The Dirt: Janet Laurence

Deep in thought and mid-conversation, Janet Laurence is unconsciously stroking a leathery gymea lily leaf. We’re talking about art, plants, nature and hope in her garden early on a sunny morning whilst Janet’s dog Muddy tunnels his way through a clump of tall grasses. As is often the case, I invited myself over following a conversation with Janet a few months earlier. ‘My garden is really a sort of renegade garden,’ she told me. I was in.

Over the last 30 years Janet Laurence has built a reputation as one of Australia’s most highly regarded artists. Her works are collected nationally and internationally; she’s won a swag of awards, residencies and grants including receiving Rockefeller, Australia Council and Churchill Fellowships; she’s regularly commissioned to create public artworks both in Australia and overseas (her work, Edge of the Trees, created with Fiona Foley and displayed in the forecourt of the Museum of Sydney, deeply affected me as a naive high school student in 1997); and her output is prodigious – One month she’s exhibiting in Germany, the next at the Art Gallery of NSW, and a few weeks after that, having a show in Adelaide!

Janet’s art practice examines the human relationship to the natural world, through exploring notions of art, science, memory and loss. “When I first began working with nature, it started from an interest in alchemy and the matter of the world. It then became a bit more scientific, by looking at how relationships develop between things,” she explains. “I started with a broad view of things, more focused on the phenomena of nature. I don’t know how I came to plants exactly, it wasn’t a distinct decision…”

Janet has been playing with plants in her art practice since the early 1990’s. The word play, however, is not to be taken lightly. There’s a strong thread comprised of care, attention, and provocation winding through her output. She puts plants, uncommon in gallery spaces, front and centre of view. Often they’re displayed in a hospital situation – hooked up to intravenous drips and with branches wrapped in gauze – reminding us of the fragility and importance of the vegetal world.

Taking plants out of their usual context – from ‘out there’ in the garden or the bush – and placing them in a gallery, often in the highly humanised framework of a hospital, simply and elegantly highlights the plight of the non-human world in the face of humanity’s ever increasing demands for resources, space, food, water. More, more more. Her work asks us to ask ourselves – are we focusing our care and attention in the right direction?

Janet’s interest in the aesthetics of care extends beyond stark white gallery walls. It’s embodied in her garden. Her wild and exuberant garden is cultivated on the edge of the harbour in Balmain East. It spills out onto the nature strip in front of her house, is incorporated within the architecture of the building (I’m very jealous of her fern and moss garden flanking the entry stairs), and even winds its way indoors, thanks to the unimpeded vigour of a creeping fig.

Laurence has lived at the property, a former gunpowder bunker, for 15 years. Before then, she’d never had a garden. “I mean, I’ve had plants,” she explains. “At my studio I have a lot of plants but they’re more experimental.  This has been amazing, to have the opportunity to create a garden. Before, I’d always been confined.” There’s a downside, though, to Janet’s newfound love of gardening – “I think having a garden has made me not paint,” she tells me.

I feel towards the garden the same way I used to feel about a painting – there’s always something to be fixed!”

“Even though my parents had a big garden, I enjoyed it but I didn’t… I don’t know, I just didn’t focus on actual gardening,” Janet tells me. It’s not an uncommon statement, this. I think it’s a cultural thing – we don’t see gardening as a pursuit worth valuing. But now, more than ever, I think we need to. Janet agrees. “We don’t value gardening enough by any means,” she says.

We really should be valuing the people who understand nature and know how to look after our natural world more. The threats we’re facing are really huge.”

I agree. The threats to all life on Earth are enormous – personally, I vacillate between hope and despair – settling with hope because it’s the only sustaining option. The gift of life on this incredibly beautiful, complex, and mysterious planet is not something I’m willing to give up on so easily.

Janet’s voice, carried through her artworks, is strong, increasingly political and also ultimately hopeful. “Sometimes, I think it’s too late, people don’t care anymore,” she tells me. “It’s like the world has turned into this place where it’s only about money and nothing else. But how is it going to feed us? How is it going to provide us with water and all those essential things? I cannot comprehend why so few people, just because they have money, are able to control everything, when we who want to care for the plants are so many. I justify my art as a space to try and find hope.”

One of the great powers of art is in making us see. Seeing the present and past in new ways, seeing reflections of ourselves and, most importantly, seeing our way to a better future. Whilst the powerful continue their noisy and increasingly dangerous practice of assuming business as usual, artists like Janet Laurence continue to whisper songs of hope and concern, drawing our attention to the interconnectedness, beauty, and fragility of all life on planet Earth. Because, as Janet asks, “What are we going to do otherwise?”. There’s no planet B. And seriously, Elon Musk, Mars sounds like a hell hole.

Find out more about Janet Laurence’s work on her WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM. For more on Janet’s art practice check out this essay on eco-feminism by Prudence Gibson, published on TPH last year.

Janet Laurence’s latest exhibition, Phytophilia, is opening at Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide on 23 November. The show runs until December 13. Find out more here.

The matter of the masters, by Janet Laurence, is on exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW until February 18 2018. Inspired by research and analysis undertaken on Dutch paintings in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands by conservators, it’s a cabinet of curiosities drawing links between art, nature and conservation. The artwork is on display as part of the Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum exhibition