Cyborgs, ecosexuals and a bed made of bees: inside Perth's strangest art show

Radical Ecologies, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art

It’s not for the faint-hearted, but the new group show examines our relationship with nature and science – with a tendency towards the erotic

“I would sneak inside the tree and jerk off, surrounded by bark; roots beneath my toes.”

It’s not a confession I expected to have whispered into my ear at an art opening, but Radical Ecologies – the audacious new exhibit at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (Pica) – is not your usual exhibition.

Global weirding, the surrendering of limbs and minds to science and the shedding of our sexual mores are all on the menu. There’s also an actual bed of bees, a demonstration of technological surrogacy and, for the truly adventurous, the aforementioned invitation to eavesdrop on hushed, explicit stories from self-described ecosexuals. (Look, you’ll either have your worst first date here, or your best.)

Made up of frequently challenging, occasionally contradictory installations, the group exhibition has an ambitious goal: to inspire a “mind-shift” – a re-evaluation of our relationship to the planet and our fellow inhabitants. Pica, modelled after New York’s Museum of Modern Art, capitalises on the winding nooks of its otherwise intimate space to give each of its Western Australian-based artists room to shift the minds of its roaming visitors. And how.

Re-Wired / Re-Mixed: Event for Dismembered Body, by the performance artist Stelarc at Radical Ecologies at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in August.
Re-Wired / Re-Mixed: Event for Dismembered Body, by the performance artist Stelarc at Radical Ecologies at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in August. Photograph: Simon Miraudo/The Guardian

An exclusive until 7 August features performance artist Stelarc who will spend five days in a virtual reality limbo while his right arm, encased in a robotic sling, is manipulated to the instruction of museum patrons and web viewers. (I had one attempt at plugging in coordinates via touch-screen, and the power was worryingly intoxicating.) You may remember Stelarc from the time he engineered an ear on to his forearm in 2007; at Pica he is a sight to behold, standing atop a small podium, wearing a headset that sends him a visual feed from London and an audio feed from New York, his right arm whirring and contorting beyond his control.

A spotlight projects a looming shadow behind him. As he reacts to the pedestrian foot traffic on the video, you can’t help but think of Robocop attempting tai chi.

Stelarc explains his latest concoction to assembled media – namely, why in the world would he want to lug around a 10kg cybernetic arm for five days straight? “I just don’t think the biological body is adequate any more,” he says affably. In fact, most of his answers arrive cheerfully, as he talks of “decoupling the senses” and “electronically dismembering the body” – budding super-villain talk if ever I’ve heard it.

“The more and more performances I do, the less I think I have a mind of my own,” he says, adding what might actually be a direct quote from The Lawnmower Man: “I don’t think I even have a mind in the traditional metaphysical sense.”

Ultimately the hypnotic Re-Wired / Re-Mixed is a continuation of Stelarc’s life’s work: to reckon with the increasing extension of our physical bodies into technology. Fittingly, I jot down his quotes on to my iPhone – and the failure of autocorrect to recognise my intentions reminds me again that we’ve not quite reached perfect symbiosis with technology just yet.

Emerging from the disorienting wing inhabited by Stelarc, a lie-down was in order. And where better than a bed of bees?

Sweet dreams: bees gather inside Mike Bianco’s Bee Bed.
Sweet dreams: bees gather inside Mike Bianco’s Bee Bed. Photograph: Simon Miraudo/The Guardian

Refreshingly for the world of abstract modern art, Mike Bianco’s Bee Bed is precisely what it says on the tin. Made up of a wooden slat atop a living, working hive (safely separated from prospective nappers), it’s a simple statement of empathic cohabitation, and not the My Girl-evoking endurance test I had feared.

It’s difficult to tell if the muted buzz of bees is really beneath me, imaginary, or coming from the bee-filled feeding tube protruding from the bed. Nonetheless, it invites a moment of reflection on the insects considered instrumental to the planet’s survival. Lying there as serenely as one can on a busy museum floor with bees, a previously unattributable scent emerges – not quite of honey, but of bee-ness. I shudder to think how that scent will change once the sneeze guard used to encase our upper torsos has seen a day’s worth of visitors.

Let your attention wander long enough on the Bee Bed and you’ll glimpse a glowing sauna across the room. Even if your imagination runs wild with possibilities, you’d not come near the reality of what lies within (unless you’ve already leafed through the hardcore “ecosexual” magazines outside).

