Neville Cichon’s artwork utilises the magnetic power of photography to protest the climate crisis by overlaying every-day scenes and objects with sinister overtones. His photographic series Unleashing Hell (2017) and Filter (2018) have taken on a new urgency in the wake of the recent bushfires and the escalation of our climate crisis. Exploring ways to bring an Australian perspective to the climate crisis discussion, much of Neville’s work builds on insights of the climate that were formed during his formative years: as a young boy living by the coast in Reynella to the threat of bushfires after he moved to Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills as a teenager.
Neville has two degrees from UniSA in Visual Communication (Graphic Design) and Visual Arts (Photography), which he graduated from in 2009 and 2018 respectively. He has featured in exhibitions around the world including South Australia’s own Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga, the McGivern Prize in Melbourne, and the Creative Climate Awards in New York. Despite these accolades, Neville is adamant that this is just the beginning as his artistic practice continues to emerge.
What drives your passion for art and photography?
Well, thank you for asking! I think with photography, it’s simply the power of the image. Really, ever since I studied Visual Communication I’ve always believed in the strength, the impact, a photograph can make. So that has never changed. Otherwise, it’s about creativity and how that translates and reflects ‘us’ and our society and presenting something new—a new way of looking at things. Basically I have a desire to continue to learn and develop and be surprised by developing new things.
Within art and photography, there’s often a lot of research involved, along with personal values and opinions, so it’s a good channel for a lot of creative people to go down.
Exactly. I create work for me, from a certain perspective, and when I put it out there, I’m more than happy for people to have their own take on it. I know people see things differently, but that’s just all part of the conversation, the dialogue and stimulating discussion.
I’ve seen a lot of your work and some of it is quite abstract, and then some is quite literal. It is in your face but it’s never in your face in the way that it forces an opinion on you. It simply presents you with an idea, and viewers can take from it what they want.
Yeah. So my interest in photography is not just in one style. In the current climate change work, you can say well there’s documentary and street photography that I’m doing by attending the rallies and documenting those, and then of course there’s the conceptual work with objects and things that are more studio-based. Then there’s the landscape work, which often has an abstract aspect to it. For me, that’s reaching out to different audiences. Still, primarily, it’s about what I want to do. I enjoy using those different techniques and exploring the breadth of photography. The abstract work appeals to a different audience, often people who are more interested in painting, and it’s more contemplative—you can sort of ponder the environmental issues through those works.
To what extent do you believe growing up on a coastal town impacted your reaction to the climate crisis, and consequently, your art? Particularly with reference to your 2018 exhibition Filter that you created during a residency at Sauerbier House.
From day one at the [Sauerbier House] residency I hung up a photo of myself as a seven-year-old junior Surf Life Saver for the [Southport Surf Life Saving] club only a few hundred metres away in the dunes. A reminder of where I built my respect and on-going relationship with water and waves. I moved to the Adelaide Hills, to Lobethal, and formed new appreciations of the contrast in seasons, the isolation and connection to the environment. I understand how compelling the coast is and how it draws in people far in excess of those that live nearby. This guides me to forecast how pissed off a large proportion of the community will be when their utopian coastal playground becomes a nightmare. So images such as ‘Circa 2030’ and ‘We are moving’ are blunt prompts to tune in to the topic. Whereas things such as the bather shots can generate a physical response and personal connection to the issue of us losing sand from beaches and things like that.
You said you moved to Lobethal, so you have that coastal experience which relates to rising sea levels and beach erosion in your works, but then you also have the experience of the danger of bushfires being in the hills.
Exactly. So there’s two photographs displayed as part of the Adelaide Hills Landscape Arts Prize which ends in January, which were both taken at Lobethal in front of my original house there. So you’re right, my appreciation for both environments has come out through my growth as a child through to my teenage years.
During your residency at Sauerbier House, you invited visitors to contribute to your work. How did this take place and what did it involve?
I gave them this activity—I had a black box and a white box, and some blank bits of paper and pens handy. I asked them to write down confidentially their brightest hopes or their darkest fears in relation to climate change, and then lodge those into the respective box. After a couple of months, I started reading through peoples’ personal reactions. I had assumptions about community perceptions [in Port Noarlunga], but I wanted to hear authentic and uncensored views of people in that area. While the issues they raised were not surprising, the degree of concern was, like how concerned they were for their grandchildren, and how frustrated they were with government inaction. That’s what lead to the thermographic portraits I did, where I borrowed a thermal imaging camera and took portraits of volunteers in the local area. I tried to capture their concern in the photographs. Then some of the handwritten notes became part of the installation, blown up to about one metre square.
