Elixir Bar Building
INTERVIEW WITH JANET LAURENCE
Sydney artist, Janet Laurence, is today best known for her site-specific installations. Often referred to as the "architects' artist", Davina Jackson, editor of Architecture Australia has suggested she is "a serious candidate for the title of Australia's leading public artist".
Her works are amongst the most accessible and public of any artist in Australia.
Laurence reveals "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."
At art school (University of Sydney and Alexander Mackie College, now College of Fine Arts, UNSW), Laurence was made aware of the limitations associated with making that sort of work and the difficulties in exhibiting such works in a gallery space. "Then in the 80s, I had a Postgraduate [study grant] in New York where there was a lot of installation work going on, and I realised where I wanted my work to fit."
While away from Australia in the USA and Italy, Laurence often thought about what it was that we had here in Australia that was different to anywhere else – "I realised we still have a life that is strongly entwined with our natural environment. I wanted to bring that out in my work, so I made a conscious decision to make work which was about relating to our environment."
Her interest in the natural and built environments, and how people react with them, led Laurence to explore the idea of space and of the "experiential language" of art: "...experiencing the space by involving the viewer, not just optically, but how our whole body experiences a space." In 1981 in her first solo exhibition, Notes from the Shore, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sydney; Laurence used a collection of "natural things" such as sand, earth and casuarina needles, to map out a space. She then included a sound element, Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, to create a total installation piece. "I believe a turning point in the acceptance of this kind of artwork was the 1991 commission I won from the Federal Government to do a very public piece, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Canberra", done in collaboration with the firm of architects, Tonkin Zulaikha. The piece consists of four pillars in different natural and man-made materials: glass, marble, wood and metal, soaring toward the golden dome of the Hall of Memory. Its purpose is to invoke memories, both private and public – something that Laurence aspires to do through most of her works. The meeting of public and private domains is to her "metaphors for the world out there meeting our personal inner world of experience. Site specific art can act as a trigger for memories which then affect the viewers' experience of that space."
Laurence came to appreciate the infinite possibilities of exhibiting outside the gallery space, and started to do more installation work in spaces that were not commercial galleries. At the same time she became increasingly involved in collaborative work, including organising an exhibition, Synthesis (Bond Stores, Sydney 1992) which was "about artists and architects working together." Traditionally, architects have "tended to work with spatial theories without really considering the aesthetic theories to go with them." Synthesis was about collaboration, and made known the possibilities that this collaboration could produce. The architects involved found "what a terrific push it also was for [their] sense of design and space", and realised that "the artist's voice is very important in the dialogue about space and urban design, free from the constraints placed upon them [the architects], by the demands of clients and of function."
Companies and organisations today are more aware that art is not just a decorative medium used to fill an empty space on a wall or in a foyer. "But," says Laurence, "that art is a way to create meaning or memory in a space, and, if it is decoration, it can have [even] more power about it". This theory of Laurence's is evidenced in her commissioned work, Chronicle I-V (1995) in the Herald and Weekly Times Building, in Southbank, Melbourne which consists of a series of metal panels onto which are etched historical events from the newspapers. Due to the reflective nature of the metal, the images appear and disappear depending on the weather and direction of the sunlight. There and yet not there...fleeting, as with the passing of time...
Edge of the Trees (with Fiona Foley) 1994
The brief for the Museum of Sydney project, located on the site of the original Government House, was "to create a sense of place." The result was the highly acclaimed sculptural installation Edge of the Trees (1994), created jointly by Laurence and Aboriginal artist Fiona Foley, in consultation with the architects of the site, Denton Corker Marshall. It consists of 29 wood, sandstone, and rusting steel columns that relate to both the Indigenous and European history of the site. The 29 columns represent the 29 Aboriginal clans who originally inhabited the area, symbolic of burial poles and rock carvings. They also act as metaphors for the impact of European culture, in relating to the materials of the built environment around them. The relationship between nature and culture is also alluded to through the use of materials that map the separate and shared memory of the place. There are samples of seeds and resins to remind the viewer of the original flora and fauna. Bone, shell, hair and other organic materials remind us of the human presence throughout the history of the site; and the recorded sound of Koori voices provide a narrative thread listing the original names for the areas around Sydney. Cutouts in the poles are receptacles for archaeological fragments from the old Government House, while names of First Fleeters are engraved in zinc plaques. Lists of original local plants are carved or burnt into the wooden columns in both their Aboriginal and Latin names. The overall result is a successful linking of the work with its site and surroundings, with its present and its past.
In awarding the Edge of the Trees project the Lloyd Rees Award for Civic Design, in 1995, the 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."
The Olympic Project involving Boundary Creek at Homebush Bay was for Laurence an intense experience involving an extreme amount of reseach in that "I am working with the water chemistry and the monitoring of it. My whole piece is about exposing the remediation program that is going on." The results of all the experiments being carried out at the site will be used in the piece In the Shadow, on which she is again working with architects Denton Corker Marshall. Set in the water will be several large glass columns representative of the chemical flasks used in the water studies. They will be inscribed with texts relating to the remediation process that was carried out on the site. Falling and spurting water, mists and fog will 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."
Involvement in research and scientific investigations is to Laurence one of the most fascinating aspects of working with companies on a brief. The Department of Environment project, Picture of the Dark Face of the River (1999), for the John Gorton Building, Canberra, was especially rewarding as the research involved spending time with the experts in all departments: meteorology, oceanography, the Antarctic department, satellite imaging, and the herbarium. This interaction provided such an incredible vocabulary of imagery, that Laurence will be able to use the surplus in other work.
Natural processes – how things change – led to Laurence's interest in alchemy as an holistic science "which gives a reason for this transformation...because artwork is always transforming things...its good to have a philosophical explanation for these changes." The alchemy led her to look more into science and chemistry: "In a way I've become more interested in all that, especially as I am now involved in doing more environmental work...but really I am more interested in playing with the polemic of it."
Originally, the materials Laurence worked with were all quite organic. She then started to play these materials against their opposites – architectural materials such as stainless steel and aluminum, and finally glass, through which she explored the idea of "the play between matter and non matter, or matter and spirit, absence and presence...all those metaphors..."
"The more I started playing with glass, the more it started to interest me as a material that would reflect you the viewer into it and the environment in which it was; The fact that it could be translucent, transparent, reflective,... could represent water, solids, liquid. It is also a material that so much of our world has been built in today - an architectural material. I use it as a medium... I can pour substances over it and you can see their passage, their dispersal, their action..."