentation which he utilises as a mode of sharing meaning generated through the process of installation. Rather than seeking to monumentalise the structure Shiell seeks to “transform people’s perception of space into place.” iii The conceptual endurance of these installations is intended to extend beyond their material existence through their continuing impact upon audience and space. The duality of this interaction is pivotal to the creation of place.
 
In response to an earlier work Shiell has commented on the role of oral history in not only memorialising one of his installations but in continuing the process of evolution. Just like the ephemeral nature of these works, oral history lacks a fixed form, by its nature it continues to change and evolve to suit the needs of the community within which it exists. “The work itself is born out of a living process, therefore a living record such as oral history and story telling would also be relevant.” iv
 
Several key forms are recurrent throughout his practice. To the artist the web motif appears as a symbol of fragility and beauty within nature. A fleeting existence to be glimpsed before its threads are broken the spider web, however, possesses other elements that can equally operate within these built structures.
 
More powerful characteristics of webs include the arresting qualities that serve the predatory nature of the web’s maker. For someone seeking to highlight and enhance experience of environment the web operates within this capacity to capture and hopefully arrest the viewer’s attention in an enduring dialogue between artist, installation, viewer and the environment in which the form operates
 
The tension that exists between the possibility of a private encounter with space and the communal element of environmental art is one that Shiell now exploits with precision. The organic materials and forms he takes from nature invite our emotional participation on a base level. A series of built forms exploring the notion of shelter and survival are naturally inviting in their materiality and form, making the project doubly successful at engaging audiences.
 
In the context of this community arts festival Shiell’s work invites us all to become active agents in the art making process by building community understandings of place that hinge on the continuing evolution of this work.
   
  Danielle Smelter is the Curator of the Horsham Regional Art Gallery.
   
 

Endnotes

  i. Michael Shiell, ‘The Changing Sense of Social Space in Relation to a developing Ephemeral Art piece’. In Sensi/able Spaces: Space, Art and the Environment Proceedings of the SPARTEN conference, ed. E. H. Huijbens and O. P. Jόnsson, (Newcastle, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), p. 117.
ii. Michael Shiell, What is Environmental Art, catalogue essay for the inaugural Melbourne Environmental Art Festival, 2004.
iii. Michael Shiell, ‘The Changing Sense of Social Space in Relation to a developing Ephemeral Art piece’. In Sensi/able Spaces: Space, Art and the Environment Proceedings of the SPARTEN conference, ed. E. H. Huijbens and O. P. Jόnsson, (Newcastle, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), p. 122.
iv. Michael Shiell, ‘The Changing Sense of Social Space in Relation to a developing Ephemeral Art piece’. In Sensi/able Spaces: Space, Art and the Environment Proceedings of the SPARTEN conference, ed. E. H. Huijbens and O. P. Jόnsson, (Newcastle, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), p. . 127.
   
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