Stephen Mushin, The Freezerberg (detail), 2013. Drawing on paper.
Image courtesy the artist
We were asked to write the catalogue essay to accompany the exhibition Now, If, What, Then at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery by artistic raconteur Stephen Mushin. As long-time fans and supporters of Mushin’s work, we were only too happy to oblige…
The Future Looks Bright
“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” – Gloria Steinem
Ecological designer, sustainability planner, industrial designer, hack engineer, artist and shadow puppeteer – Stephen Mushin is a creative tour de force. In one corner of his brain reside projects designed to operate within here-and-now problems – water shortages, food shortages, hostile climates and urban density. In the other corner, Mushin cooks up radical ideas for ecological solutions to the impending climate change apocalypse.
This exhibition showcases the fantastical, highly unconventional yet scientifically possible machines from the latter part of Mushin’s practice. Cowship, 2013 is a suspended taxi-cum-milkshake-café powered by farting cows that removes the abundance of methane from the atmosphere. While The Freezerberg, 2013 is a floating polar bear habitat made out of recycled refrigerators that has the dual benefit of saving the polar bears from extinction (where will they live once the ice caps have melted?) while also farming them for ethical polar fleece jackets.
Typically, climate change solutions concentrate on what humankind has to sacrifice. They are often earnest and noble, with a healthy dose of guilt for good measure. Not so with Stephen Mushin. His satirical illustrations are as wildly captivating as they are ingenious. In the words of the artist “I’m interested in the power of imagination and the allure of wild new inventions as panaceas for big global problems. More specifically I’m interested in how we can use humour, satire and outlandish future narratives as positive devices which open our minds to radical and very serious ideas for change.”
Mushin often remarks that if aliens dropped down to earth right now and saw what we were doing to our environment – burning fossil fuels, generating excessive waste and destroying natural ecosystems – they would think that we were insane. And therein lies Mushin’s point: are his proposed futures really that crazy?
Now, If, What, Then is a long term art project Mushin launched in 2013. In includes several illustrated projects, a website, and a forthcoming book to be released in late 2016. The aim of the project is to explain the core ideas of ecological design, map the impending spectre of climate change, and to introduce us to the principles of ecological system design through a series of ‘thought experiments’ which take ideas to their logical extreme.
Although the product of his wild imagination, these mega-machines are all grounded in very real science, and to varying degrees, are theoretically possible. Accompanying each drawing are detailed scientific explanations and complex calculations, which illustrate how these machines can address environmental issues. By showing his workings and incorporating workshops into his exhibitions, Mushin is also challenging us. We become active participants in this progressive, stream-of-consciousness line of inquiry. He wants us to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo; he rewards us for crazy ideas; and he judges us only by how big and brave our imaginations are.
But this is not escapism. Mushin’s world, although full of fantasy and absurd ideas, is not about fleeing from a harsh or dark reality. It is about our whole community developing a stronger sense of ownership and belonging, and collectively making changes in our world. Mushin embraces, with relentless optimism, the reality and the issues of our current lives.
In 2015 Mushin undertook a series of community consultation sessions with the Port Macquarie community as part of the inaugural Glasshouse Regional Gallery Artist in Residency program. Under the title Shipshaping Port Macquarie Mushin pitched the idea of transforming coastal towns into ships to future-proof against rising sea levels. The idea involves building a giant coastal wall, filling it with water and floating all the houses on top – so that no valuable water views are lost, of course. As Mushin notes “People wouldn’t need to worry about climate change anymore, because it’s already happened”.
Mushin workshopped ideas for what life would be like in such a situation with the Port Macquarie community. How would people get around? What would they eat? How should we preserve historic buildings underwater? The results of these sessions are exhibited here in a series of conceptual illustrations.
All of Mushin’s drawings reward a closer look. Follow the chain of action inside a machine. Look closely at the characters and the absurd and sometime-macabre details. If you do, you might just find yourself standing next to Mushin, cracking up at his own drawings.
Fasten your seat belts and jump on board for this wonderful adventure, where the final destination all depends on our collective creativity.