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Oil on canvas by Melanie Daniel

When the seawater rises, Melanie Daniel walks along “The Way of Flowers and Ghosts”

Text|Hui CHANG

In the ice-covered Arctic and Antarctic, ice caps are melting at an unprecedented speed. Vast expanses of seawater are progressively encroaching upon the land, extending even to Melanie Daniel’s solo exhibition “The Way of Flowers and Ghosts” at Hiro Hiro Art Space. The seawater nurtures life but also foreshadows calamity. Employing oil paint and a psychedelic palette, Melanie Daniel constructs a fantastical post-apocalyptic realm where flowers, forests, man-made objects, and traces of human activities are quietly ensconced in flooded mangroves or fantastic forest clearings as though existing harmoniously in ripples of a reverie.

Melanie Daniel speaks through her brush about the greatest crisis of our era and the momentous issue in the annals of humanity—Climate Change. Over the years, experts on Climate Change have consistently presented data indicating that humankind is heading toward a catastrophe of our own making. How can we envisage the world in the wake of rising sea levels? This is the core impetus that drives Melanie Daniel’s creation—visualizing the newly complicated relationship between humans and nature in a visually evocative manner and constructing a parallel universe grounded in the exigencies of our present existence. She states, “I strongly believe that delicate narratives and impressions are born of even the most harrowing facts.”

Melanie Daniel was born in British Columbia, Canada, and currently resides in Israel. British Columbia is a province dramatically impacted by climate change, with months of lingering forest fire ashes and lakes inhospitable to aquatic life due to excessive warmth. These daunting realities deeply resonate within Daniel’s consciousness while traveling between the two places. If the world persists in disregarding the drastic changes in the natural environment, Daniel’s childhood memories of a lush and ecologically abundant homeland will be on the verge of obliteration. This apprehension permeates into her canvas, manifesting as a recurring motif in the artworks. However, amidst the cautionary undertones, her captivating paintings remain a glimmer of hope. In her latest works, she juxtaposes delicate stains and washes contrasted with passages of abstract impasto and intricate patterns, and the Canadian wild woodlands seem to take root in the water in a vibrant and collage-like manner. With her series titled <Wetland, 2021>, in which the worldview is animistic and revelatory, Daniel not only looks back at the primordial paradise of nature but also envisions what kind of world we will leave behind for future generations.

In her portrayal of the aftermath of environmental changes, Melanie Daniel filters everything through water, emitting a colorful yet translucent fluorescent hue that appears to be science fiction, fairy tale, and hybrid. These elements fuse to evoke a subtle unease, reminiscent of the concept of “uncanny” (German: unheimlich) elucidated by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Within the familiar and comprehensible scenes, there are concealed contexts that leave us perplexed and unsettled.

It all begins with a tiny dung beetle. “I remember sitting one day in the sun and watching a dung beetle pushing a ball up a sandy hill. It was such a quiet moment and a small thing, but I felt happy just observing this insect’s Sisyphean routine. All of my thoughts about art, family, survival, and other perpetual loops in my mind fell away through this minute shift in perspective.”

In the face of an impending global disaster, Melanie Daniel immerses herself in the perspective of dung beetles. Among her paintings, all landscapes are submerged in water, yet she offers a way to intimately observe the flora-fauna-human relationships. Confronting this present moment, where the world appears simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, Melanie Daniel embarks on a profound contemplation about synchronizing ourselves with the natural world, reconnecting our cadence with those of the earth, sea and sky.

In the exhibition “The Way of Flowers and Ghosts,” the roles of subject and object are reversed. Even when human figures make an appearance, they are mostly engulfed by the vastness of nature, highlighting the insignificance of humanity in comparison. In <I See You, 2021>, for instance, a girl dressed in blue gazes out of a pink room, where the night sky is devoid of stars but a pair of giant ghostly eyes; in <We are Stardust, 2022>, human feet no longer tread on land but a water path, accompanied by the blossoming of life and the shadow of death.

Daniel depicts a gradual retreat of human presence while nature reclaims a new world. In her latest series, such as <Black Swan, 2023> and <T-Rex Blossom, 2023>, the deserted landscapes are dominated by flourishing trees, resembling ancient relics of past civilizations that preserve manufactured vases, digital game icons referring to technology, and aftermath of deforestation. Intriguingly, <Sentries, 2023> combines all these elements with a forest surrounding a mysterious core, a distant road leading to uncharted depths, and four distinctively shaped vases at the center of the composition. These vases are painted with elements from the popular 1980s arcade game Pac-man and the web game “Dinosaur Game” developed by the technology giant, Google, nearly a decade ago. It is unclear whether the “sentries” refer to those human artifacts painted with a cautionary pattern of “ghosts” from Pac-man obstructing the path or the majestic natural trees that guard the human remnants. The artist breaks free from the anthropocentric perspective and explores this near-future world from the viewpoint of both living and non-living entities. Through these multifaceted perspectives, she seeks to expand and reflect upon the possibilities of forging a new relationship between the self and the environment.

In this mesmerizing and vibrant future ecosystem, where the focus is not on humanity, little is known for certain. Everything is possible. Melanie Daniel seems to avoid directly depicting the apocalyptic scenes of demise, as depicting doom directly would be mundane. Instead, she makes it slowly linger.

After studies in Canada, Melanie Daniel (b.1972) completed her BFA and MFA at Bezalel Academy, Israel, where she later taught. Daniel has had numerous exhibitions internationally, including the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; Ashdod Museum of Art, Israel; Kelowna Art Gallery, BC, and solo exhibitions at galleries in New York, Miami, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, among others.
Her work is included in collections such as the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Harvard Business School, and the Ashdod Museum of Art. She has received press in publications such as Border Crossings Magazine, Young Space New York, Maake Magazine, Artnet, Newsweek, Frieze, Haaretz, CBC/Radio Canada, The Huffington Post, Beautiful Decay, and the Artists Magazine. Daniel is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, the 2009 Rappaport Prize for a Young Israeli Painter, a Creative Capital Grant, and the NARS Foundation Residency in New York City. She recently completed a position as the Padnos Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Grand Valley State University, MI.


Image: Melanie Daniel, "Sentries," 2023, Oil on canvas, 130 x 100 cm