Nicholas Mangan’s A World Undone at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Every time I open my computer, I think of the precious metals mined for its manufacture and the carbon I’ll burn writing, and I wonder how we can properly critique environmental destruction with the very tools and activities that cause it. Australian sculptor and interdisciplinary artist Nicholas Mangan’s survey show, A World Undone, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) addresses these preoccupations and more. Eight expanded sculptural works present us with the stark realities of resource exploitation in complex and innovative ways.

At the entrance, coffee tables fashioned from Nauruan coral limestone are displayed on a blue platform either side of a raw lump Mangan imported himself. Formed by years of phosphate mining on the small Pacific island, the material is central to Mangan’s Notes from a Cretaceous World (2009-10). Unapologetically clunky and rough, the tables seem absurd yet answer directly Nauruan president Bernard Dowiyogo’s dying wish “to save Nauru’s economy by turning the ancient coral rock into coffee tables … to be sold on the US market”. We think inevitably of Australia’s perpetuation of British pillaging with our cruel regime of offshore detention, on which Nauru has become economically reliant.

By querying both the provenance and attributes of his materials, Mangan refreshes contemporary art’s dominant themes of colonisation and ecological collapse. The works are quests to the source with multifarious discoveries along the way, rather than aesthetic endgames or egocentric adventures with technology. Curators Anneke Jaspers and Anna Davis have selected the cream of Mangan’s output and architect Ying Lan-Dann has designed an exhibition of clean lines and sensitive spatial arrangements that draw you through each installation, building a clear narrative. The plaques eschew political conclusions, leaving space for the viewer to
join the dots.

Dowiyogo’s Ancient Coral Coffee Table (2009-10) reminded me of the United States’ seizure of another tiny Pacific island, Guam, from the Spanish in 1898. In the next gallery, Ancient Lights (2015), a giant video of a Mexican 10-peso coin spinning in slow motion recalls the 1848 Mexican Cession in which the US “annexed” most of its northern states. The term’s denial of military violence and theft is instructive in itself: I thought of a recent lecture by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, in which the Quandamooka academic said we should be talking about imperialism, not immigration.

Mangan wants us to see the sun, central to Ancient Lights. Fittingly, the film projectors are powered by a solar panel installed on the MCA building. Like the coin itself, the film has two sides. On the other unspools a medley of images: a city glowering with bushfire smoke, tree-rings turning slowly, a Siemens power box.

The beauty of the coin’s image of Aztec sun god Tonatiuh is striking and symbolic. Artworks engaging critically with minted currency have a rich lineage in the colonies, from Fiona Hall’s delicate gouache paintings of botanically specific leaves on foreign paper currency, to Ryan Presley’s Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal, in which the Marri Ngarr artist redesigned Australian dollars, centring Aboriginal warriors and leaders, and sold them at the MCA according to daily fluctuations in the international exchange rate.

In a side gallery, crushed rock is displayed in a thin vertical glass and aluminium vitrine in a sloping sedimentary arrangement. This is zircon, from a rock purchased by Mangan from Wajarri Yamatji country in Western Australia. At 4.4 billion years, it is the oldest matter on Earth. Screening in a pitch-black gallery next to it is the eponymous film A World Undone (2012), in which the crushed rock particles are captured falling in slow motion. You could be looking at a galaxy forming. Micro and macro are one.

Mangan’s rigour with self-sustainment and intellectual inquiry extends to hands-on labour and craft. Limits to Growth (2016-2021) converges the seemingly opposite poles of cryptocurrency and an ancient stone money called rai. Rai, huge discs arduously carved in the Yap archipelago of Micronesia, lost value with trade and the introduction of Western stone-cutting tools. Photographs of the stone money are displayed, including one from the National Bank of Detroit Money Museum. A video shows other photos being shredded and mixed by the artist’s hands to create a massive papier-mâché rai, displayed alongside. Papier-mâché is also the basis of a ziggurat of ingots, which gleam with a coating of aluminium salvaged from the artist’s discarded Bitcoin mining rig.

