Watch JR’s poignant procession for Australia’s agricultural emergency

Watch JR’s poignant procession for Australia’s agricultural emergency

Released for Earth Day 2021, French artist JR’s film, Homily to Country, is an intensely human commentary on the ecological decline of the Darling/Baaka river system in south-eastern Australia

French artist and photographer JR’s Homily to Country is a multi-part work that draws attention to the ecological decline of the Darling/Baaka river system in south-eastern Australia. The impact of this is both environmental and intensely human, the result of intensive water extraction due to irrigation, climate change and drought. 

Composed of three distinct parts involving documentary, portrait photography and installation, JR’s project is a poignant reminder of the local and global effects of human behaviour. 

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), in Melbourne, hopes that JR’s artwork will stimulate necessary debate in Australia, and emphasise the ecological priorities of the Darling/Baaka river system. ‘This is a real situation playing out around us, affecting real people in various communities including regional towns, farming families and Indigenous community members,’ says Ewan McEoin, senior curator of contemporary design and architecture at the NGV, who worked with JR on this project. ‘It’s no accident that we’re releasing this film with JR on Earth Day, a moment to reflect on our relationship to and reliance upon natural systems.’

Aerial views of Homily to Country 2020 during a live procession in Menindee Lakes, New South Wales, Australia, on Saturday 27 February 2021. Photography: NGV

This is a project that has its roots halfway around the world in Italy, where JR, alongside Italian film director Alice Rohrwacher, felt compelled to address the destruction of the local agricultural landscape. The resulting film was Omelia Contadina, which depicted a farming community gathering on a plateau on the border of Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany, for the ‘funeral for traditional agriculture’.

Similarly, Homily to Country comprises aerial-view footage of a live procession in the dry bed of Lake Cawndilla, in Australia’s New South Wales. The event, which took place in February, features four 30m-long portrait photographs transported through the arid Menindee Lakes district by the subjects of the portraits themselves. This poignant, provocative piece brings into sharp focus the plight of individuals affected by the Darling/Baaka river’s decline, and those fighting to save it. It also spotlights the tensions that often exist between Indigenous peoples, ‘family farms’ and multinational agribusinesses. 

Above: Installation view of JR’s work Homily to Country 2020 during NGV Triennial 2020, which ran from from 19 December 2020 – 18 April 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne © JR. Photography: Tom Ross. Below: Aerial view of Homily to Country 2020 during a live procession in Menindee Lakes, New South Wales, Australia on Saturday 27 February 2021. Photography: NGV

In the NGV Grollo Equiset Garden, the artist installed an open-air chapel, which was on display as part of the NGV Triennial. Stained-glass windows feature photographic portraits honouring those who have close connections to the river. These include senior elder of the Baakandji people and respected spokesperson on the Darling/Baaka river, Badger Bates; orchardists Rachel Strachan and Alan Whyte, who have both had to remove their once highly-productive commercial orchards due to lack of irrigation flows; and Wayne Smith, a sixth-generation farmer whose family have lived and worked along the river since the early 1890s. As McEoin says, ‘JR’s artwork draws attention to one of Australia’s most pressing ecological challenges and reveals the potential of contemporary art to tell important stories of our time.’ §​​​​

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