This “glass garden” by artist Janet Laurence at the Novartis Pharmaceuticals headquarters in Sydney occupies a space between art, science, imagination and memory.
While the practice of making public art has moved far beyond the historical limits of monuments, modernist icons and heroes on horses, our understanding of how to consider and include art in public spaces hasn’t always kept pace with the shifting forms that define the practice.
The traps of expectation that often catch relate to a dated idea of what public art should be, one that has yet to move beyond the concept of public art as a static, detached object and toward the potential for integration and engagement. The role of public or site-specific art often resides in a conflicted place in the psyche of those involved in the creation of public spaces. It is still, in some cases, narrowly treated as adornment – at worst, the landscape equivalent of a throw cushion or coffee-table book. Yet public art is simultaneously asked to answer the need for cultural relevance and references to locality, and expected to function as an icon and marketing tool; it is often expected to address (and resolve) the cultural baggage that can come with development. Refreshingly, this project offers more than a tick in the box on the public space “kit of parts” or best-practice checklist.
Located at the new Novartis Pharmaceuticals headquarters in Sydney’s Macquarie Park (designed by HDR Rice Daubney), Medicinal Maze Inveiling Glass is described by its artist, Janet Laurence, as a “glass garden.” The site-specific body of work exists in a spectrum between art, science, imagination and memory. Conscious of history, ecology, the nature of perception and the alchemical qualities of materials, Laurence’s work often results in a kind of organic, transient architecture that reveals our relationship to nature.
Medicinal Maze’s glass garden is defined by a formal grid of glass panels, standing above head height and almost arm-span wide. Floating, green-glazed and white images derived from historic drawings of the botanical and horticultural world are presented like specimens suspended in the glass, giving the impression of squished vitrines or enlarged microscope slides.
The panels themselves act as both veils and screens, presenting and preserving memories. Laurence describes applying the images to the glass as a process of spilling and pouring, mimicking the gesture of sowing seeds. Their presence and appearance are intended to suggest the properties available for extraction – essential oils and liquids. The screens perform the roles of texts and ghosts, allowing a history to be read and condensing the remnants of a practice, the human effort sustained in the study of medicinal plants, into a physical, visual element of embodied memory. The selected images mirror and recall the botanical history of collection and recording, drawing and examining.
When viewed up close, the artwork’s panels occupy most of your field of vision. They are to be looked through as much as at. To see the work whole involves walking through the low-planted garden of strongly scented medicinal herbs and around the panels. Walking through the translucent maze facilitates an experience that moves beyond the passive and receptive; it is a walk and a viewing that shifts with individual movement and responds to the clemencies of weather. Crucially, the installation does not “decorate” the planted garden, but is instead entwined and inseparable from it.
Cleverly, the grid-like structure and hints of scent subtly recall the geometry and experience of a hortus conclusus, a medieval walled garden intended for pleasure, contemplation and cure (albeit as a kind of faint echo or reminder of a time when the study of pharmaceuticals had humbler beginnings – in the dirt).
The glass garden is sited adja cent to a breakout space; it is of course impossible to say whether workers eating their lunch or savouring a coffee make much of the artwork that sits beside them, or whether they contemplate the lives of medieval monks and the gardens they tended. Definitively not on a plinth and far from a gallery wall’s explanatory panels, the work provides refreshingly little guide to interpretation or hint of a fixed meaning attached to it. Happily, the work is sited at the building’s rear and is invisible from the road, suggesting an aversion to the desire for public artworks to “make a statement” or serve as advertising. Instead, there are threads and hints, suggestions and evocations.
It is difficult not to envy the freedom an artist has to explore and engage with the history and stories of a site, or of those who would occupy it. It is thus important to ponder how the questions we laboriously ask of a site as an idealistic landscape architecture student (the meaning, the history, the stories) seem to slip when in practice, to become the responsibility and domain of another profession. Perhaps the solution is to substitute the term “commission” for “collaborate,” to absorb the insights offered by artists in response to sites and partake in the freedom to weave a response that sits closer to poetry than pragmatism.