Janet Laurence: Collector's Dossier - Art Collector

Issue 49, July - September 2009

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With a string of notable public commissions behind her, Janet Laurence turns her attention to the environment, creating image-spaces where nature, memory and loss collide writes Ingrid Periz.

Writer George Alexander once described the imperative behind artist Janet Laurence’s works as “trying to hold the world like water in leaking hands.” Laurence’s career is a lot more durable than this might suggest. Judged “a serious candidate for the title of Australia’s leading public artist” and the subject of John Beard’s 2007 Archibald-winning portrait, Laurence is widely known for her commissioned public artworks. For more than 25 years she has ranged across painting, sculpture, photography and installation, working with pigments and ash, stuffed birds and she-oaks, scientific instruments and all manner of glass. Her early work alluded to alchemy; she now works with scientists, designers and architects but across this dizzying range, what is constant is, as Alexander implies, a fascination with the world’s mutability, with the flux and transformation of all its elements.

The Sydney-based Laurence says her work aims to get “to the memory within the matter”. When writers used the word “alchemy” to describe her work from the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was to point out the way Laurence could hint at the transformation of matter, through the action of rust, fire or acid. Sometimes this was physically present in the work, such as Quill/Fire (1991), which combined rusted steel, photocopy, oil paint and charred wood in a stylish post minimalist fashion. Other works could suggest this transformation, like the treated photos Trace efface (1991) where images of what looked like denuded landscape alternately dissolved or became gummed up with imperfections within photographic processing. Laurence could hint at magical transformation while pointing to the elemental: a 1994 installation at Queensland Art Gallery used the chemical elements found in the human body, embodying the alchemical dictum solve et coaugula, or separate and join together.

Ephemerality is the word Laurence uses to describe this sense of fusion and flux and the devices she uses to achieve that effect today – “veiling, transparency and translucency” – are clearly legacies of her early painterly work. She says: “I think I have always had a relationship to painting and fluidity, and it is always still a binding medium in all my work.” She also talks about the sense of “slowed space” she wanted her works to create. As the 1980s progressed her installations became, in the words of Museum of Contemporary Art senior curator Rachel Kent, “increasingly architectural in their orientation,” engaging the space of the urban environment.

A key work here is Edge of the Trees (1995) produced with Fiona Foley, who was responsible for its Indigenous component, in collaboration with architects Denton Corker Marshall, for the Museum of Sydney. Commissioned to address the site’s history – the first zone of contact between the original Cadigal people and their British colonisers and subsequently, the site of the first government house – Edge of the Trees allowed Laurence to realise her goal of wanting a work’s “space to have a sense of place”. The work’s 29 columns combine salvaged wood with a listing of individual and species names in Latin and Aboriginal languages, with the names of First Fleeters and embedded organic elements like feathers and bone, the lot bathed by a soundscape of Koori voices listing Koori sites lost in Sydney’s growth. Edge of the Trees proved prophetic for Laurence. Increasingly, she would exploit the “immersive” potential of installations while the multi-leveled collaboration demanded by the project would be a feature of her practice in succeeding decades.
Edge of Trees is also what Laurence calls “a memory space for the botanical history of the site,” the salvaged lumber coming from a native species that no longer grows in the area. The living world – past, present and future – has become an abiding concern in both her commissioned pieces and her regular practice. She explains: “Our connection to the living, organic world is an ecological concern,” adding that she wants her work to “create spaces of perception that can bring us into contact with the life-world.” Does she consider herself an environmental artist? “I do,” she answers, “although I don’t like the term.”

In 2000 Laurence completed In the Shadow, an explicitly reparative work for Sydney’s Olympic Park in Homebush Bay, which regenerated a polluted waterway, incorporating extensive plantings of she-oaks with moving fog and 21 glass measuring wands which indicated the water chemistry, monitoring its change. She calls the resulting green, ribbon-like space an “alchemical zone,” as well as a metaphor for the transformation from industrial past “into a green and living site for the future”. Laurence has no doubts that art “can translate scientific realities into engaging experiential spaces that open the potential for a broad public engagement, empathy and knowledge of the natural environment”. Perhaps this is not simple idealism speaking. In the 1984 book Biophilia, the noted Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson argued for humans’ innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes. Understanding biophilia as those connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life, Wilson wrote, “hopes rise on its current”.

A six-month VACB studio residency in Japan in 1998 left a continuing impact on Laurence, who appreciated the intermingling of house and garden space in Japanese house design. (Laurence has been exhibiting regularly in Japan since 1991.) A keen practical gardener herself, Laurence is also influenced by the history of Western gardens, particularly glasshouses, which in her work often become sites of desolation or melancholy. Ice Glass House (2006) from the Botanical Residue series, shown at Galerie Düsseldorf in Perth last year, looks blasted, ghosted out by a bomb, while several works from After Life of the Great Glass Houses delight in the tracery of metal that holds the glass structures together like veins on a leaf.

Occasionally Laurence plays with shadows produced by the image and this, coupled with layers of translucency, makes the image appear to disperse and dissolve. She can also exploit the various qualities of glass itself, whether real or photographed and here she can fully mine photography’s pathos. In Only in Memory, from the Crimes against the Landscape series shown at Melbourne’s Arc One Gallery in 2008, tree ferns appear constrained, their bleached images literally bound behind glass. Similarly suggestive of loss is Forensic Sublime from the Crimes against the Landscape: Styx Forest series, where glass instruments holding botanical specimens contain death as much as life, while Glance in Glass from the same series features a glass bubble, its anamorphic distortion of the landscape it reflects conjuring up dystopian spaces of memory.

It might seem paradoxical that an artist attracted to flux and transmutability should choose to work on large-scale memorial works designed for permanence, but Laurence’s ability to engage memory and nature in works invested with a sense of place has found a sympathetic public as well as numerous institutional supporters. With Jisuk Han, she completed the commemorative Veil of Trees for the Sydney Sculpture Walk in 1999. Collaborating with Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, she produced the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1993 and the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London in 2003. Other commissioned works include the award-winning coloured glass windows at the Central Synagogue in Bondi, called 49 Veils (1999, again in collaboration with Han), The Breath We Share (2003), The Sidney Myer Commemorative Sculpture for the Bendigo Art Gallery, Waterveil in the environmentally-friendly CH2 Building for Melbourne City Council (2006) and The Memory of Lived Spaces (2007) for Changi Airport in Singapore.

Despite the demanding schedule of public artworks and commissioned pieces, Laurence maintains a constant exhibition presence in commercial galleries. In addition to those already mentioned, she shows regularly with Jan Manton in Brisbane and her work is frequently seen in Australian art institutions and overseas. Her forthcoming show with Adelaide’s Hugo Michell Gallery, Things that Disappear, is a collection of work from the past five years.

Prospective collectors who know Laurence’s public persona can see further examples of her work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia. They can also refer to Peter Emmett’s 1998 monograph as well as the multi-authored Janet Laurence: The Green in Glass from 2005. And for a good dose – literally – of Laurence’s work, there is Elixir in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan, where as part of the 2003 Echigo-Tsunami Triennale she converted a traditional wooden storage house into a glassy lab-like space that is, in her words, “part botanical museum and part apothecary”. Working with locals, Laurence produced plant-based elixirs that are available for consumption at the site.

Janet Laurence’s forthcoming exhibition, Things that Disappear, will be shown at Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide until 2 August 2009.

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