“Strange Quiet is a meditation on time, an intimate interaction with the ecosystem of the reef, its mystery, its beauty, and its quiet fragility.”
Sydney-based artist Rae Begley explores the magic and ethereal nature of underwater scenes in her series Strange Quiet. Created after a residency on Heron Island with the climate activist group Groundswell, the poetic imagery immerses the viewer in a landscape the artist seeks to protect – one at threat from the lack of political action against climate change.
We spoke to the artist ahead of her Sydney exhibition this August about the themes and concepts that drive her practice, climate action, and investigation into the deep unknowns of the ocean.
When did you develop the ideas for Strange Quiet?
Strange Quiet is a continuation of my exploration of planet Earth as a living organism.
For many of my projects, the work is site-responsive and often involves the physical act of walking or exploration of the landscape in remote locations. This body of work evolved from an intimate experience of the reef on Heron Island, shot on film using an underwater camera, the Nikonos V, in October 2022 over four days.
Can you share some background to the process, both physically and conceptually?
Strange Quiet was created whilst snorkelling as part of the Groundswell Heron Island Fellowship with the Climate Council; the annual residency led by world-renowned reef, climate, and First Nations justice experts, brings together cultural and business leaders to educate them about the science, impacts and solutions to climate change.
Immersed underwater, we are privy to the cosmic glory found within the twenty-hectare coral cay expanse of Heron Island, located in the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef, which is the world’s largest coral reef system, the largest living organism on Earth and the only living structure visible from the moon.
There is fossilised evidence of past reef ecosystems hundreds of millions of years old – the Great Barrier Reef as we know it is only 8,000 years old, but it’s like a universe unto itself down there in the water. It’s surprising that we know more about space than we do about our own oceans.
The Great Barrier Reef has been in my memories since the early nineties when I visited Cape Tribulation with my family and experienced a cacophony of colour and life underwater; it became a nature experience that was transformative for my psyche. Strange Quiet is in response to the reef as I experienced it in 2022, thirty years later. The photographs depict the mystery of the underwater world and explore a curiosity about our place within the vast expanse of the cosmos.
The exhibition namesake references the Brian Eno composition Strange Quiet from the album For All Mankind which was created for a documentary on the first moon landing.
Did you learn anything new or surprising about your subject matter when photographing it so intimately?
As part of the Fellowship, I learnt from exposure to life underwater and also from the speakers, world-recognised experts including Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who is a biologist and climate scientist specialising in coral reefs, who taught us about bleaching due to global warming and climate change.
Underwater, I was struck by a Comb Jelly that generated holographic light; despite its size, it was vibrant and cosmic, just one of many alive, etheric beings in the reef ecosystem. A cluster of Eagle Rays in formation drifted past peacefully; later above the surface they would leap out of the water, in a graceful dance. The Green Sea Turtle I swam with for a while was so special, cruising around the reef, its shell textured and camouflaged amongst the coral floor; it was turtle hatching season on Heron Island.
The Great Barrier Reef is even more biodiverse than the Amazon rainforest. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world but she’s as fragile as she is precious – the major threat being climate change, primarily the human-led extraction and burning of fossil fuels, coal, gas, and oil.
Heron Island is the southern end of the reef, just off the coast of Gladstone in Queensland, so it hasn’t been affected as badly by bleaching as the northern end, however more than 50% of the Great Barrier Reef is already dead so we have to fight to protect the other half. Many climate scientists and biologists have the solutions for climate action, to preserve the remaining reef for future generations.
UNESCO has been reviewing the Great Barrier Reef as a world heritage site and has considered listing it as endangered, however, on August 1 it deferred its decision to list it as ‘in danger’ by a year. Professor Ove writes about it here.
The Great Barrier Reef is critical for our ecosystems and tourism to protect for future generations. It truly is magic, nature in all its glory.
What do you hope the audience will take away with them after viewing the works? And what do you hope to share?
I hope they feel connected and moved by the strange quiet of the underwater world.
Strange Quiet is a meditation on time, an intimate interaction with the ecosystem of the reef, its mystery, its beauty, and its quiet fragility.
Finally, if you could surmise what the reef and this collection of images mean to you, your connection to Groundswell, and if you can briefly, the intersection of art and climate protest?
This body of work, Strange Quiet is a personal response to the reef, the photographs are magical discoveries in a vast expanse of water comparable to space, and they reflect my feeling of hope, a search for life force in an ecosystem under threat.
Through the lens of storytelling, art is a powerful communicator of deep, important messages, and for climate protest. Art is evocative and relatable; it allows for a connection to be made from the heart space, removed from political and material motivation. It takes you on an emotional journey towards truth and sparks action.
I have been a member of Groundswell since their launch in 2020, invited as an artist to be a Fellow for the 2022 Heron Island trip and have also contributed to producing special events, including their Spring Bay Mill Fellowship in Tasmania earlier this year.
Rae Begley’s Strange Quiet is on view at 2/27–39 Abercrombie Street in Chippendale, Sydney, from 9 to 20 August 2023.
Emma-Kate Wilson is an art and design writer and editor based on Gumbaynggirr Country (Bellingen, New South Wales).