Termite Economies (2018-20) fills a brightly lit gallery with sculptures representing termite nests. Mounted in cabinets lined up with industrial precision, the nests show what “formidable architects”, to quote science writer Lisa Margonelli, these creatures are. Mining the earth, consuming soils and minerals and extruding them in forms that harmonise with the environment, they offer our species a useful mirror of labour, community and swarm intelligence. One nest looks like a human brain. A soundtrack of the rhythmic chirrups of insects sounds like a machine hum. Mounted on shelves along the walls, archival films of termites play in miniature, old televisions. This mid-late 20th century aesthetic threads through all A World Undone. The era of peak industrial and agricultural carnage, and nascent post-colonialism – except the first is ongoing and the second still unattained.

Significantly, it is not the mounds that are on display – those striking towers strewn across this continent’s savanna and desert country, whose colours and textures illustrate the variety of soils beneath. It’s the places hidden beneath, where things are made: the so-called engine rooms.

Mangan designed and fabricated these nests with 3D printing technology, using polymer and other synthetic materials. Initially this jolted me, then forced me to recognise the utopian and delusional desire for 100 per cent biodegradability that this body of work was provoking in me. I wondered what organic materials, if any, could be used in 3D printing. Termites, of course, eat our houses, books, clothes, anything that was once a plant. The giant termite in northern Australia apparently now eats plastic, lead and even asphalt.

At the end of the corridor, walled off behind plywood like something dangerous, is a diesel generator powered with biofuel. This runs the video projection of Progress in Action (2013), a queasily close encounter with copper mining in Bougainville. Throughout the gallery are old kerosene and oil cans, bits of rusty machinery, discarded tools and 40-gallon drums. Off to the side is what appears to be an enormous crate covered in a tarp. Strewn across a table and the floor are coconut husks: the detritus of tropical idylls, a central food source, but here most significantly a biofuel for the Bougainville Revolutionary Army that resisted Rio Tinto and the Australian government for decades.

Mangan produced the coconut biofuel powering this generator himself, “in a very provisional way, much like the BRA did in order to fuel their opposition … Through this exercise I was able to comprehend the human labour involved as well as the sheer amount of coconuts it takes to make just a single litre of usable oil”.

The film is compiled mainly of 1970s archival footage shot by Australian journalists. It’s relentlessly and necessarily ugly, a sort of nightmare companion to Taloi Havini’s series Habitat (2018-19), in which women from the artist’s Bougainville birthplace are filmed walking through lush jungle wearing beautifully crafted capes. Just as Havini has unearthed atrocities in her work, however, there is nothing picturesque in Mangan’s film, only schemers and scars. White men dole out Australian dollars. A shot of the mine crater suppurates like a vast wound in the landscape. On a loop, a Black man runs, a truck looms, a Black man runs, a truck looms.

Mangan’s latest installation project, Core–Coralations (2022-ongoing), examines the history and health of the Great Barrier Reef. On the floor, a large cage contains what appear to be PVC pipes ruptured by clusters of bleached coral. There are foam-like cartons, one open to reveal coral covered in the same icky beige-grey. These are from the Coral Ossuary series, made from actual coral, aragonite, mineral powder and resin. They produce the sickening feeling of looking at corpses.

Mangan’s research is worn lightly. He treats his materials and themes with a profound consideration of their complicated histories, implicating himself as much as anyone in this cycle of destruction and creation. Absorbing science, technology, modes of production, trade and conquest, he creates thought-provoking, enlightening works that reveal the interconnectedness of everything.

The gallery was full of tourists and art students when I went back for the catalogue. It’s a timely show, as the reef undergoes yet another dire bleaching event. It’s also in the perfect location, right where the first penal colony began in Australia. 

Nicholas Mangan: A World Undone is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until June 30.



COMEDY Brisbane Comedy Festival

Venues throughout Meanjin/Brisbane, until May 26

LITERATURE Melbourne Writers Festival

Venues throughout Naarm/Melbourne, May 6-12

BALLET Études / Circle Electric

Sydney Opera House, Gadigal Country, until May 18

CULTURE Nightcliff Seabreeze Festival

Venues throughout Larrakia Country/Darwin, May 10-12

FESTIVAL Mosaic Festival of Arts 2024

Moonah Arts Centre, nipaluna/Hobart, May 9–June 1


THEATRE Barracking for the Umpire

Subiaco Arts Centre, Whadjuk Nyoongar Boodjar/Perth, until May 5

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
May 4, 2024 as “Economies of destruction”.

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