For Bonita Ely, who was born in Australia in 1946 and works in Sydney, an ecology is a system of interdependence in which different elements support and sustain each other. In harmony, an ecology is strong; when disrupted, its fragility manifests.
The Murray River Project (1977– ) demonstrates Ely’s lifelong commitment to ecological concerns. Prior to colonial settlement, the Murray River—the largest and most important Australian river complex—was a sacred waterway for the Aboriginal communities living on its shores. Today, the river is in a perilous state. Ely’s recent engagement involves photographic documentation of the dry, contaminated river, its minutiae forensically observed, contextualized by incisions into the surrounding landscapes. Crime scenes of some sort, macabre stagings of a death in progress.
Ely’s inquiry into sites of ecological injury is a point of departure to consider how trauma can be understood in environmental but also social, political, and cultural contexts. Her project for documenta 14, Memento Mori, combines the traumatic consequences of war and displacement on the one hand and environmental pollution on the other, in two large-scale installations across Athens and Kassel.
The first, a reworking of Ely’s installation Interior Decoration (2013– ), draws attention to the chronic, intergenerational effects of post-traumatic stress disorder as an outcome of war, which shapes the psychological fabric of Athens and Kassel: Athens as site of deep economic trauma and transitional space between Europe and the Middle East, Kassel as destination for Syrian refugees as well as home to one of the largest tank and ammunition factories in Germany. The installation situates militarization within the domestic space and highlights the domestication of the military.
Invoking a (not-so-)futurist dystopia, the second installation, Plastikos Praegressus (2017), maps out imminent scenarios for aquatic ecologies if pollution continues at its present rate. Sculptures of wondrous oceanic flora and fauna that have evolved to devour plastic waste from the streets, sited in the cities of Sydney, Athens, and Kassel, are shown next to botanical illustrations of these new “species.” Embedded in the work’s printed and digital materials, connections are drawn between the three cities through depictions of ocean and river currents, demonstrating that life on one side of the planet is deeply affected by the waste of the other.
Through these powerful enactments, Ely paves the way to an understanding of ecology as a trans-ecology: an intricate system of natural and social phenomena that permeates physical and psychological landscapes across environments on a global scale.