That’s so powerful. I think the use of the thermal imaging is something in itself—about heat, temperatures and change. Having it reflected on people too, is not something you normally see.
Yeah, so it started as that cartoon concept of steam coming out of someone’s head. Then it was based on scientists, how climate scientists are feeling about all their effort not being recognised and how frustrated they must be feeling. It was technically challenging, because those cameras are not meant to make art, they’re just a tool.
Your photographic series Unleashing Hell explores the extremely relevant bushfire threat Australia faces, which is increasingly exacerbated by climate inaction. Can you elaborate on your rationale and approach to the series?
In my research in 2017 around climate change, I was largely seeing polar bears and melting ice caps, so I wanted to bring an Australian perspective to it.
I wanted to make it relevant to us. I read a report [‘Future risk: The increased risk of catastrophic bushfires due to climate change,’ 2010] which talks about the connection between CO2, coal, setting the scenario for increased intensity and frequency of bushfires. So I saw bushfires as an Australian thing, and taking that a step further, I then focused on household objects, making it really personal.
One object was a book I found in the UniSA Library. I didn’t even need to open it, it just spoke the words that we’ve known about this and had massive conferences on this with thousands of people in 1988, ‘Planning for Climate Change’. The noose I found very difficult, I was very reluctant to release that but I feel it was reflecting the simple fact that bushfires do kill people.
The strong link to electricity continues with the air-conditioning remote control that relates to our systemically poor house design and our reliance on an air-conditioning, thus increasing electricity consumption. The remote has been melted to also reflect radiant heat that you can experience hundreds of metres away from a fire, which is capable of killing somebody.
In ‘Words fail us’ I refer to the fire danger rating where a value of 100 is Catastrophic and that means run. But, I found that the Marysville fire had a rating of 187 and recently when the Snowy Mountains were under threat, they forecast a rating of 200. So, how can we quantify these things for us to understand? We need to change our language at the same rate our climate is changing.
There were some works from Unleashing Hell in the New York Creative Climate Awards, weren’t there?
Yeah, I guess an opportunity for any artist in the climate change space is that there are a number of events and avenues to expose your work. In New York, there’s the Human Impact Institute and they’ve been holding the Creative Climate Awards each year for at least the last five years or so. So they had an exhibition for a month on 42nd street in New York in a high profile venue, and I had work from Unleashing Hell, and also from Filter in 2018. So that’s just a great recognition of work that’s been produced in Australia being recognised internationally over there.
It’s great to have artists from all over the world showing that it’s a very global issue. It’s not just localised to one place.
Exactly. Recently I was in Melbourne launching a public artwork part of the McGivern Prize, which had a focus on the Anthropocene. You go along to that and you see over forty artists who have been doing this for years as well. So there is a large history to artists working in this space, and obviously a long future as well.
Do you find it encouraging presenting alongside other artists that are doing similar things to you and advocating the same things?
Yeah for sure. I think there’s artists of varying levels—I consider myself an emerging artist and it’s great to have your work around a lot of experienced artists, but still respecting that everyone’s doing it in their own way, having their own reference point, some more subtle some more hard-hitting.
Do you feel it is an artist’s role to advocate for climate action through their art?
I think artists can define their own roles. Beyond the artist that may specifically focus on the issue of climate change, there are many more who are concerned with the environment, human rights, leadership, and our actions that are just as important. Those things overlap and are interwoven.
I don’t think an artist is compelled to be an advocate, but it is something they do well.
Are you currently working on any art projects, and if so, what do they look like?
Wet. I’ve just announced that I have a Helpmann Academy Elevate Mentorship, which I’ve been granted to seek guidance from Che Chorley. He’s well known for his ‘Land Sea You Me’ project among others. So I intend to shoot a lot of photographs on and in the sea. I’m researching the human impact on marine ecosystems. That’s part of the plan to develop new work for a solo exhibition in 2021, back at Sauerbier House.
What do you hope to see in young, emerging artists as we continue to face the climate crisis? Show us the future. We know what mess we are in now, but what comes next? Perhaps sprinkle in a dash of hope.
Interview by Christina Massolino