Interpreting Cultural Sources – Stage 1 John Dahlsen: Totems and more

Research – John Dahlsen

Contemporary Australian Environmental Artist.

I’m allocating a blog post solely to the work of John Dahlsen because I believe there are enough aspects to his pieces to justify it and it is also a good lead into Stage 2 where I will be analysing and developing my own source material and ideas.

Please note:  Much of what will be written here (with the exception of my own personal thoughts) has been taken directly from his website with full permission from the artist.  The same goes for reproduced pictures of John’s art works.

When you read his biography it is obvious that, year-on-year, there is continuing development and exploration in his work.  He is obviously highly regarded across the world, a sought after artist, an extremely accomplished practitioner and someone who cares passionately about the world we live in and the resources we pay little heed to.

Today I am only reviewing his totems but later in the course where we look more in-depth at other artists I would like to revisit and present a wider range of his work.

John DahlsenWhen he is not travelling John lives and works in Byron Bay, a northern coastal area of NSW in Australia.  For many years he has walked daily around his local area and along the beachfront.

Driftwood Totems

In 1997, whilst collecting driftwood to make furniture he stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris and was immediately affected by a whole new palette of colour and shape.  Since then he has scoured beaches for found objects which he takes back to his studio, sifts, sorts and colour-codes.  From these resources he builds his assemblages, installations and sculptures. Right: Driftwood TotemsCoke_Totems

He has found that as he works with these items he becomes more fascinated by the way they have been weathered and modified by the sea and natural elements and they start to tell their own story.

Left: Coke TotemsFlipper_Totem

Right: Flipper Totem

The unabated dumping of thousands of tonnes of plastics has been expressed in his work in every form, and he works in many forms.  His website is a delight and showcases an array of contemporary environmental art.Brown Foam Totems

Left: Brown Foam Totems

He says in his artist statement that making this type of art is a way of sharing his messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience.  If just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork, then it would be worth it.

How can you not be affected by these large statues?  I often think it is only when something hits you in the face that you become aware of the significance of a situation …. and these hit you in the face.Thong_Totems

Right: Thong Totems

For those non-Australians reading this, thongs are not only a scant pair of underwear but also a pair of flip-flops with a divider between the big toe.  Hence the name, I guess, as they flip-flop along as you walk.  In my experience people who wear them usually slouch along the pavement dragging their feet – not one of the better Australian traits!  And God forbid that I should ever be seen in a pair.

Here we have not one but five totems made from discarded thongs.  How does this happen that they are lying around?  Do people visit the beach wearing them and walk home barefoot?  Do they buy a new pair whilst out and simply throw the others down?  What about the flipper totem: surely you get out of the water, take the flippers off and carry them home to use the next time.  How can such a huge abundance of waste be just left around?  I understand an occasional loss of an item but this much?  And foam, really?

Ball_TotemLeft: Ball Totem

I can see the times when a football bursts or a tennis ball gets squashed but can’t people take them home, or even to the closest bin?   Do they not do it because there aren’t council bins any more or are they simply too lazy?  Do they realise the consequences of their actions leaving all this detritus around?

Look at the Coke Totems.  I’m aghast at how many bottles there must be crushed in those art works.  Perhaps it’s time these major organisations are forced to think more about planet sustainability.

So what have I learned from John?  How do I feel about his use of the word totem in his work?  For these answers I’m going back to my post on 31st December 2012 where I quoted the meaning of totem according to

  1. a natural object or an animate being, as an animal or bird, assumed as the emblem of a clan, family or group.
  2. an object or natural phenomenon with which a family or sib considers itself closely related.
  3. a representation of such an object serving as the distinctive marks of the clan or group.
  4. anything serving as a distinctive, often venerated, emblem or symbol.

John has taken a range of items, all man-made and all discarded somewhere along the line, and formed them into stimulating visuals which portray very strong themes and meanings.  These totems have become symbols of our waste, our inability to understand the consequences of our own actions and a sure sign that we have little concept of the resources and processes which go into the manufacture of these consumables.

Each one of us uses some of the items he has ‘rescued’ – I hesitate to use the word recycled in this instance – so we are all closely related to his subject matter and can relate to the buying, using, discarding, disposing idea his work evokes.

As for the part of the definition which relates to something that belongs to a group, family or clan, well, has John fulfilled that part?  Who is his family, group or clan?  I believe that every one of us who cares about the environment, who doesn’t litter or throw away items indiscriminately and who speaks up against it to others is a member of his clan.  I have never met John Dahlsen, I’ve never even spoken to him, but I understand his totemic messages –  and I appreciate them.  I consider myself a member of this clan.

I believe this contemporary work is extremely appropriate for the times we live in, with a message as clear and as relevant as those of the Pukumani Totems, the Australian Aboriginal Totems and the Haida and other Alaskan Totems that I’ve explored – all of which I have learned a lot from as well.

It’s time to explore my own totems and discover my personal interpretations.

Resources: – All photos and text used from website by kind permission from John Dahlsen.


About Claire B

I am a passionate printmaker, paper maker and book artist. I'm a 'forever' student and frequently attend courses and workshops to extend and improve my creative skills.
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4 Responses to Interpreting Cultural Sources – Stage 1 John Dahlsen: Totems and more

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