Pyrolysis

Playing with fire

In her new installation Pyrolysis, Sue Kneebone encodes her uncanny Gothic aesthetic with an ominous environmental message. In the artist’s words ‘a ghostly tableau of ornate hard hats cradling raw materials lie suspended in waiting against a flickering backdrop of perpetual flames.’1 Working with the intuitive processes of bricolage and photomontage, Kneebone transforms often disparate materials, from archival photographs to found objects, into hybrid assemblages that challenge pervading narratives and create new associations and connections. Traversing the sinister, spectral and sublime juxtaposed with the everyday and familiar, her work brings the Gothic imagination and natural world, or Eco-Gothic to life.

Kneebone’s rigorous research-based approach intersects Australian history, environmental philosophy and visual art methodologies to explore ancestral and historical legacies related to colonial settler culture and the natural environment. Her practice continues an ongoing line of inquiry into ‘the ramifications of the colonial settler mindset and the continuing desire to push the limits of nature towards an unknown future.’ 2  For Neoteric, Kneebone investigates Anthropocene concepts of human interference with and attempt to control the natural world. Her mixed media installation interrogates the ‘unforeseen consequences of pushing the environment to the limits for the sake of progress’. 3

Contemporary environmental issues play out in her collection of cast cement hard hats augmented with ornamental fixtures as if part of an absurd and arcane colonial experiment. A modern symbol of safety and self-protection, and the uniform of Ministers appearing in the media, the hard hat also represents the exploitation of finite natural resources and the relative human and environmental costs.

Taking inspiration from Promethean mythology and other ancient and modern literary references, her mesmeric moving image works offer prophetic and metaphysical apparitions of fire, which signal the urgency of climate change and the ‘threats of a cursed environment or an environment we have cursed’.4

In Burning Bush, a candelabra of Australian native banksia is continuously enveloped in flames, evoking a spectre of supernatural energy beyond our control. Moreover, this imagery calls to mind the modern realities of human made conditions, as witnessed in the incredible energy and power of the devastating Australian bushfires.

Flames also burn inexplicably inside the inert atmosphere of an enclosed glass vessel. The title, Pyrolysis, takes its name from the process of altering the chemical composition of organic materials at high temperatures and in the absence of oxygen. Such technology offers the potential to convert waste into more sustainable sources of energy, a tiny beacon of hope in the face of rapid global warming and critical inaction on climate change.

Capturing the calamitous and catastrophic times in which we live, Kneebone poetically channels our anxieties and fears about the future of the planet through her unique style of visual storytelling. Here, she skillfully weaves together history, politics, time, myth and memory to provide a space of individual reflection and, hopefully, collective action manifest.

Celia Dottore

1 Correspondence with the artist, 7 January 2022.

2 Kneebone, Sue. 2010. “Inland Memories.” In Naturally Disturbed, edited by Mary Knights, 14. Adelaide: SASA Gallery, University of South Australia.

3 Correspondence with the artist, 31 December 2021.

4 Correspondence with the artist, 20 December 2021.

Pyrolysis was part of Neoteric exhibition, at the Adelaide Railway Station, part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts program in 2022.