Janet Laurence

For over three decades Janet Laurence has been engaging with humanity’s experiential and cultural relationship with the natural world. Her multidisciplinary practice weaves together the thematic threads of memory and matter, alchemy and transformation, ephemerality and endurance, and notions of healing and restoration, decay and destruction. Harnessing materials such as ash and straw, minerals, elements and oxides, living plant matter, corals and museological specimens, Laurence looks to nature as both subject and material – a symptom of the Anthropocene and an agent of its critique. From her poetic alchemical works of the early 1990s to her politicised installations of the 2000s and beyond, Laurence’s practice looks with a critical eye at our fraught position within nature, enlisting empathy as the motor behind her self-described ‘ecological quest’. The artist’s paintings, sculptures, installations, photography and videos are microcosms for a global plight pivoted on the inseparability of all living things. ARTIST PROFILE caught up with Laurence in the opening week of her first major survey exhibition ‘After Nature’, staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA).

Your exhibition catalogue opens with a line from Dante’s Inferno, when Dante begins his journey into the underworld: ‘I entered on the steep / wild wooded way’. This is interesting intertextuality – are we, humanity, also on our way into the Inferno?
I do think we are in a strange place of big unknowns – perhaps we are entering into a hell, an inferno. This whole Anthropocene could be quite cataclysmic and we’re not really prepared for it. We don’t have leaders helping to prepare people for it ethically. Look at what’s happening with the refugee situation – we’re not dealing with it ethically. We’re not dealing with the extinctions of species ethically. We’re not prepared for it.

This idea of the problematic Anthropocene is evoked in your exhibition title ‘After Nature’, which is based on the eponymous 1988 book by the late German academic W.G. Sebald. Do the writings of others play an influential role in your practice?
Yes, all through my practice. I read a lot of books on environmental philosophy and poetry – they are companions to my work. There are a lot of writers who I love; people like Luce Irigaray, in particular, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gaston Bachelard, David Abram.

Rachel Kent described you as a peripatetic person – she commented, ‘you need a butterfly net to catch her and pin her down!’ You’ve lived in New York, Peruglia in Italy, and different parts of Australia. How important is being active and on the move for your practice?
What was initially very important to me was the experience of working in other places and seeing other cultures. What I’m finding now, making in in other places, is that I’m very focused on that activity as I don’t have my regular life going on around me. I like that total devotion. Everything I do in that place connects to that specific project. It makes my world a little bit smaller in one way, but at the same time it enables my world to be, when I’m here, a larger place.

You moved to New York from late 1979–81 to undertake your graduate studies, and it was here that your earliest installations began to engage with the environment. Can you talk about some formative experiences at this time?
Formative for me was arriving for the big Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Guggenheim (1979). To see the materials and the matter there in front of me, and to find the connections embedded in my memory, was a big thing. Then another experience was coming into contact with the Earth artists (or ‘Land’ artists), especially Alan Sonfist’s permanent installation Time Landscape (1965–). I just loved the idea that this garden was an artwork. I thought about it so much – what a contribution it was to the city.

I’ve dealt a lot with public projects – I’m on the City of Sydney committee for public artworks – and I always think about how public art must offer something to the city; it’s not art for art’s sake. The offering of nature is so important because when an artist creates it, there is more significance than when a landscape company does it. It draws your attention to it, and the work becomes much more than merely a landscape.

In 1981 I had a residency at Bennington College, which was three months in the woods in Vermont. Artists were doing projects outside the whole idea of ‘gallery art’. This had a huge influence on me.

Your works from the ‘80s and ‘90s engaged with different ways of ordering, such as the Periodic table and the role of science, but you approached this from a female perspective not wanting to follow an academic line. In the show there is the sense that the poetic, the maternal and the nurturing counters the historically male rationalisation of nature. Is this gendered approach something you’re conscious of to this day?
It is something I engage with, but not overtly now. There was a period when it was very important to have feminist principles in your work. With the whole idea of alchemy as compared to science, I wasn’t following the male scientific agenda. In one review I was actually criticised for working with nature as a woman, but I held onto my idea of wanting to use nature very firmly.

I didn’t want to just be a painter on canvas; I wanted to think about the enmeshed space that a woman might create compared to a man. There were a lot of things like that I would compare and think about. I was also interested in the writings of Luce Irigaray and the idea of the inside and outside spaces bleeding, the idea of the no boundary. I found many principles and philosophies to hold on to as a woman artist, without having to didactically paint it as so many women were in those days. I didn’t have to paint a lipstick!

