Nicholas Mangan is a Melbourne artist with a strong interest in the material histories of the Pacific. His previous show at Sutton Gallery Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World concerned the history of phosphate mining in the remote Pacific island, which had become a processing centre for asylum seekers (see article). His recent show, Progress in Action, concerns struggle in 1988 by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to close the Panguna Copper mine which was polluting their island.Mangan’s strategy is to re-stage the BRA’s attempts to cope with the blockage of food and energy by developing new modes of self-sufficiency. Locals took to the ubiquitous coconut as a resource to sustain their existence (as told in the film Coconut Revolution). Mangan learned how to extract oil from the coconut which could then be refined as a fuel to power a generator. This energy was then used to project a film documentary montage from the time. Alongside the installation and performance were copper plates, reproducing publications such as the Bougainville Copper annual report.
Mangan’s work follows that of others who seek to re-enact past struggles, such as Tom Nicholson. What’s particularly interesting here is the contemporary relevance of the energy system that he re-creates, showing the way in which the necessity of deprivation can lead to the invention of renewable energies. As Mangan says,
Beyond the politics or history for me it always comes back to the core materials that are formed or sculpted by an ideological determination, like copper being used for capitalist extraction or the coconuts being used as the agency for an eco-revolution.
In Australia, this has particular meaning as a challenge to the way neighbouring Melanesian region can be dismissed as an ‘arc of instability’. It ranks alongside the television series Straits as a way of imaginatively connecting the continent to the oceanic web in which it is embedded.
Mangan’s work also opens up a particularly southern strategy for art making, in revealing the means of production. Exposing the supply chain works against the commodification of art by revealing the process that lies behind the product. It sociology it demonstrates the kind of creative potential in the ecological knowledge outlined by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.
Of course, it could go further. The exhibition itself is lacking a relational dimension. There is no active role played by people in Bougainville today. If only Mangan had the opportunity to visit Bougainville himself, and find ways in which they might like to become actively involved in his work.
Fortunately, the project is far from over. Mangan is in the process of shipping the installation to Brazil, where it will feature in the Mercosul Biennial at Porto Alegre. According to the curatorial statement, the biennial
gathers works together that explore different kinds of atmospheric disturbances propelling travel and social displacement, technological advancement and world development, vertical expansions in space, and transversal explorations through time.
This seems a perfect fit for Mangan and an important opportunity to have an Australian artist represented in this key South American event.