The most significant venue of her career was about to host her most important work yet, but Quandamooka artist Megan Cope almost didn’t board the plane to attend its opening night in Paris.
Cope couldn’t find her passport. But that wasn’t the main reason she was on the brink of choosing to stay in her Lismore studio rather than fly off to join a handful of selected artists from around the world displaying their work in the Palais de Tokyo’s Reclaim the Earth exhibition.
Mainly, it was because the northern rivers town had just been ravaged by flood waters for the second time in a matter of weeks. Cope’s world had just been upended. And this was just the latest dramatic chapter in the history of an artwork born of catastrophe.
Untitled (Death Song) – created on Wurundjeri land in an East Brunswick back yard during the black summer in which Melbourne choked beneath black and red skies – was bound for Paris in 2020 before the sickness and death of pandemic brought the world to a halt.
But the catastrophe in Untitled (Death Song) runs deeper still. The sonic sculpture is made from bits of discarded mining tools, blasted earth and violin, double bass and cello strings, sculpted into instruments which, when played by a team of musicians, mimic the haunting cry of the bush stone-curlew.
“Which is a harbinger of death, certainly on Stradbroke Island, but also in many other blackfella communities,” Cope says.
In Paris, five enthusiastic musicians were being trained – or untrained – to bring Untitled (Death Song) to life, having been selected for their “openness to unlearning and deep listening”.
The Parisians were so enthusiastic about their task they wanted to improvise for hours. But Cope was back in regional New South Wales “existing on a minute-to-minute basis”.
“That horizon line completely disappeared,” she says.
Cope often uses maps, paper and documents in explorations of identity and environment and criticisms of colonialism. In an instant, the floods had destroyed 20 years of her collected material. And not only material she used to create new art, but to document past work.
“All of my exhibition catalogues, all of the exhibition catalogues of my friends that I’ve been collecting,” Cope says. “The sort of things that, as an artist, go into a museum when you die.”
Not all the objects in her studio were destroyed though. “Shells, rocks and other weird things” that she had collected could be cleaned, and many local volunteers turned out to help salvage what they could.
“We were burnt out and fatigued,” Cope says. “And so a lot of people were happy to come and just wash things. It felt very cathartic and it was quite a positive thing, to be salvaging, as opposed to throwing things away.”
Amid the detritus of her creative career, Cope could be forgiven for not finding her passport, nor wanting to leave behind fellow flood refugees.
But the world was talking in Paris, and Cope had conversations to share. Ideas she had been discussing with the likes of “blackfella artist Brian Martin and the incredible elder and Aboriginal philosopher Aunty Mary Graham”.
“I kept saying in France that, ‘Really, when we think about it, it’s kind of your fault that we’re in this position,’” Cope says.
Because when, in the 17th century, René Descartes pronounces “I think, therefore, I am”, Europe’s “philosophical relationship with the whole world changes, suddenly”.
“Eurocentrism and the western logic of possession, it all stems from that,” Cope says. “Suddenly, nature is a resource and a commodity to extract from, and we no longer have a sense of duty, care or responsibility to it.”
In contrast, she says, Indigenous people’s ontology is: “I am located, therefore, I am.
“I belong to this place and this place belongs to me. And therefore I am accountable to it and responsible for it.”
In Paris, Cope was surprised by the reaction these ideas received. She had been to Europe before and a lot of her questioning of colonialism had been “dismissed”. This time, however, it was different.
“Those sorts of conversations were just, like, normal,” Cope says. “It was so cool.”
More generally, she encountered “a real appetite for change”.
“The pandemic, climate collapse, you know, the shit’s hitting the fan and finally Europe is going: ‘OK, oh, maybe we do need to do something,’” Cope laughs.
Though it is often scientists, economists or politicians to whom we turn for guidance on what that something might look like, Cope says artists can reach people’s emotion and intellect, challenge audiences and inspire them to act. Because Untitled (Death Song) is not a work designed to instil despair.
“It is also about when we listen to nature, and we respect it, and we honour its power as a sentient being that holds knowledge of millions of years,” Cope says. “Animals do have knowledge, they can guide us into the right action, into understanding how environments can be restored and climates can be stabilised.”
While Cope understands the climate crisis may lead to fear and anxiety, she says those emotions should not become crippling.
“It’s a very sort of western and very basic and reactive response to be like: ‘Oh, it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end,’” Cope says.
“We could be optimistic and say, well, maybe this is the end of extractive capitalism. And with the end of that comes a rebirth, or a new way forward. We have a future, perhaps.”
And while people in the great colonial centres like Paris may be grappling with these concepts for the first time, Cope says First Nations people in Australia have been dealing with them for more than 200 years.
“Our people have already seen the apocalypse, the end of life as we knew it, before the colony arrived,” Cope says. “We’re still here.”
Yes, First Nations people have changed, she says, “because our environments have changed”. This is nature.
“Death is birth – and these two things are inextricably linked,” Cope says. “You can see it as the end or the beginning.”