‘Threshold’ was an exhibition of environmentally engaged art held in the Michaelis Gallery in October 2011, curated by Michaelis senior lecturer Virginia MacKenny as part of her 2011 Donald Gordon Creative Arts Award. It responded, in part, to the most pressing concern of our time: that of climate change. As its title suggests, the exhibition engaged the premise that not only are the climatic conditions of the planet at a tipping point, but that we need to renegotiate our relationship to the planet, this place we call home. The exhibition was thus as much to do with perception and the garnering of visual acuity and observation in the process of witnessing, as it was with environmental awareness. Encouraging our ability to notice and be attentive to both optical and conceptual perceptions better equips us to actively embody our custodianship of the planet.

Loosely built around the presence of the four elements earth, fire, water and air, the exhibition revealed changes in the environment through reference to traditional genres of art such as landscape and flower painting. An example of work that exemplifies this was Andrew Putter’s digital articulation of indigenous flora from South Africa in the guise of Dutch 17th century flower paintings. While commenting on colonialism in Africa his utilisation of the vanities form was a reminder of broader issues of mortality and contemporary extinctions.

The ‘flower theme’ is supported by a number of works engaging the importance of bees to the ecology of the planet, that is intended to draw the viewer’s attention to the importance of noticing or witnessing small details. Similarly, Jeremy Wafer’sTropic of Capricorn calls viewers to scrutinise the ground directly under the artist’s feet as he photographs 100m of the line that defines ‘southness’. ‘Grounding’ is a central theme in the exhibition.

A pivotal work on the exhibition that directly engages our need for greater sustainability in terms of power is Thomas Mulcaire’s Constant. A solar-powered square metre of over 1000kw of light that represents the ‘solar constant’ – the average amount of radiation from the sun that hits our planet’s surface – the work exemplifies the potential of solar power. However, equally evident is the discrepancy between the size and number of solar panels necessary to power the work and the metre square work within the gallery. Clearly indicating the technological ‘lag’ between what is available directly from the sun and what can currently be recouped for our own usage, the work makes visible the potential of sustainable power.

Other well-known South African artists such as Lien Botha, Lyndi Sales, Lucas Thobejane and James Webb contributed to the exhibition. In addition, work by younger and emerging artists such as Claire Jorgenson, Nina Liebenberg and Daniella Mooney, as well as from current students from Michaelis were also included.

Apart from a collaboration with James Webb, three new works were commissioned from Jorgenson, Liebenberg and Mooney. In addition there are two projects that form part of newly commissioned work for the exhibition.

A fire performance by Brendhan Dickerson opened the exhibition and such was its successful reception that it was restaged for the opening of the GIPCA ‘Hot Water’ Festival. Dickerson, known for his work with fiery mobile sculptural constructions, engaged climate change in a piece entitled ‘Complicit’. In it he acknowledged our contribution to the changes that we are currently experiencing in climate patterns due to our use of non-sustainable fossil fuels.

Top student in the curatorial elective, Chris van Eeden was engaged to conceptualise/ curate a public art piece which occurred on September 24 – National Heritage Day in South Africa. This date was the date chosen to open ‘Threshold’ not only because an often overlooked part of our heritage is the environment, but also because it serendipitously coincided with World Moving Planet Day. Initially conceptualized by leading climate change environmentalist Bill McKibben, Moving Planet is a global event organised when artists and concerned citizens across the globe put demands for climate change literally into motion—marching, biking, skating—calling for the world to go beyond fossil fuels. Van Eeden worked with the Green Initative at UCT and with other agencies interested in environmental change in the city of Cape Town including Treading Lightly. He and a group of students immobilized a bakkie (cars being prime producers of carbon emissions) with red fabric in front of Parliament and then spent the rest of the day pushing it around Cape Town to indicate the weight vehicles put on our environment.

This latter project is innovative in that it takes student engagement from the local onto the global stage. By doing this it renders artistic practice both ethical and active in the world, allows for collaboration and community engagement and potentially provides a platform for artistic agency in the larger social framework. The learning in this situation was considerable and challenging.

The exhibition thus called upon a range of proximities to be considered by the viewer – both far and near. Some works on the show demanded intimate viewind held close to the individual, while others activated a much larger space beyond the personal, both conceptually and perceptually. The Moving Planet event expanded the boundaries of the exhibition beyond the gallery walls and links by dint of public participation, with a global event of activism and creativity, while it might be argued that Mulcaire’s piece connects us to the centre of our solar system.

The 2011 TED winner, graffiti artist JR, perhaps put it well when he noted that ‘In some way art can change the world, I mean art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions … art can change the way we see the world, art can create an energy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussion and then enables it to change the world.’ ‘Threshold’ hopes that it engaged this possibility. The range of its concerns will be extended by the publication of a book under the same title that presents a much wider selection of environmentally engaged work produced by artists in Southern Africa. Published by Fourthwall Books the book is due to come out in 2012.

Threshold was curated by Michaelis senior lecturer Virginia MacKenny as part of her 2011 Donald Gordon Creative Arts Award.