Elixir Bar, 2005. Traditional wooden house, screenprinted glass panel, blown-glass vials, plant extracts steeped in shochu, and laboratory glass, permanent installation at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, Japan.

Between Evidence and Imagination: A Conversation with Janet Laurence

Elixir Bar, 2005. Traditional wooden house, screenprinted glass panel, blown-glass vials, plant extracts steeped in shochu, and laboratory glass, permanent installation at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, Japan.

Janet Laurence’s work takes viewers on an amazing journey through subjects as diverse as ecology, feminism, and alchemy, to name a few. Exhaustively researched, her sculptures and installations demonstrate a deep concern for the future of our natural environment through their materials and images. In these projects, Laurence distills her philosophical readings, as well as collaborations with scientists, botanic gardens, and museums and fieldwork in natural sanctuaries across the world. Her use of different media, combined with recurrent elements such as translucent veils, cabinets, and mirrors, helps to create intimate and poetic spaces, while the museological display of objects related to the natural world and chemical/alchemical processes—stuffed animals, fragments of plants, stones, flasks, and test tubes—evokes the fascination of a Wunderkammer. Greatly influenced by the unique landscape of her native Australia, Laurence considers the memory of her materials, their processes of transformation, and their decomposition. From her studio in Sydney, she confronts nature and culture, considering the threatened planet of which we are a part while conjuring dream-like images of endangered animals and forests.

Paula Llull: When did your focus on nature and ecology begin?

Janet Laurence: I think my interest started when I was living in Europe in the early ’70s. I thought about Australia as a specific landscape and how insensitively we colonized it without understanding its very unique environment. We never learned about it. I decided to come back and explore the Australian landscape and environment through art. I worked with a flying art school and flew through much of Australia, seeing it from the air. We landed in places where people would gather for art lessons. This confirmed my absolute belief that most non-indigenous Australians have never really found a way of being and working within our particular environment. They imaged it as a European landscape for their artworks. They weren’t trying to look at and explore what was Australian about it, what was really different. I think that our most interesting art of the landscape is the work of indigenous artists who have deep connections to it. At the same time, I was very interested in alchemy and exploring the transformation of matter through my practice and philosophically. Writings such as those of the French philosopher Luce Irigaray interested me because they corresponded to my concerns through a kind of biological language. This drew me into looking at the nature of matter and organic being, which has remained a theme in my work. The close focus on looking enabled me to see the Australian landscape around me. So, one was like an embedded theme or process in the work and the other was a subject. Then, I started to look at fragile, threatened places, which developed a much more ecological and political aspect. These concerns have grown with our increasing environmental fragility, including very specific issues of place and habitat.

PL: Who or what inspires you? I’m not only talking about artists, but also books, events, and places.

JL: It’s weird how when you have certain concerns in your mind, suddenly other things become relevant and fit into place. You hear someone reading a poem, let’s say, and your mind opens up. I research in a broad way. I mainly read non-fiction, a vast range of books about landscape, nature, environment, natural history, weather, eco-philosophy, and general science. In literature, I find myself attached to certain writers like W.G. Sebald and his Rings of Saturn, which is an amazing book, with its associations from one thing into another and its melancholic reflections on memory. Such writings open one up to new ways of looking at things. I’m not interested in just facts and figures. Talking about artists, you may be surprised, but I love Mondrian and his theosophical writings. Also Robert Smithson, Mark Dion, and, of course, Joseph Beuys. When I first saw his work, I was excited by the memory in the materials. This was a big influence on some of my early installations such as Breathing (1991). Within an old stone stable, I made a room with bales of straw. The narrow space between the stable and the straw walls became the experience of the piece around/through which one walked. Disrupted sounds of horse hooves on stone came from within the inaccessible straw room. It was very much a piece about memory in materials. This theme continued over the years, particularly in the “Memory Matter Series” in which I explored the difference between memory/culture and matter/nature.

PL: You constantly consult with specialists at botanic gardens, biologists, and other scientists, putting into practice a real relation between art and science. You also borrow taxidermy specimens from museums. What can you say about this relationship

Waiting: A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants, 2010. Transparent mesh structure, plants, blown-glass vials, and laboratory glass, work installed at the Royal Botanic Gardens for the Biennale of Sydney.

JL: Most of my works have been research-based, and I enjoy working with the knowledge of scientists. My very first project was based on revealing DNA, researching in the lab with genetic scientists. It was such a wonderful project, and it opened a whole world for me; it began something for my work and triggered ideas about revealing and making visible the invisible. It became quite an exploratory and poetic thing based on what is really there—a work between evidence and imagination. Working on Edge of the Trees for the Museum of Sydney, I researched with anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, biologists, and an indigenous curator and artist. There were masses of information, but a pollen report revealing all the plants that had grown on the site became a poetic moment. It invigorated the botanical element and allowed us to name all of the species that had grown there over time. The piece is about the memory of the site, using the language of materials to reveal the natural history, as well as indigenous and colonial history, in the forest of columns. After that, in consultation with biologists, I made an Olympic site work based on water chemistry readings. In the Shadow is an alchemical, environmental, immersive space that follows the transformation of a contaminated site from post-industrial toxicity to living, green space. On the one hand, it’s a purely atmospheric installation; on the other, it reveals sensitive facts in an oblique way. It created a living space that continues to transform, bringing bird and insect life to the area, creating habitats, and healing the site. Ironically, In the Shadow was preserved by virtue of the fact that it’s art. Unlike the work of a landscape architect, which can be removed or altered as the built environment changes, this planting cannot be removed by park authorities. The information that I gather from working with scientists is what I want to be revealed in the work; I want to make their knowledge visible somehow, but I don’t want to reveal it just as pure information. I want to transform it through art, so that it’s more easily received by an audience, so that it becomes more poetic or playful. This is what we can do in art.

