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Janet Burchill — Stein Path

The Stein Path is a 60 metre long moulded terracotta red clay brick path. The sculpture commission brief stated that the artwork was to relate directly and appropriately to the specific artistic and literary history of Heide itself, as well as mirroring both the natural and architectural structures established so carefully at Heide by the Reeds. Each brick is engraved with the surname of American novelist, poet, playwright, and art collector Gertrude Stein and laid in a rhythmic interlocking pattern, creating homage to Stein who was a keen walker, giving the path a functional as well as an aesthetic purpose. The artist, Janet Burchill, was the first woman commissioned to provide an outdoor sculpture for Heide and hoped the path would contribute to dialogue on the role of language and feminism (Heide Museum of Modern Art, n.d., p. 9).

In highlighting Burchill’s contributions to outdoor sculpture as a woman and in fulfilling her hopes for a dialogue between language feminism, and in connecting this artwork with the notion of sustainability; the feminism movement has been about transformation and achieving social justice, and hence calls for work toward sustainability in the interests of all humanity. The role of feminism in sustainability concerns diversity in general and gender equality in particular but also the concerns that sustainability has become so much a slogan of the environmental movement in recent years that it is arguably 'hollow', having dealt inadequately with questions like ‘what is to be sustained?’ and ‘for whom and for how long?’ (MacGregor, 1999, p. 3)

Ecofeminist Tzeporah Berman (2001) has argued that ‘language is a cultural artefact invented by humans in the interest of the dominant male paradigm’ (p. 259). This leads us to consider the gendered metaphors and euphemisms for describing the earth and impact of human beings on it. Discussions about the relationship between language and environment thus allows us to explore the meanings of terms or concepts such as ‘development’ and/or ‘sustainable development’ and examine the language that we use to describe environmental problems such as ‘global warming’ or ‘land reclamation’ that would perhaps be better termed as human-induced climate dislocation’ or ‘wetland drainage’, respectively, as far more accurate reflection of what is actually happening (Schultz, 2001).

'The future can be won or lost in the language adopted today' (Berman, 2001, p. 259) — it is thus necessary we open a dialogue about the language we use to talk about the environment to enable us greater consciousness of how we are masking our unsustainable ways by words that suggests neutral or positive outcomes for actions that are actually unattainable.

  • Janet Burchill
  • born Melbourne 1955, lives Melbourne
  • Stein Path, 1999—2000

  • terracotta

  • Heide Museum of Modern Art Collection
  • Acquired through Arts Victoria's Victoria Commissions Program, funded by the Community Support Fund of the Victorian Government 1998
  • Focus questions:
  • Discuss the commonly ascribed meanings of following terms you are familiar with and what may be wrong with these, and/or suggest a more accurate alternative:
  • ...nature, environment, development, sustainable development, remnant native vegetation, virgin forest, man-made disaster, green-house effect, environmental rape, disturbed landscapes, research whaling, by-catch, clear-felling, timber harvest, take (as in, allow hunters to take e.g. one bobcat per year), bio-solids, fugitive emissions, municipal solid waste...
  • Do you think this language use is accidental? Why or why not? Who gets to choose what words we use?
  • Why do you think technical language is often preferred to something more easily understood?
  • Can you think of any other environmental terms that have been portrayed with neutral, positive or inaccurate characterisations when the reality is far from what the meanings explicitly convey?

 

References:

Berman, T. (2001). The rape of mother nature? Women in the language of environmental discourse. In A. Fill & P. Muhlhausler (Eds.), Ecolinguistics Reader: Language, Ecology and Environment (pp. 258-269). New York: Continuum.

Heide Museum of Modern Art. (n.d.). Heide education resource: Heide sustainability art trail. Melbourne, Australia: Heide Museum of Modern Art.

MacGregor, S. (1999). Feminist perspectives on sustainability. Lancaster, England: Lancaster University.

Schultz, B. (2001). Language and the natural environment. In A. Fill & P. Muhlhausler (Eds.), The ecolinguistics reader: Language, ecology, and environment (pp. 109-114). New York: Continuum.