The Ecosexual Bathhouse was previously displayed by Pony Express – aka Ian Sinclair and Loren Kronemyer – at Melbourne’s Next Wave festival. A snug, cloistered environment, the small sauna is filled with recordings of anecdotes from ecosexuals, people who get their rocks off from literal rocks, earth and waterfalls.

‘The biosphere itself becomes your lover’: decor at The Ecosexual Bathhouse by Pony Express.
‘The biosphere itself becomes your lover’: decor at The Ecosexual Bathhouse by Pony Express. Photograph: Simon Miraudo/The Guardian

Key quotes from their tales are scrawled on the wall as UV messages, to be revealed via a blue light. “The intense climax of a strong sea breeze in a purely rocky area,” ends one description of a particularly jagged interaction.

“Ecosexuality suggests sexual identity where the biosphere itself becomes your lover,” Ian says. “Marrying the ocean, the moon, et cetera,” Loren adds. “It makes a lot of sense when you consider how intrinsically linked sexuality and the environment are.”

Fostering a mutually beneficial relationship to Earth – one that involves the consent of non-human creatures – is, they argue, the ultimate goal of ecosexuality, and the use of semiotic signposts tied to previous generations of the queer movement (bathhouses, blue lights) suggest that its underground nature could become more mainstream.

Maybe they’re on to something. One scrawl on the door caught my eye: “The light on my face, the water on my body, the wind across me, the sky above me, and the small creatures that touched me. I didn’t come but I felt more aroused and more deeply satisfied than I had with any man.” What a recommendation. I’ve insisted on visiting breakfast spots with less effusive reviews on Zomato.

The concept of consent from non-human creatures was an intriguing one, more deeply explored by Peter Cheng and Molly Biddle (Peter & Molly, as they go by) in their immersive video installation The Superior Animal. Across a series of video screens, Peter & Molly demonstrate the futility and cruelty of using animals as utilities, and vice versa. One series of clips shows them in a bath, octopi sitting uselessly on their heads; in another, leeches greedily sup blood from their bodies while they sit placidly.

Confronting – and occasionally contradictory – Peter & Molly’s The Superior Animal asks viewers to reflect on their relationship with animals.
Confronting – and occasionally contradictory – Peter & Molly’s The Superior Animal asks viewers to reflect on their relationship with animals. Photograph: Simon Miraudo/The Guardian

As they admit to me with genuine regret, the leeches died mid-art although my suggestion that their final meal was superb comes as some comfort. “I reckon I’ve got great blood,” Molly laughs.

“We’re rejecting the animal utility,” she explains. “We had to be able to use the animal in order to express that, unfortunately; there just doesn’t seem to be another way.” This conflict may strike some as inconsistent, but Peter & Molly have a defence: “I guess we tried to sacrifice our own bodies as part of the works as well.

“Hopefully it elicits a conversation and gets people thinking about how they use animals in their daily lives,” Peter says.

Molly adds: “We find that lovingly and artistically delivering a message ... in an interesting and engaging way, is more successful and effective in eliciting change than shoving a message down someone’s throat.”

Then, almost as if it had been orchestrated, the final vignette plays on a screen above our heads: Peter shoving Molly’s head into a fish tank. It was filmed over New Year’s Eve, Peter says, when “most people end up with their head plunged into a toilet bowl”.

There’s plenty more to observe: romance novels eaten and reconfigured by termites; aural soundscapes from the Swan river; recorded conversations held at historically significant sites about Perth’s Indigenous history. At the exit lies a video set-up promoting the opportunity to engage in Cat Jones’s “sensory live art experience”, showing bodies being tingly-touched while headphones play participants’ testimonials (sounding a little like ASMR triggers).

It’s tempting to giggle at the more overtly sexual content, and certainly the artists I spoke to could see the funny side, but the message runs much deeper than that. The mission statement of the exhibit – to influence that “mind shift” – has inspired the collected talents to take radical steps in opening our doors of perception, forcing us to view the world in new, unusual and sometimes erotic ways. It’s not for everyone, but as the saying goes: different strokes…

Radical Ecologies runs at PICA from now until 4 September


Simon Miraudo

The GuardianTramp

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