Exhibition review: On the Edge, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

An exhibition that explores Australian nature at peril.

On the Edge: Species at risk is a key event in the Royal Botanic Garden’s 40th anniversary celebrations.  

This art exhibition and series of talks and events over the next two weeks highlight the threats to Australia’s endangered and vulnerable plants and animals due to climate change, land clearing and the introduction of invasive species.  

The artworks are distributed throughout the intimate rooms of the historic Lion Gate Lodge in The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. The Lodge used to be the head gardener’s cottage and makes a fitting location for the themed exhibition, which includes paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, ceramics and textiles. On show by more than 40 artists are close to 100 species that are at risk.

The diverse range of works include Josh Dykgraaf’s striking photographic montage of a Gang-gang cockatoo with scorched leaves replacing its crown feathers. The decline in the Gang-gang population was sharply accelerated by the loss of their habitat in the 2019/2020 bushfires. Dykgraaf was struck by the similarity between the bird’s feathers and the shape of gumtree leaves and his work layers photographic images of the bird and scorched leaves gathered from the fire zones.

Several other artworks also focus on the impacts of droughts, fires and floods. Ella McGaw’s Fossilis uses layers of paper, which she has hand dyed to reflect the colours of the earth and sediment created by natural disasters. Cutaways in the layers reveal crayfish attempting to survive amid the sediment.

Stephen Coburn’s stainless steel sculpture features Bogong moths, inspired by the insects that created a curtain outside his Canberra window at night. The night-flying moths were an important Aboriginal food source, and navigate by the light of the moon. In the past five years, drought has led to a dramatic drop in their population.

Owen Crick also presents a metallic sculpture. His work features the long-living and over-fished roughy and is made from recycled materials taken from the bottom of a boat. 

‘Carnaby’s Calamity’ by Pamela Pauline. Photo: Supplied.

For Vanessa Snelling, one of the show’s three curators, creating awareness of the threats to Australia’s flora and fauna is only part of what the exhibition aims to achieve. They also hope to open people’s eyes to the beauty of Australia and its unique species. For fellow curator, Robyn Macintosh, the exhibition is also about creating hope for the future. This sentiment was echoed by Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Environment and Water, who opened the exhibition. ‘Protecting what we have will always be better than resurrecting what we’ve lost,’ she said.  

The art exhibition runs from 10am to 4pm each day until 2 April, and entry is free. There are also a series of exhibition events, including an illustration demonstration with Sue Liu on 22 March, an expert panel discussion with Costa Georgiadis on 23 March, a talk on how to observe and record endangered flora by artist Jane Guthleben on 24 March, a brunch talk with Dr Holly Parsons, project officer for Birds in Backyards, on 30 March and a high tea on 2 April. 

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All of the exhibition artwork is for sale, raising funds for the Garden’s research program. 

On the Edge: Species at risk
Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

On the Edge will be on display until 2 April 2023.

Virginia Balfour is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has extensive experience working in the UK film and television industry as a producer and director, as well as an NGO film-maker in the USA. She is a published author and journalist and lives with her family in Sydney.