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Beauty and fragility: Janet Laurence

Janet Laurence: After Nature, a survey of the work of an artist noted for her three-decade-long exploration of ecological issues, is both timely and of a time. Occupying two galleries within the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, many of the assembled works – and much of Laurence’s wider oeuvre – draw attention to the threatened state of many of the world’s plant and animal species in an era of accelerated anthropogenic change. The exhibition reflects the politically driven nature of much of Laurence’s work that resonates with recent mounting evidence highlighting widespread and accelerating biodiversity loss.

Filling one of the spaces, Theatre of Trees (2018–19) – a new work by Laurence – is the most immersive on display, and offers visitors an alternative perspective, as a step toward reimagining the relationship between human and non-human worlds. Tall swaths of translucent gauze printed with botanical imagery evoke a dim, shadowy maze that flips the more conventional human–environment hierarchy. Floor and wall projections invoke ghostly forms – a twilight world between day and night, this reality and another. In this world, time has slowed, trees are the towering protagonists and humans, mere shadows, cast fleetingly onto the extended panorama of time.

Janet Laurence, Forest (Theatre of Trees), 2018–19, installation view, MCA Australia, 2019. image courtesy and copyright the artist.

Janet Laurence, Forest (Theatre of Trees), 2018–19, installation view, MCA Australia, 2019. image courtesy and copyright the artist.

Image: Jacquie Manning

In the larger gallery, other works offer a pervasive sense of life beyond the human. Vanishing (2009), a monochromatic video documenting endangered animals breathing – filmed by Laurence at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, for instance – is genuinely transfixing, a stark reminder that human or non-human, we all share the same air.

The tension between science as healer, and science as harbinger underscores much of the exhibition. Near the entrance to the main space, Birdsong (2006/2019), Laurence’s interpretation of the traditional wunderkammer cabinet of curiosities, invites visitors to view extinct bird taxidermy through small holes in a tall cylindrical case. While Laurence uses beauty here – the abstract composition of the bird’s shapes and colours – to evoke empathy for the many species lost due to human activity, the enclosed cabinet effects a palpable distancing from the biology so carefully arranged within.

This recurs elsewhere, as in Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (2015–16 / 2019), that fills a separate room to the side of the main space. Here, floor-to-ceiling videos of marine life surround a central glass cabinet displaying specimens collected from the Great Barrier Reef. Deep Breathing is indeed wondrous, featuring scores of specimens meticulously arranged by colour – yet there are moments when the glass boxes seem to act more as a barrier to connection, physically and mentally, than as a means of encouraging it. The installation acts as a poignant reminder that the scientific gaze can often act on difference and categorization, in ways that can actually divorce us from our surrounds.

Janet Laurence, Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef, 2015–16/2019, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia, 2019. Image courtesy and copyright the artist.

Janet Laurence, Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef, 2015–16/2019, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia, 2019. Image courtesy and copyright the artist.

Image: Jacquie Manning

Knowledge (Tree of Life) (2018–19), a spotlit nook adjoining Theatre of Trees, explores this tension further, presenting a microcosmic cross-cultural library of texts that spans the breadth of environmental discourse, from medieval treatises on botany to Western paradigms of science, philosophy and literature. Knowledge, as presented here, is constantly evolving and sometimes conflicting, yet the message is optimistic. Science, philosophy, literature – the pursuit of knowledge may have separated us from our environment, but it can also offer a path to reconciliation.

Other works in After Nature balance more romantic notions of nature with an exploration of scientific processes. These pieces, while less visually arresting than several others on display, reward more sustained viewing. Solids by Weight, Liquids by Measure from the Periodic Table series (1993), for instance, a grid of wall-mounted panels of oxidized minerals paired with piles of elemental substances (yellow sulphur, pink salt and charcoal included), and Forensic (1991), a wooden box laid with straw, photographs, ash and fluorescent lights, both poetically evoke matter in transformation and the cycle of life in a way that avoids the occasional sentimentality suggested in other works (for instance, Heartshock). In Forensic, Laurence’s alchemy is intuitive yet neutral. Organic matter ferments and transforms. Metals corrode and break down. Elements combine and recombine at the molecular level. Like all species with which we share the earth, we live, we breathe and we die.

Janet Laurence, Solids by Weight, Liquids by Measure (alchemical plates from the Periodic Table series), 1993.

Janet Laurence, Solids by Weight, Liquids by Measure (alchemical plates from the Periodic Table series), 1993.

Image: courtesy and copyright the artist

The visual centrepieces of the exhibition Heartshock (After Nature) (2008/2019), a dead eucalyptus tree with gauze-bandaged limbs and Cellular Gardens (Where Breathing Begins) (2005), an installation of intravenously-fed seedlings of endangered species housed in glass vials – while initially eye-catching, are quickly overshadowed by the deeper reflection offered by several of Laurence’s more nuanced works. The grid of images that make up Fabled 1–12 from the After Eden series (2011) for instance, is more ambiguous and perhaps because of this more contemplative and unsettling. The array of images, each depicting a different creature caught in the surveilling eye of the camera, glow luridly, magenta and cyan. The After Nature of the exhibition title is hinted at, here, more strongly than in any other work in the show. What are the possibilities for a post-natural world?

At their best, Laurence’s photographs, sculptures, videos and installations give us pause, are a pertinent and moving reminder that the human and non-human must co-exist, and that our actions, however small, can have far-reaching earthly consequences. Yet nature can also be tenacious, adapting to new and novel conditions in pursuit of its own species-specific ends. In acting “after nature,” we might carefully consider the two.

Janet Laurence: After Nature was on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia from 1 March to 10 June 2019.

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