Jess MacNeil

Returning to the New South Wales South Coast in 2019, after a period spent working primarily in London, Jess MacNeil was prompted to consider the dynamics of loss and regeneration which shape both our natural environment and our human relationships with it.

MacNeil moved with her parents to a bush block in the Bega Valley aged six. Having lived and worked overseas throughout her career, she returned to the region in 2019, to find it marked by the fires of that summer and the destruction to both human and natural ecosystems that ran in their wake. Responding to these events, and reflecting on her ongoing attachment to the place where she grew up, MacNeil has produced a body of work which moves between mediums – and between the poles of destruction and (re)generation, finding the soft space between them where memory often dwells. 

Destructive Plasticity, showing at Sydney’s Artereal Gallery, includes a major moving image project entitled Regenesis, 2022. This video work comprises a long, looped stream of drone footage, taken at height of the Tantawangelo State Forest. Glitches in the footage have not only been embraced, but grasped as moments when the visual and imaginative fields of the image might begin to expand outwards and into new, speculative space. Seams of colour – of light and shade, and of greenness and blackness – are traceable in the forest as shot from above, and they are amplified and extrapolated upon by MacNeil’s glitching. Purples flare up across the field in fluorescent response to the natural greens, as columns of pixels line up like strata of the earth reoriented along the screen. 

The work asks questions not only about how we remember and imagine landscapes as they change, but also about what it is that does the remembering: can environmental and cultural histories be usefully stored and accessed through technologies like the drone? What kind of destruction and re-imagining do these technologies make possible? I’m reminded by this work that all looking is political, as much as it is affective. I wonder what the drone’s ability to register (and to change) environments like the Tantawangelo State Forest means for our human ability to apprehend their fragility, and our power to nurture or to endanger them. 

Regenesis is accompanied by the digital print Unforgetting: Yuin Land – Myrtle Mountain, which was developed as a collage of still drone images. In an entirely different material register are the trio of paintings Tantawangalo Now, Then, Soon, Again: Then, 2022, Tantawangalo Now, Then, Soon, Again: Now, 2022, and Tantawangalo Now, Then, Soon, Again: Again, 2022. These works are delicate compositions in watercolour, metallic paint, and charcoal gathered on Yuin land after the 2019/2020 fires. They are, then, not simply reflections on loss, but containers for it – frames full of negativity, of what is no longer there. Sensitive to the history of colonisation on and around the land from which the charcoal is gathered, MacNeil works here not in the disembodied drone zone, but in her own body and the body of the earth. If past and future reside in these physical places, she seems to ask, how do we sense the threats of historical and future loss?

Additional paintings from this series will be shown with Artereal as a solo focus at this year’s Sydney Contemporary. Just as audiences will get to revisit the work then, so too will MacNeil get to revisit the Bega Valley later this year on a residency at Myer House, awarded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund in association with Bega Valley Regional Gallery. Perhaps, indeed, a “regenesis” of the work itself might continue to take place.

Destructive Plasticity
3 June – 2 July 2022
Artereal Gallery, Sydney

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