Janet Laurence’s artworks express her hopes for a life in union with nature. She cares for plants, and cures with plants, as they provide sustenance, shade and oxygen for other species. Laurence raises awareness for the way humans have given priority to careless agriculture and unsupportable industry, over the very species that provide abundance and benevolence. By considering nature, alongside us, rather than for us, Laurence conducts a quiet environmental activism. She does so by drawing our attention to the materiality of plant matter, and to the repetition and similarity between human and plant life.
In Memory of Nature 2010-12 was an installation made specifically for the Old Courts of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She revived the specimens in her cabinet of curiosity through a process of regeneration. The process differed from the kind of regrowth we are used to in a natural context. As a memorial, it acted as a lament for the various plant species under threat, but also to the colonial Australian paintings that the work referred to, directly in the Old Courts space. So elements of the cabinet of curiosity, installed inside a large transparent vitrine in the centre of the Old Courts held a conversation with elements in the Elioth Gruner painting behind, the Hans Heysen to the side etc. For example, a cluster of medicine jars and flasks in front of wrapped branches of pine trees echoed the curve in the road of Lloyd Rees’ Road to Berry 1947. Arthur Streeton’s The Creek 1925 presents a tree stump on the bank of a still creek, which was mirrored in the shape of an upturned plant in Laurence’s cabinet, whose main root stem had been cut off.
There, in Laurence’s cabinet, is a silvery root system, cut off just above lower trunk level. The repetition also enhances the observations, as early as 1925, of the damage to creek beds and subsequent erosion in late colonial art history. The distortion of a dead branch visible through a glass test tube managed to reflect or even mimic the cross-lines of Elioth Gruner’s farming yard fences in Spring Frost 1919. The ridges of a golden rock crystal shadowed the mountain ridge of Hans Heysen’s The Hill of Creeping Shadow 1929. Natural properties in Laurence’s work directly conversed with the old painted masterpieces of Australian history. Time passing in Australian history was exponentially magnified by her creative interaction with the site.
The history of land clearing in Australia is evident to the naked travelling eye. It is also charted and documented in Australian painting and in the work of Janet Laurence through her engagement with this history. Is there a cure for this state of our environment? Laurence deepens the entire natural message of disaster by dipping seeds in plaster, soaking dead plants in shellac. She says, ‘This work brought things alchemically back to life’.[i] Her constant concern is the alteration of nature, the transformation of natural things and the changes that are possible through art. Never static, never still, her work is in a constant state of movement and transmogrifcation.
For Memory of Nature, in the clear conglomeration of clustered Perspex boxes, Laurence placed poured silver, burnt plants in egg, piles of mineral pigment, scattered tiny seeds, burnt and blackened plants, lab glass with cobwebs and closed cultures in petri dishes. This was living and dead matter displayed as scientific formulations, as a means of interpreting the paintings on the walls around. The work functioned as a mediation of art history and as a speculation for environmental trouble to come.
Despite the epic story of doom and decay implicit in these old court paintings (that document the changes to the landscape from land-clearing) and Laurence’s installation (dead plants and protective tulle around Wolomi pine branches), the beauty of her work is always in evidence. This is due to her aesthetic capacity to create form and space that is compelling to the human eye. This reflects a major skill and curiosity Laurence has had since the genesis of her career – spatial design. She says, ‘To enter into a work is to enter into being with the work’..[ii]
Laurence might shroud works in gauze, or use an old greenhouse as an installation structure. For instance, she adopts the old traditional Japanese house in The Elixir Bar. Or if there is not an established space, she creates one by shrouding work in gauze, by hanging a huge branch from the ceiling or using mirrors beneath work to create the illusion of confined space. Speaking of nature and space, Laurence says, ‘I’ve been interested in architects who reflect nature, where it’s as though the space has been taken over by nature. Like Farnsworth House. I made a series on that. The use of grids, the hanging of curtains…these were a way of creating structure’.[iii] Farnsworth House was designed between 1945-51 by Mies Van Der Rohe in Illinois, US. Its organic relationship with the environment around it contributed to a modernist aesthetic in architecture, where form follows its surroundings. The structure seems to hover rather that sit in its setting, without altering the spatial ecology, but just acting as a complementary agent. This aesthetic structuring, a formal capture of chaos, is clear in all her works.
It is tempting to think of Laurence as an alchemical experimenter. She has had a long-held passion for change, metamorphosis and the powers of natural elements to effect that transformation. Her use of plants to elucidate these ideas constitutes the evidence of her own adaptability, a quality not dissimilar to the plants she studies and also exhibits.
What can art show us about plant life? How can plant life inform our social and cultural ways of living? Art has had a long tenure with plants (such as landscapes, gardens, bonsai and botanical illustration). Through the work of Laurence, art has now passed through a dynamic intersection: what previously may have been a more detached matter of representation, where scientific knowledge was depicted from a distance, Laurence has moved to a more intimate and closely integrated way of relating to the natural world.
[i] Laurence, J, interview April 2015
[ii] Laurence, J, interview April 2015
[iii] Laurence, J, interview May 2015