Janet Laurence, an Australian artist, was born in 1949 and has for over two decades explored the properties of the natural world and its interaction with the human-altered environment within her art. Janet Laurence is an installation artist whose work has been included in major survey exhibitions and collections, nationally and internationally. She studied in Italy, the USA and Australia, finally receiving a Master of Fine Art in 1993 from the University of New South Wales. In 1986 and 1992 she was awarded Australia Council Fellowships and in 1996 received a Rockefeller Fellowship for her work Site/Memories. In 1998 she commenced a PhD at the Department of Architecture at RMIT (Melbourne) and is a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW. Her works are amongst the most accessible and public of any artist in Australia. Her practice is characterised (as is the case with many postmodern artists) by her use of unconventional media which include (but are by no means limited to) glass, lead, ash, minerals (especially their oxides), wax and fur. Increasingly produced in response to specific sites and environments, her sculptural and installation works are almost universally situated within the parallel contexts of architectural and environmental display, merging nature and culture.
In many cases, such as Solids by weight, liquids by measure, alchemical plates (1992-93, from her Periodic Table series, wherein a series of plates composed of zinc, aluminium, copper, brass, steel, nickel and silver are treated with oil, shellac wax, acids and myriad other substances), the properties of her output as artworks apparently – and curiously – span multiple disciplines. The strict (columnar) order of the plates, the diversity of elements, the uncontained piles of matter at the base of each column and the trappings of science suggest an experiment in progress, an alchemical transformation. Science, in addition to culture and history, is a recurring theme in Laurence’s work and will be more thoroughly addressed later.
The artist herself creates no ambiguity as to her purpose. "From as early as the 70s, I was always interested in the idea of how art worked in a space – how art could contribute to the definition of a space and make the viewer participate holistically within that space," she said. Convention would dictate that the artwork is neither integral to its surroundings, nor open to the participation of the viewer in conveying meaning (beyond, of course, personal interpretation of what is immediately present), yet one of the foremost considerations in her work is the context (in terms of the physical area and its characteristics). Her most public (and, consequently, widely accepted and acknowledged) work, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Canberra has taught Laurence the power of the standing pillar. “Its diameter has a relationship to the human form; it is something you can walk around; it is something you can experience with your body,” she has said in interview.
Indeed, space, orientation and relation to the human form are also recurring themes and pivotal components in and of Unfold (1997), in which a number of tilted and angled glass panes containing faunal imagery are daubed with materials such as salt, carbon, seeds and sulphur. The intended influence upon the audience is to provoke them to walk around the installation; a function of light as well as positioning (the images can be viewed from both sides – shadows and shapes are projected on and around the viewer as they move). This scientific, architectural approach to art (with the intent to dissolve barriers between all three in conjunction) and the inclusion of the audience in a physical sense very poignantly conveys her intent to utilise the “experiential language” of art and explore the nature of all landscapes in relation to art and the definition thereof. Laurence also alludes to transformation once more, given that her works oxidise, corrode and shift over time so as to render each viewing a unique instance - or, perhaps more appropriately, an individual memory.
Laurence intensively researched the Olympic Project involving Boundary Creek at Homebush Bay, Sydney. The results of all the experiments carried out were used in the piece In the Shadow (Marblo, stainless steel, luminescent pigment, height varies between 8m and 2m sequenced fog, fibre optics, bulrushes, Casuarina forest), on which she worked with a number of architects in 2000. Set in the water are several large glass columns representative of the chemical flasks used in water sampling. They are inscribed with texts relating to the remediation process that was carried out on the site. Falling and spurting water, mists and fog simulate the cleaning process that the water has gone through. The installation is designed to be informative with regard to the environmental history of the site, but also to be "a quiet place, a place of contemplation."
If nothing else, it seems art must, in her esteem, cater to its context. ”I object to art being this decorative piece plonked on, that usually has very little relationship whatsoever to the site. It doesn’t do either any service, neither the architecture nor the art. An artist working on a project can really affect the architecture. The artwork need not be separate.” That she makes the distinction is a testament to one of the fundamental conventions of art: almost without exception, the work is inherently divisible from its surroundings. In pieces such as Edge of the Trees (created in conjunction with Indigenous artist Fiona Foley and consultation with the architects of the site – those same individuals as worked on In the Shadow – in 1994, where 29 wooden and stone pillars of heights from near ground level to 8 metres have been inscribed with archaeological and historical evidence of the native Eora People of the Sydney area and furnished with items such as oyster shells, seeds, honey, bones, ash, resin and hair, each of which is of cultural importance), the poles (representative of trees) are set against an expansive view of the encompassing cityscape. In this manner, Laurence once again integrates the intertwined concepts of human memory and environmental mutability into her pieces. “In all my work, all my installations, I’ve used materials that talk about change and ephemerality,” she states. “What is really challenging is to actually have to build a piece that is permanent, yet that can also use those sort of ephemeral materials, so it has been an interesting challenge to maintain a sense of ephemerality and yet have it weatherproof.”
Memory is one of the most important aspects of Laurence’s work and one of the characteristics which defines her as a post-modern artist, insofar as she acknowledges the notion of the chronology of art and integrates such concepts into her artwork in order to comment upon history. The history of humanity has been commonly accepted as a journey between jungles – one of trees, the other of concrete, glass and steel. In Edge of the Trees the two are contrasted to best exploit the sense of ancestral longing inherent in the human sociological makeup. References to the Eora People demonstrate the integration of nature into culture and so into architecture. This is true of most of her other works to a markedly lesser extent, since organic and inorganic elements are combined to show a kind of fusion and natural mutability. Judges at the Royal Australian Institute of Architects commented that it "supplied a model for the commissioning and achievement of important public art and its design integration into the urban environment."
Art is the language of signs and symbols working in harmony toward an expressive end and so must we look to them in ascertaining purpose. Her work has met with mixed reports; a symptom rife in works purported to be post-modern. Anthony Bond (Curator of Contemporary Art in the Art Gallery of New South Wales) asserts that emphasis is perpetually placed upon the defiance of conventions (a most post-modern trait), citing Laurence’s feminist ideology, indeterminate classification in terms of art form (though he labels her as being “…essentially a painter,” given her intent to create the illusion of space and natural processes) comparison of archetypal images and their recurrence in the natural world which is both malleable and mutable (using this latter point by way of explanation in regard to her recurring insinuations of alchemy). Conversely, art critic Andrew Nimmo writes in ‘Art in the public realm: edge of the trees’ that cultural influences are of greatest import, citing the location (Old Parliament House – hence, a political message) and symbolism (of the poles representing trees which once grew in the area, one for each of the 29 Indigenous groups) of the work.
The self-conferred authority of the critics aside, we can at least establish that Janet Laurence makes an enormous contribution to broadening the definition of art.
Art in the public realm: edge of the trees, Andrew Nimmo