‘Solastalgia’ is a fairly new word. Many of us won’t have come across it yet. But we are increasingly aware of the condition it describes. Glenn Albrecht, who coined the term in 2003, defines ‘solastalgia’ as ‘an emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation (desolation) of a loved home environment.’ i In other words, it describes the feelings of grief, loss and distress caused by ecological destruction.
On a 37 degree day during a residency in Mildura, Kim Anderson takes a camera out to an area of bushland she describes as ‘apocalyptic’: a bare place of dead trees and dried-out salt lakes that is, she says, ‘beautiful and terrible at the same time.’ Here she documents her interactions with the landscape. The process of physically moving the body is a way of testing ideas; the photographs become preliminary sketches. Through the intricate black and white drawings that subsequently develop, Anderson conjures a space of grief and psychic turmoil. A barefoot feminine figure is depicted amongst gnarled trees, her body stretched along a fallen tree trunk or clinging to a branch. The texture of rough bark, the silky folds of the dress, are rendered so precisely they can be felt. There is quiet in these drawings, and care.
Long interested in the physical expression of psychological trauma, Anderson’s exploration of solastalgia—also known as ‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘ecological grief’—began with her 2018 solo exhibition To Live Alone in a World of Wounds at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. This new body of work continues and deepens her research. Solastalgia is a recently documented disorder, so new that we haven’t settled on a name for it yet, but it is manifesting on a global scale. Studies into the psychological effects of climate change have focused on widely disparate populations—Inuit in Arctic Canada; farmers in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region—whose livelihoods are suffering the effects of global warming. ii As the climate emergency grows ever more palpable, ecological grief and despair rise like floodwaters.
In Anderson’s drawings, the shape of tree limbs are subtly echoed in the gestures of the figure’s body. The dress—flouncy, ankle-length, wildly impractical—recalls the patterns of tree bark in its many folds and creases. This figure is at once out of place in the landscape, and implicitly connected to it, shadowing the trees that cling in death to the soil.
The Victorian-era dress offers a connection through time to Australia’s colonial history. Indigenous Australians, of course, have suffered the rapid destruction of their own environment and cultures, and the extent of this catastrophe is still unravelling. Historians such as Indigenous scholar Bruce Pascoe are still working to understand the highly developed economies of agriculture and aquaculture that shaped much of Australia’s landscape prior to colonisation. Early colonisers recorded tilled fields, grain stores, houses, cemeteries, aqua-engineering; often, however, all physical evidence of tens of thousands of years’ careful work was destroyed within only a few seasons, erased from historical memory.iii
Solastalgia was produced through hundreds of hours of exacting labour, and Anderson’s process offers, perhaps, a strategy for coping with ecological grief. Hers is a practice of deep looking, of close touching; awareness of both the psyche and the outer world. Her drawings exhort us to pay attention, as though our lives depend on it.