Water Worlds

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Catherine Nelson is an Australian photographer who creates complex, imaginary natural worlds using digital technology and animation. After earning her Art Education degree in painting at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, she worked for a number of years as a visual effects artist in the film and television industry until she began her current practice ten years ago. Connecting her background as a painter with her inherent love of nature, Nelson calls her photographs landscape “paintings.” 

For each final composition, Nelson shoots hundreds of individual photographs of a specific site. Using Photoshop software, she then separates individual elements within the photographs, creating an entire library of elements that she can manipulate and place anywhere in the final image. Most of her compositions are circular, a device she uses to tell multiple stories within the same landscape. 

“FUTURE MEMORIES”

Completed in 2010, Nelson’s first series of work is called “Future Memories.” Unlike other contemporary artists who choose to portray aspects of the climate crisis with graphic images of present and future catastrophes, she prefers to deliver her environmental message of alarm by creating images that reveal the astounding beauty and richness of nature as an idyllic memory of a world we are losing or as an imagined Eden that never was. She photographed her first piece in the series called First Freeze: Bourgoyen Winter, in Ghent, Belgium, where she now resides. Inspired by the work of Flemish painter Pieter Breugel the Elder, the winter scene documents the last time the city was covered with that many inches of snow. 

First Freeze: Bourgoyen Winter, digital photography, 2010
“UNSTILL LIFE” AND “SUBMERGED”

In 2015, Nelson completed two series of photographic landscapes of underwater worlds called “Unstill Life” and “Submerged,” in which she imagines “what it would be like to look out from under the water as if the body of water above is observing us.” Instead of our usual anthropomorphic view of the natural world, our position in these photographs is as just one of a multiple variety of species intertwined below the water. For these compositions, Nelson photographed vegetation in ponds located in Ghent and in mangroves in Thailand. Wading into the water carefully so as not to disturb the muddy ground beneath her, she lowered her camera below the surface of the water to take her shots. The vegetation in the final images is pristine, lush, interconnected and idealized; the water is clear without any presence of pollutants or menace. 

Unstill Life #1, digital photograph, 2015
EVERYNOTHING AND DROP

Using the skills she first developed as a special effects artist, Nelson has also created two videos that are a direct response to the climate crisis. For EveryNothing (2017), she took thousands of photographs of the tiny succulents, euphorbias, and cactus plants being propagated in small pots at the Meise Botantical Garden in Brussels and identified as endangered. She then digitally extracted the individual shapes of the succulents from the photographs and morphed them into a continuous moving parade of plants that emerge into the picture frame and then disappear, emerge again with different shapes and colors and then disappear again. As Nelson explains, “everything comes from nothing.” She describes the finished video, which took a full year to complete, as “a kind of meditation,” a haunting record of what we are rapidly losing on planet Earth. The music accompanying the video, which was composed, performed, and recorded by Alexander Berne and The Abandoned Orchestra, adds significantly to the hypnotic effect of the 60-minute piece.

Nelson’s second video, Drop (2019), was inspired by the recent ten-year drought in New South Wales, Australia, said to be “the worst drought ever recorded since European settlement.” It was so bad that local towns were just months away from being abandoned entirely. Acknowledging that access to water is one of the defining issues of our time, Nelson calls Drop “a poem about the journey of a water drop,” the liquid that descends from clouds as rain and creates our lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. 

Drop was shot in New South Wales using a drone. The actual drop of water was computer generated and follows a path from formation to its destination onto a cracked, desert-dry patch of earth. Although the soundtrack includes the muffled sound of thunder and birdcalls, the overall effect of the 2 minute video is one of quiet contemplation.

All of Nelson’s work is about the specific places where her photographs are taken, which include locations in China, the Danube Delta, Romania, California, Costa Rica, Greenland, Belgium, and Australia. As she readily admits, her decision to closely observe local environments through the lens of her camera is her attempt to understand how these ecosystems are out of sync so that she (and we) can better understand our common fate.

(Top image: Submerged, No. 1, digital photography, 2015)   

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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