A Review of Tamara Dean: Endangered at Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney
“By the end of this century 50% of species living today will face extinction. And humans are not immune. To see ourselves as different and separate to the ecology and ecosystem of our planet is leaving humanity unprepared for the world we are currently destroying…Endangered is the reframing of the notion of ourselves as human beings - mammals in a sensitive ecosystem, as vulnerable to the same forces of climate change as every other living creature.”
Endangered at Martin Browne Contemporary is the newest instalment of Australian photographer Tamara Dean’s Endangered Series which she began with great success in 2018; a deeply moving and provocative collection of images (of pure pigment print on cotton rag paper) designed to reframe how we see ourselves as human beings. Dean, the winner of the 2019 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize for her 2018 image Endangered 1, has chosen to express her profound concern for the issue of climate change through her camera lens.
Over the past three years, Dean’s work has focused pointedly on the foundational relationship between humans and nature. In her 2017 series Instinctual, we can see Dean first playing with the idea of humans mimicking animal movements in water, an inspired concept which has ultimately culminated in the large-scale underwater formations captured in Endangered. As a great ally of philanthropists and climate experts, it is no surprise that Dean has crafted her latest ode to the planet with the support of The Climate Council, Australia’s leading independent climate change communications organisation. With their generosity, Dean has created her most eerie and impactful solo exhibition to date - a call to action through a new image of ourselves.
By cleverly placing humans, both literally and figuratively, in the environment most profoundly effected by rising temperatures, the ocean, Dean challenges the viewer to look at ourselves from the same vantage point from which we observe and ogle aquatic life. This empathetic reframing, Dean believes, has the potential to shock the viewer into understanding the magnitude of the threat climate change poses to us as a species - an escalating danger of our own making.
Comprised of three diptychs, two triptychs, and two stand-alone images, Endangered reads as a minimalist exhibition, where the emphasis is clearly on the quality of the images and their subsequent configuration, rather than sheer quantity. The images, whether viewed in their groupings/pairings or not, are individually dynamic and hauntingly beautiful. The cool tones of the depthless ocean, the shimmering pale skin of the figures, the white sunlight penetrating the rippling surface of the water, all coalesce to create a foreboding atmosphere that warns of a tempest that has already begun but that we, as the viewer, cannot clearly see (sound like a metaphor for climate change?).
In each frame, Dean has instructed the nude female models, most of them members of a diving club at Jervis Bay south of Sydney, to swim just beneath the surface of the water in arrangements which mimic schools of fish, pods of dolphins, and, for me, imagined groups of mermaids. What woman hasn’t dreamed of being a mermaid? Half siren, half fish, and entirely enchanting, the women in Endangered 11b, with their arms at their sides as they propel downward towards the ocean floor, embody such a fantasy effortlessly. Belonging to the oceans and inherently connected with mother nature, it would seem that Dean has captured imagined footage of our fabled ancestors now lost to the ravages of time. If we are to indulge in the fantasy that mermaids once really existed, we must also acknowledge that they are now extinct. The question then becomes, are humans next?
In a word, yes. Endangered clearly classifies us, the human race, as being on the verge of extinction along with our brothers and sisters of the animal kingdom. This idea, as demonstrated by certain media outlets (Fox News etc), can prove difficult for people to accept and acknowledge as the truth. However, by visually framing ‘us’ in a comparable context to whales, dolphins, and manatees, Dean urges us (as the viewer) to take the mental plunge into the terrifying reality that we are as fragile as the marine life we observe from a detached distance.
Arguably, the most memorable element of the series is how it initially reels you in. The foggy, romantic quality of the images themselves draws you to them like a sirens song draws a ship to the rocks, but it is the quiet, contemplative energy which they exude that transfixes you and forces you to look longer and closer. Through the artful distortion caused by submerging the lens, we see humanity itself stripped naked and are struck by our own raw beauty and etherial power. We see ourselves as not dominators of nature, but as inhabiters of it.
Staring at Endangered 10c, I imagined swimming naked, my hair flowing in the water behind me with my arms outstretched like the woman in the upper-right of the frame. I pictured how liberating, elating and humbling such a provocative act of self acceptance would be. I believe that Dean, through her misty images, is emphasising that, when laid bare, we are as simple and as pure as the species and the environment we have so carelessly abused; and that it is imperative we accept our shared mortality. If we are vulnerable enough to acknowledge our basic membership as ‘earthlings’ with every other living creature, we can shatter the dangerous mentality that we are independent and immune from our environment and end the ‘climate change debate.’ Science has spoken, there is nothing left to debate - and if we don’t act now there will be nothing left at all.