DEREK COWIE: IF THE RIVERS WERE RUNNING RED, PEOPLE WOULD SEE

23 May - 15 June 2024

As a scientist I know the crucial importance of getting our understanding of the environment and concerns about its degradation out to the public. The only way change can happen is with public awareness, driving the necessary political change. Over decades I have used all the conventional channels to get the message out from scientific papers, opinion articles, television interviews, documentaries, films, blogs, podcasts, and even articles in the New York Times and still we just keep trashing our environment.

 

Regaling artists including Derek Cowie with my frustration has led to many discussions about how art can help with this dilemma, the adage about a picture painting a thousand words always came to mind, and as a frustrated artist myself I feel there is much potential in art. I know the power of art to get people to think using a different part of the brain than when reading or looking at a screen. During one discussion with Derek about the state of our freshwaters, particularly nitrate contamination, I conveyed my belief that a big part of the problem is that it isn’t visual. Nitrate in water is like carbon in the atmosphere, if only people could see it, we wouldn’t have a problem. I said to him if only nitrate turned our rivers red this disaster would never have happened.             -        Mike Joy

 

Derek Cowie lives and paints in P┼Źneke Wellington. Cowie’s work is represented in several public collections including Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The artist exhibited with Peter McLeavey Gallery throughout the 1980s before moving to London where he worked as a scenic painter for the National Theatre and as an award-winning visual artist for film and television, before eventually returning to Wellington in 2015. Working across various mediums and styles, his practice delves into obscure art historical and cultural resources, unerringly motivated by strong environmental concerns.Cowie often depicts familiar forms and utilitarian objects and vessels as symbolic carriers of meaning, many of which have appeared in his work over several decades, developing into his own kind of iconography or visual system. At Cowie’s hand these seemingly innocuous things become new vessels, baring the load of another everyday reality; that ever-looming threat of climate change and economic collapse.

 

Dr Mike Joy is a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer in Environmental Science at the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences. His research includes ecological modelling, freshwater bioassessment, environmental policy, biophysical limits to growth and the role of energy in society. He is publicly outspoken about the decline in freshwater quality and ecosystems, especially the impact of nutrient pollution from intensive dairying on New Zealand's "100% Pure", clean, green image. An outspoken advocate for environmental protection in New Zealand, he has received several awards including an Ecology in Action award from the NZ Ecological Society, 2015 Morgan Foundation inaugural River Voice Award, and in 2017 the inaugural NZ Universities Critic and Conscience award. In 2013 he received the Royal Society of New Zealand Charles Fleming Award for environmental achievement and in 2023 the Royal Society of New Zealand Callaghan Medal for science communication. His new book The Fight for Freshwater published by Bridget Williams Books will soon be available in bookshops.