It may be surprising to some that Dutch artist Piet Mondrian has influenced some of your works.
It’s like that funny odd thing that happened in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, where very coincidental things come together. As a young painter I loved how Mondrian transformed nature into seemingly non-figurative, geometric paintings. I was interested in a lot of his theosophical writings, as I was trying to explore space in the viewing of landscape. The horizontals and verticals of how we’ve depicted space. I did a whole series called ‘Pier and Ocean’ where there were these references to Mondrian.

Another reference to Mondrian is the chrysanthemum flower, of which he did all these amazing drawings in different stages of its death, all tied into his theosophical writings. I reference this in the work Solids by Weight, Liquids by Measure (1993). It’s a funny reference. When you work with a series of things you can often put those unexpected, unexplained elements in. As you work, things sometimes come to you that you allow to enter into the work.

Mirrors and glass feature heavily in this exhibition – what do these mediums signify for you?
Glass and transparency have always been important in my practice. Glass is what creates visibility – the whole history of glass, of lenses, the idea of making something visible and bringing light into the work and bringing evidence.

I employ mirrors as a way of creating an ambiguity of space; of making things more obtuse. I’ve always liked doing that because I’m interested in creating spaces that dissolve, where things aren’t clearly stated. They’re ways of playing with how you see something. Mirrors also root the viewer’s body in that experience…

…That’s how I felt with Cellular Gardens (Where Breathing Begins) (2005), which fosters a poetic parallel between hospital life support systems and the dwindling life of endangered plant species. The mirrors at the base of each apparatus brought me into the final breaths of these organisms, as if I were standing beside the hospital bed of a loved one.
Yes, exactly. I’m wanting to bring you into the work. With my installations, I actively use materials in a way that brings the viewer into that space. Often with flatter works you have to do it in the way that you mirror yourself into the work. But I never depict you in my installations, it’s always about you actively entering the work.

You’re pushing for audiences to actively engage rather than passively receive?
Exactly. I’ve never been interested in the iconic image sitting there on the wall, passively. I’m much more interested in an engaged and active space.

Though your practice is firmly mounted on ethical, political, cultural and environmental concerns, there is also a strong formal and aesthetic element. From beetle squiggles on a tree to patterned bird skins and colour gradients of coral, the works bring our attention to the beauty of nature. Is this an important element?
Usually I’m thinking aesthetically because I’m wanting the audience to engage with something quite intimately, and in order to do that you have to hold someone. I want something to be very beautiful that is in fact, underneath, disturbing. Deep Breathing (2015), for example, is a hospital for the corals of the Great Barrier Reef – it’s almost a memento mori. I’m wanting to create a vivid memory of these things but at the same time bring an intimacy of the situation to the viewer. I believe that if you make something repellent – which my subject is – no one will engage.

Site-specific works pervade your practice, the newest of which is an installation commissioned by the MCA called Theatre of Trees (2018–19). Can you tell me a bit about this work and how it came about?
It came about quite gradually. For a very long time I’ve been imaging trees, juxtaposing these images as panelled wall works that are quite layered. I wanted to imaging turning that into a huge spatial installation.

I was thinking a lot about how do we image trees now? It’s so hard because they are such iconic things that have been imaged in so many ways, it’s difficult avoid cliché. I’ve thought how to bring about my love of trees and the wonder of them but at the same time this disturbed feeling of their plight. There are so many elements to think about our relationship to them.

When I saw that space in the MCA, I thought I’d take the gamble and turn it into a forest. The space determined for me – as it often does with installations – that the form should be circular. Then it became in my mind a forest, with pavilions on the corner of the forest. It brought up all the possibilities for me to be able to deal with the feelings you have when you’re in a forest – without being literal.

It sounds like you work quite intuitively?
A lot comes to me intuitively – the feeling I want in the space. But there is also a lot of research to deal with a space of that scale. Then there’s a lot of rationalising things, like how much space do you occupy, and a lot of practical things to consider as well such as materials. So all of that starts to dialogue in with the overall feeling that you want.

As you mentioned earlier, conceptually your works have the potential to be very distressing, dystopian even. Yet there seems to be an enduring hope…
I think making my art gives me hope because it enables me to be active in the world towards the thing I love – which is our natural world. The making of my work is about giving hope. If we don’t act, then you lose hope in the face of information we’re given. It’s like anything isn’t it – when you give care and love to something, it initiates in you a sense of wellbeing. I do think there is a whole psychophysiological reaction in that. Not acting and being passive generates a hopelessness and a victimhood. I definitely want to be an activist.

Janet Laurence: After Nature
1 March – 10 June, 2019
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney


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