PL: Do you think that contemporary artists should take a particular attitude toward nature? Do they have a responsibility?

JL: Art—because it is creative work—can bring into public view some really confrontational environmental issues that wouldn’t ordinarily be presented. I am very aware that many people do care, and my work contributes to dialogue and activism. In my recent work dealing with habitat loss and the plight of animals, I feel an urgency about reaching people. Art is one of the ways to do this. People are bombarded with too much information, and art can provide a way to engage emotionally. I must believe that it’s possible, because I keep on doing it. The arts in general engage on an emotional level; they can bring you into something. It is very interesting to work with generalist museums on displays because they recognize this connection that art can make. I really think that art is the place to talk about anything relevant. Look what art did for religion. We don’t believe in the same gods now, but we know about processes of nature, the delicate balance of the planet, and man’s threat to it and thus to life in general. This is the major concern of our time. Most political discussions about climate change remove people emotionally from what it is and what it really means. My recent work attempts to bring us into an intimate experience with it.

PL: You use a wide variety of media, but installations and sculptures play an important role in your body of work. Do three dimensions give you more possibilities to express yourself? Is it important for you to get the viewer inside the work?

JL: I couldn’t do what I do in a single image or object. I know that an iconic object or painting is a powerful thing, but I still think it’s always going to be seen in relation to its surroundings, which will affect the reading. I make installations because they can gather and distill many elements and facets, and they cannot be viewed passively. You have to enter the space, which is like crossing a threshold into an intimate world. My desire has always been to make spaces that enmesh the viewer. I am interested in the experiential and perceptual response that transforms into a memory experience. Moving through space is different from looking at something, and the experience embeds itself very differently in our memory. You need time in the space to enable reflection on the concerns in the work. I want the layers of meaning to unfold slowly. Various ways of veiling create a slow space because you can’t quite see— you have to peer, and when you peer, you engage your body, you have time to think. I also use mirrors, sometimes as a perceptual play and sometimes to show you an object if you can’t walk around it. It’s a kind of visual play.

PL: Is there any particular process behind your installations?

JL: Each installation is different depending on the space and location, which determine what it will embrace. I always know that there will be a collection of different media, including sculpture, painting, photography, and video. The main experience I want from the work is a spatial experience. The viewer enters and crosses into a collection of related parts like we do with memories: we remember fragments, and that forms our personal whole.

Edge of the Trees, 1995. Sandstone, wood, steel, oxides, shells, honey, bones, zinc, glass, and sound, 29 pillars, approx. 18 x 9 x 8 meters.

PL: How important are public art projects in your work? Do you consider them difficult?

JL: There’s no doubt that public works engage a broad range of people and, in most cases, a much larger public. Interesting dialogues can be created, very different from museum-based work. But in public artworks, you have to deal with many other things. With so many interested players, often, especially if it’s permanent, you don’t have as much control, and the work might be altered in the process—though I would never allow the concept to be compromised. I haven’t done much public work for a while, mainly because I enjoy a kind of ephemeral experience, which is very hard, obviously, to have in public space. However, for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in Japan a few years ago, I did a permanent work in a little wooden storage house, which became a container for a more fragile work. Elixir Bar, which is also performative, allows visitors to taste herbal liquors collected from the surrounding countryside; local rice farmers are involved in the work and also serve as its custodians. I’m taking a similar approach in a new project in Berlin, which opens in 2017.

PL: But your public artworks in Sydney are emblematic. They fit into their sites very well, and they are faithful to your aesthetic.

JL: Yes, as long as I can maintain my own concerns. With Edge of the Trees, I spent a lot time on the research; I was lucky that the curator became very involved with the ideas. Because this work belongs to a museum, it is part of the collection and is cared for. The other public work that is especially important to me is Waiting—A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants, which I created in a public area of the Royal Botanic Gardens for the 2010 Biennale of Sydney.

PL: You have lived in New York and other parts of the United States. What did the U.S. give to your career?

JL: As an artist, you feel you have to go to New York. My biggest American influence came when I did a wonderful summer residency in Vermont, where I had a studio in the forest. I was very interested in installation in those days, and in New York, I could see works by Ree Morton, Judy Pfaff, and Ann Hamilton—artists whose works I would never have the opportunity to see here in Australia. I think that New York gave me an energy about making art. That period was great for developing techniques and languages of art since I had so much contemporary and historical work around me.

PL: Concerns about nature and ecology have evolved drastically. Have these changes in perception affected your work?

JL: I’ve realized that I want to be more political in my work now. I would never just want to look passively at the landscape—it has to speak. The more that artists make work addressing environmental issues, the more those issues find a place in the culture. So, while artists might not have the capacity to directly effect change, they can contribute to the political culture by reaching people in more inviting and imaginative ways than scientists or politicians. This is nothing new. Landscape painting sought to record the beauty of nature, as well as its destruction by industry. There’s an element of critique in much of that work. The difference now is that we have scientific proof of our adverse impact on the environment. We know what’s going to happen in the future if we don’t change course. When I was living in New York, I was interested in Land Art, particularly Robert Smithson. But that work is about form and matter and, politically, about the nature of art. Environmental art is very different; we can’t deal with the Earth apolitically anymore.

Paula Llull is a writer living in Australia.