Art activism

Green Lifestyle magazine

We profile three artists who are striving to use their work as a way to live out and spread their eco-message.


John Dahlsen's installation art made from collected flotsam and jetsam.


John Dahlsen


Chaco, integrates sustainability into her art-making practice.


Tega's laundry/ wetland instillation that visually connects the 'man made' with the 'natural'.


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John Dahlsen makes art with plastics he scavenges from beaches. For Chaco Kato, participatory ‘slow art’ is the answer to a green and healthy lifestyle. And artist Tega Brain blends art with reality through eco-technology.

John Dahlsen

“I constantly ask myself how I can leave this planet a little better than I found it,” John Dahlsen says of his dedication to environmental art. For more than 15 years, the Byron Bay-based artist has been making sculptures and public art with plastics and other found objects collected from Australian beaches. “The vision for my environmental work began with a deep curiosity with evolution and transformation,” he says.

While Dahlsen understands how ocean litter affects our waters and beaches on a global scale, he also sees an endless array of possibilities. “In an uncanny way these plastics, as they were sorted and arranged in my studio, took on an unspeakable, indefinable and quite magical beauty,” he recalls.

Dahlsen’s personal life informs his art practice substantially. A drastic fire in his studio in the ’80s changed his outlook on life and he is grateful for the strong wake-up call. “It has led me to become a flexible individual, open to changes and able to respond to the processes going on around me and within my work.” He enjoys the adventure of exploring Australia when collecting materials, and has often found himself in dangerous situations, such as climbing up cliffs in remote areas.

Dahlsen strives to make a timeless statement through his artworks, reflecting his commitment to the environment. “Our planet is in a fragile ecological condition, and global warming hastens unprecedented change. Never have we so urgently needed art and activism to boldly promote consciousness shifts around the health of our planet.”

Dahlsen hopes his art can help shift awareness in a positive direction. “I’m sharing a positive message about beauty... as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways.”

Dahlsen has won multiple awards for his art practice and is currently a PhD candidate and visual arts lecturer at Charles Darwin University. He was recently an Upcycle Ambassador for the Nespresso ‘Project Upcycle’ initiative.

Chaco Kato

Installation artist Chaco Kato understands artists’ responsibilities. The Japanese native studied fine art in Japan, the U.S. and Australia before settling in Melbourne with her husband in 2006. Around then, Chaco started to reflect on her art practice. “Up until [five to six years ago] I was doing more object-based and craft-making work, which I enjoyed but wasn’t sure where it would take me. I didn’t know why I was doing it and how it would contribute to society.”

Inspired by recycling and other sustainable practices in different commercial industries and using fabrics and other organic materials, Chaco applies a green philosophy to her art-making. Comparing it to the rise of ‘slow food’, she advocates ‘slow art’ – the collaborative art practice that focuses on processes rather than outcomes and the sale of products. “Art has to be broader. Not just owned by the artists but shared with viewers – focusing on quality rather than quantity.” Chaco would like her viewers to think about time, changes and impacts, and to challenge the ideas of ownership and permanent objects.

Chaco also appreciates the logic of visual art. “Everything has to go through the right (creative) brain,” she believes. “If you just talk to the left (logic) brain, no matter how true it is, it doesn’t stick in people’s minds.” To her, it is contemporary artists’ responsibility to provide creative pathways for people to explore and shape their future with.

Hence, Chaco shares her art-making experience and invites others to participate. “[Parents] bring their children [to the workshops] and they start doing it too. [Parents] really love making something because they don’t get the chance to [do] anything like that. There’s no judgement, you can just be free and playful and enjoy it,” Chaco says. “I think everybody needs art. Everybody has the capacity to make something and make themselves feel good.”

The mother of two also tries to apply her green philosophy to everyday life. “I do a lot of gardening and cooking,” Chaco says. “I think about what I can do without having waste.” When she cooks meat for her family, she uses everything, even bones. “It can be challenging but it makes me feel good.”

In October, Chaco was involved with Mildura Palimpsest (www.artsmildura.com.au), a biennial art festival in Victoria.

Tega Brain

Tega Brain is not your ordinary artist. The environmental engineering graduate worked as a water engineer, designing and building wetlands and urban stormwater systems before turning to contemporary art. A recent recipient of a Creative Australia Fellowship, the Sydney-based artist is currently in New York conducting interdisciplinary research in science, art and engineering. Tega enjoys the cultural drive for innovation in New York. “It is great to be immersed in the amazing creative community over here,” she says.

With art, Tega explores the cultural field of different engineering practices. One of Tega’s early works is the interactive Coin-Operated Wetland. Gallery visitors insert $4 to wash their clothes in the laundromat and immediately see the wash water feeding a mini wetland system. “The consequences of the actions of those using the laundromat are immediate and visible in the adjacent wetland.” Tega explains. “Within the installation we want to wash clothes and support wetland plants [to keep the system running].”

Tega’s work integrates natural and human environments. “There is no environment out there in national parks and reserves. It’s right here under your fingernails. There is no nature separate and untouched by our influence.” Her artworks are also systems that can “improve ecological health”. She says, “We need to find a way to design [systems and infrastructures] to support a diverse array of life forms and we need to build the value of this ecological health into our budgets, our KPIs and our assessments of success.”

Tega believes contemporary art practice should be critical. “It provides a unique space for speculation, questioning and reflection,” she says. “There is no client to please or building code to adhere to. It allows experiments to be carried out that might not fit into neat categories of art, science or design.” She urges us to reconsider what is important. “Many technological innovations have been borne out of ideas from creative works.”

Tega also teaches art, design and engineering with a focus on social and cultural aspects in several Sydney universities. “What engineers do is as much a social and cultural endeavour as it is technical,” she says. “I like getting students out of their comfort zones.” Tega is also involved with Pingala (www.pingala.org.au), a community group that assists with renewable energy installation. “We clearly can’t wait any longer for our governments to drive the energy revolution,” she says.

Tega will return to Australia in 2014 and will participate in a resident art project in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

Click here for more on John, Chaco and Tega.