An enormous tree, logged from endangered swift parrot habitat
A hulking log craned into MONA as part of the forests congress horrified conservationists. Image by HANDOUT/MONA
  • environmental issue

MONA queen’s forest foray has aura of ambiguity

Tracey Ferrier June 15, 2024

Late last year in lavish surroundings, loggers, saw mill owners and forest defenders sat side-by-side watching a performance artist extract a leafy vine from her vagina.

It was part of a peculiar gathering of arch enemies who’d spent decades warring over Tasmania’s spectacular forests.

Kirsha Kaechele had managed to wrangle them into shared spaces, over four days and nights, as part of a highly unconventional attempt to mediate an end to their seemingly endless battle.

“It’s very hard to hate anyone when you’re watching a naked woman re-leaf a dead tree from the depths of her beautiful female body,” the artist, curator and wife to Museum of Old and New Art founder David Walsh declared on Instagram.

The performance, by Moroccan and African-American feminist Narcissister, was one of many that punctuated November’s MONA Forest Economic Congress with avant-garde drama.

A performance artist at MONA
 Performance art featured throughout the four-day Forest Economics Congress. Image by HANDOUT/MONA 

Another came in the form of a hulking log craned onto the museum’s lawn to the absolute horror of conservationists who said it was from a forest that supports critically-endangered swift parrots.

The arrival of the fallen beauty sparked an unplanned outpouring of grief by indigenous woman Ruth Langford, who wailed powerfully over its blunted remains.

Kaechele’s account is that both sides were rendered speechless for very different reasons.

“Some people were deeply moved,” she tells AAP. 

“I think some of the industry guys were a little bit irritated or upset.”

For a while she worried the spontaneous surge of sorrow might spark a walkout by the likes of Sustainable Timber Tasmania, the state government’s forestry business. 

It had provided the log after organisers expressed a desire for an “artefact” around which congress delegates could gather and talk about the value of timber. 

For the record, MONA says it didn’t know the log was from swift parrot territory until conservationists loudly announced that it was.

“They felt like this big thing was now being made around it and they’d exercised a lot of trust by bringing it here, with the idea that we were going to have a very grown-up conversation about trees,” Kaechele says.

In the end, everyone stayed: the displeased industry types; the dismayed environmentalists; and Langford, who was keenly aware of the eating, chattering and clinking of glasses that punctuated her moment of mourning.

“I can still feel how devastated I was in that moment,” Langford tells AAP.

“A great, painful wail come out of me. I couldn’t suppress it. I didn’t want to suppress it. They should hear it.”

Kirsch Kaechele from MONA with economist Ken Henry
 Kaechele says both sides were deeply moved by the presence of the log for different reasons. Image by HANDOUT/MONA 

Six months have passed since that extraordinary scene and Kaechele says ongoing mediation efforts are yielding “incredible progress” with both sides still at the table, having conversations that weren’t being had before.

Later this month, a bus will take Indigenous owners, conservationists and forest workers to see private and public plantation forests on Tasmania’s east coast. Timber industry “royalty” Graeme and Sylvia Elphinstone, whose business makes logging transport equipment, will be there too.

The trip follows a visit by Kaechele, Sylvia and Bob Brown Foundation activists to a logging operation in the Tarkine, where protesters have recently been arrested trying to protect the habitat of masked owls and white-bellied sea eagles.

On that occasion, Kaechele was dressed to the nines in a tuxedo-esque suit complete with dramatic black tie and high-heeled knee-high boots she was forced to ditch at the coupe boundary for safety reasons.

Afterwards she published a punchy blog about the episode, talking about the “shit” mail plane they flew to Smithton on, hippie offerings for the Greens and cake for the loggers, sure to please because it was loaded with butter.

Later, when told it might have ruffled a feather or two, she says it was an attempt at comedy, a reflection of how she is, and hopes that if anyone is offended, the ledger is balanced.

“I felt like all sides could feel disrespected. In fact I think I made a joke … I think I said ‘I hope it’s like South Park where if you equally offend everyone you’re ok’.”

Jenny Weber is the Bob Brown Foundation’s campaign manager and was among those who went into the coupe.

She says there’s growing confusion among environmentalists about Kaechele’s foray into into the forests issue and has declined to participate in the upcoming field trip.

“I see the whole thing as performance art,” Weber says frankly. A social experiment is another assessment.

She says forest defenders were caught off guard when Kaechele arrived with Sylvia in tow.

“We were under the impression Kirsha was coming to see the forests with us. But it turned into a meeting of logging industry and environment people as it was happening.”

There were conversations with Sylvia, Weber says, but she’s not sure they achieved anything.

“Sure I’ll have a conversation with Sylvia but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll end native forest logging together because she’s not looking to do that.”

She does believe Kaechele wants to see Tasmania’s forests saved but also says “it’s getting murkier as she spends more time with the industry”.

It’s fair to say Weber is not alone in her confusion and concern but others do see value in it.

Descriptions range from bold, brave and refreshing to nebulous, muddy and naive, depending on who is asked.

Another congress attendee from a well-respected conservation group asks not to be named, saying that given Kaechele’s clout in Tasmania it’s better to be in the room with her, than not.

“I think the intentions are good. But all the main players in the conservation movement quite rightly can’t afford a dangerous distraction.”

A couple of groups take issue with the “economic narrative” they see running through MONA’s efforts.

Kaechele seems hard to offend and rejects the suggestion she might be engaged in an extended piece of performance art herself but understands why some might think it.

She says there’s no agenda beyond wanting all the good stuff: for nature to be well cared for; for industry to be world leading; for timber as a commodity to be properly valued; and for communities to prosper.

“We’re just trying to make it easier for people to talk to each other.”

She says it’s entirely up to the players to decide on sticky subjects raised during the congress like forest-related carbon credits, green bonds and whether Australia needs any of that. Not her.

Kirsch Kaechele from MONA with the team from Watsons Sawmill
 Some say environmentalists are confused about Kaechele’s foray into into the forests issue. Image by HANDOUT/MONA 

For her part, Sylvia Elphinstone sees value in trying something new. The trip to the Tarkine was the first time she’d observed an active logging operation and interacted with protesters.

“When Kirsha first contacted me and said ‘I want to go in, how do you feel about coming’, I said ‘well we must take some environmentalists’.

“She said ‘wow that’s wild’ and I said ‘well why not’. That’s in the spirit of the congress, to bring all parties together.”

Whether the experience has changed anything more broadly remains to be seen but Sylvia says it was powerful for her, particularly the moment she watched a tree cut down as an eagle circled.

“… almost as if it was going ‘what’s happening to my neighbourhood’. It was a moment. I care about wildlife, my husband does, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.

“I was conflicted because I have so much belief in the industry.”

As she stood there in the forest, she said she wasn’t just thinking of herself as an industry figure … the mistakes made on both sides during the forestry wars, what’s changed since the early days of the industry and what still needs to change.

And for Kaechele, who loathes the limitations of us-and-them thinking, that’s the entire point.

“I love the idea we can transcend those dichotomies. I think it’s cathartic.”