The title for Roderick Camilleri’s current exhibition, Ecotopias, recalls Ernest Callenbach utopian novel, and maybe, on a secondary level, the 1987 Ecotopia album by chamber jazz quartet Oregon. In the fictitious society of the novel, the members strive for a balance between themselves and nature, a vision that in today’s world of frantic egoism and environmental disasters, this novel, published in 1975, is looking progressively more like a pipe dream.
Mankind doesn’t figure in this collection of artworks in various media as the artist focuses on the beauty of uncorrupted nature, away from the ravages that have plummeted the planet to the verge 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 about ecological balance and stewardship of the environment against the implicit consumer society’s constant search for consumption and appropriation. Ecotopias is still part of his socio-ecological approach that defines his oeuvre.
Huxley famously said: “Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.” Humanity, through its centuries-long quest for unquenchable progress, has lost sight of the Garden of Eden. Human beings are the devils in this equation of damnation, leeching the planet of its resources and acting like parasites, excreting waste and pollution as a byproduct.
Ecotopias is a painful reminder, through its intrinsic poetic beauty, murmuring like a prayer, subdued and contemplative. Camilleri remarks: “Through visual tropes of natural lifeforms and organic compositions, these works reveal ethereal topias or habitats where nature prevails.”
Camilleri is in a search for authenticity and a constant struggle to propagate reflection and awareness, to instil in the audience a sense of awareness and reflection through his artistic expression. A call to action, an underlying characteristic of artists who are preoccupied with the environmental degradation going on around them, is secondary in this case.
Trees dominate the virginal landscapes, suggesting pre-history or centuries post-Apocalypse. The planet’s palaeogeology indicates that the planet had reinvented and renewed itself many times, a vagrant asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, with other life forms exploiting this hierarchal vacuum and eventually gaining the upper hand, the last on the list being Homo sapiens.
One realises that no utopia is possible unless humanity revaluates itself and divests itself of the mass hysteria of nationalism, ideology and established religion, while denouncing its self-professed centrality in the great scheme of themes, a fallacy propagated by the three monotheistic religions. A harmonious coexistence with our fellow creatures is what lies at the basis of the Far Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, which denounces the concept of humanity conquering nature.
This exhibition finds Camilleri delivering an alternative message away from the dystopia that characterised some of his previous exhibitions. Ecotopias quests for an ecological utopia, for a redemption from the human-induced mess that we are experiencing each and 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 lifeforms and organic compositions, these works reveal ethereal topias or habitats where nature prevails
Camilleri’s work resonates deeply with a symbiotic interrelatedness of everything, expressed through the sensitively restrained palette, “imaginative biospheres” straddling the lines between abstraction and representation. They evoke a spiritual well-being that one finds in the paintings of Odilon Redon, who once claimed: “My drawings inspire, and are not defined. They place us, as does music, on the ambiguous realm of the undetermined,” – a music of the spheres that so-called progress and industrial revolutions have defiled with overwhelming dissonance.
The Maltese multidisciplinary artist suggests that the answer to mankind’s descent into the hell of its own creation is a recalibration of priorities, to resort to a sort of ‘affirmative action’ that aggressively addresses the folly of the industries that upset the precarious balances of natural ecosystems.
“The artistic expression revolves around a desire for a better place, and/or an artistic rendering of alternative places where the natural environment is given its due role and value,” Camilleri points out, the concern for ecological transformation and sustainability being the soul of his general and overall artistic expression.
Carlo Mattioli is the artist who had dedicated most of his oeuvre to portrayals of trees in their natural surroundings of the Italian Pianura Padana. In the Italian artist’s case, the trees are depictions of actual ones, deeply rooted in the ecology of this large parcel of land covering most of the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy. The contrasts are sometimes stark, the trees depicted as empiric components of a landscape that barely undulates, in which 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 homogenous narrative, an invocation, of uncontaminated peace, reminding us of American novelist Richard Powers’ words in his masterpiece The Overstory: “People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures ‒ bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful ‒ call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.” We are in fact the loudmouths in the natural order of things, the troublemakers bent on self-destruction. Creation would be much better off without us.
Quoting from the exhibition’s mission statement: “These works uncover the artist’s mental images linked to his relentless concern in drawing attention to socioecological messages, recreating modes of expression that foster a better awareness of ecological balance, promoting 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 be one with nature. Humanity nowadays acknowledges that it is on the path to catastrophe, addressing the issues through half-baked efforts and through ever-changing timelines for a carbon-neutral world. Through this exhibition, Camilleri shows that it doesn’t need to be this way, 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, is on until July 11. Consult the event’s Facebook page for opening hours.
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