Artist builds alternative worlds in MCA survey show

Artist Nicholas Mangan knows how to convert a diesel generator run on coconut oil and set up an off-grid solar system to power a film projector.

He's even worked out how to mine cryptocurrency using second-hand Bitcoin mining machines, all in the name of his art.

Geelong-born Mangan describes his highly unusual sculptural installations as a kind of material storytelling - he's likely the only artist in the world to make artworks from coral rubble, cryptocurrency, solar panels and the mineral zircon.

His first major survey show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, A World Undone, opens on Friday with eight of Mangan's projects created during the past two decades.

Nicholas Mangan
Nicholas Mangan's Sydney exhibition brings together eight of his expansive sculptural projects.

Even his earliest works are highly topical, addressing capitalism, inequality, mining and climate change.

Far from being solved, he sees their effects accelerating and yet hopes his work will get people thinking, rather than tell them what to think.

"I want my curiosity to hopefully transfer onto the viewer," Mangan told AAP.

A series of sculptures made using 3D printing technology is titled Termite Economies, inspired by a CSIRO report that suggested termites could be harnessed to locate precious minerals.

Nauru - Notes from a Cretaceous World (2009-10) considers the impact of phosphate mining, and Progress in Action (2013), is about the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville.

For Core-Coralations, which reflects on the future of coral and the Great Barrier Reef, Mangan travelled to Heron Island off the coast of Townsville and visited the National Sea Simulator at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, where scientists model how future changes in sea conditions due to global warming will affect coral reefs.

The work is made from three parts so far, on display together for the first time.

One of them, titled Death Assemblage, is a wall of coral rubble lit in a way that activates bioluminescent pigments, referencing the protective fluorescence corals deploy during mass bleaching events.

Installing works like this alongside his earlier sculptures has reminded Mangan of the extensive research and fieldwork he carries out.

Australian artist Nicholas Mangan
Inspired by a CSIRO report, Nicholas Mangan's Termite Economies used 3D printing technology.

"It's overwhelming in a really amazing way like just having this opportunity, having all that space for the projects to be able to be exhibited as they should be, but also in conversation with each other," he said.

Mid-career surveys such as A World Undone are a chance for artists to reflect on their output so far and think about what might be next, curators Anneke Jaspers and Anna Davis said.

"Typically the artists that have had these surveys go on to have quite illustrious international careers," Jaspers told AAP.

Davis hopes audiences will appreciate Mangan's wide-ranging spirit of inquiry - "everything from neuroscience and artificial intelligence to ecological thinking, economics".

The exhibition title A World Undone comes from a 2012 work of Mangan's from the gallery's collection.

It's made using a rock containing zircon, the oldest mineral on earth (samples found in Western Australia date back about 4.3 billion years, almost as old as the planet itself).

The name is also a broader invitation to consider moments of rupture in Mangan's artworks, where political and economic forces collide to shape the natural world and its materials.

"All of the projects have a sense of pulling things apart and reconsidering them, or allowing things to become open again in order to enable a different possibility, a different world," he said.

A World Undone opens Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and continues until June 30.

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