There is a certain moral cachet that comes with the label “environmental artist”. Janet Laurence seems to be simultaneously attracted to the description and slightly embarrassed. She realises that any form of categorisation is a potential trap, but if one simply must wear a label, well “environmental artist” is among the more attractive options.
It seems a long time since Kevin Rudd declared climate change “the great moral challenge of our generation.” Only a few years later we find that both sides of politics seem to view environmental issues as an irritation rather than a challenge, with climate change policies watered down to a very thin gruel. Perhaps nothing could better symbolise the degeneration of Australian politics into a bad soap opera in which nobody wants to take the lead on any important initiative.
Political morality has always been a contradiction in terms, but it could be argued that the politicians are only mirroring the complacency of the general public. So long as we have sufficient food on the table and air to breathe, climate change will remain an abstraction to most people, far less compelling than the doings of the latest Hollywood starlet.
This state of affairs opens the door to an enterprising artist who cherishes the idea that art may help to change the world for the better. It may sound far-fetched, but the fantasy that art can make a difference is one of the driving forces behind the viral spread of contemporary art spaces. We have to believe there is something vitally important about contemporary art – it can’t be viewed as mere entertainment. Like a round of poker, the game of art rewards those who can keep a straight face, even if they know their politically motivated work is not going to cause a revolution.
Janet Laurence can almost achieve this feat, but she is prone to lapses into reality. In the catalogue for her show, After Eden, at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), she admits: “It’s really hard to believe the environment can be healed within the present system.”
In launching this show, the novelist, Richard Flanagan was more brutal in his assessment. “We have grown autistic to the natural world,” he said. The soft way of saying this would be: “We have lost touch with the natural world.” Autism serves as a dangerous metaphor, implying a neurological inability to relate to nature. The problem is not that far advanced, because the natural world is almost universally admired and appreciated even by those who are busy destroying great swathes of it. They simply have a greater admiration for money.
If there is any reason for optimism in the environmental debate, it lies in our instinctive identification with nature. We feel a kind of mild elation in the midst of a forest, or looking out upon the ocean. We are fascinated by animals, birds and fish. Indeed, the attractions of an art gallery run a very poor second to those of a zoo, an aviary or an aquarium.
The intrinsic magnetism of the natural world lies at the heart of After Eden, the most complex and ambitious installation of Laurence’s career. The SCAF’s main gallery has been transformed into a theatre filled with vitrines, projections, and large, ad hoc cylinders made from gauze that define separate, self-contained components of the display. In each part of the installation we encounter animals in stuffed, skeletal or virtual forms representing species that are either extinct or endangered. Familiar local creatures such as the koala or the dingo are included, although most viewers will be drawn to exotic creatures such as the panda or the elephant, featured in video presentations.
Since the Shermans transformed a commercial gallery into a not-for-profit foundation in 2008, they have never held a show that so neatly synchs in with their own preoccupations. If part of the Sherman family is devoted to contemporary art and film, Brian and his daughter Ondine, are the prime movers of Voiceless, an organisation that acts as an advocate for animal rights. Although it is not a Voiceless initiative, After Eden is an elaborate appeal on behalf of animals all over the world facing loss of habitat and their own prospective disappearance.
Laurence is not simply trying to draw attention to these dangers, she focuses on the efforts being made to protect and preserve animals. To produce this work she has travelled to wildlife centres such as the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, the Chengdu Panda Base in Sichuan, and the Fauna & Flora International Elephant Base in Aceh. Many will find the most absorbing part of After Eden is the footage of pandas and elephants taken in the Chinese and Indonesian sanctuaries. The really startling images are snapshots of wildlife in Aceh, including tigers, monkeys, antelopes, and a tapir. These pictures were taken with a concealed camera activated by an electronic trigger. Laurence has printed the photographs in negative, giving them a lurid, dreamlike quality. They also form the centerpiece of a commercial exhibition being held simultaneously at Breenspace.
One of the ironies of this exhibition is that most of the stuffed animals, drawn from sources such as the Australian Museum, were probably killed for purposes of scientific investigation and display. We are horrified today when we read about the number of rare creatures slaughtered by the great 19th century naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Many orangutans had to die in order for Wallace to develop his theory of evolution.
Laurence is only able to gather the materials for this installation because of the voracious specimen hunters of the past. Putting all these dead birds and animals together in a room creates a terrible sense of pathos, especially when an entire species may now be extinct. In After Eden, as in several earlier installations, Laurence makes use of these corpses in an ambiguous manner. While we may be saddened by this spectacle, it is also has a fascination.
It has become commonplace to compare such installations to old-fashioned Wunderkammern – the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ that preceded the age of strict scientific classification. The comparison is appropriate because Laurence’s installation has more in common with the unruly passions of the collector and dilettante than the rigour of the scientist. By surrounding her dead animals with all sorts of bric-a-brac, she is creating a decorative, poetic effect. The darkness of the room, and the gauze curtains that veil each part of the installation are theatrical devices.
After Eden is obviously a labour of love, and no-one could doubt the genuineness of Laurence’s concerns about the environment, but it remains slightly unsatisfying as a work of art. It is a presentation of items of material culture, not the transformation of materials one generally expects of an artist. One need not be a formalist to feel that Laurence’s installation has an arbitrary dimension, as if every animal and every object might be exchanged with another, and nothing much would be lost or gained.
I’m talking about her methodology not her choice of subjects. If Laurence had been able to replace the carcass of a small furry animal with a mastodon or a brontosaurus, the installation would be even more impressive, but it would still reflect the same predilection for gathering existing objects rather than making something new.
This is not to say the work doesn’t have a plan, or underlying subtexts, but all the most powerful and poignant effects come from the intrinsic interest of the objects, and to a lesser extent, the juxtapositions. Looked at in this way Laurence seems less like an artist and more like a curator. If I wanted to be unkind I’d say more like a window-dresser, although it’s worth remembering that major artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg started their careers as window dressers.
These scruples are not unique to After Eden, but may be applied to many examples of installation art, a genre that enjoys a disproportionate prestige in today’s big international exhibitions. There is much in Laurence’s installation that prompts the viewer to look and linger, but we are looking at the elephants and the pandas, not the art. The art is the least important part of the package.
In his 1977 essay, Why look at animals? John Berger wrote: “Everywhere animals disappear. In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance.” This may have been more plausible 35 years ago than it is today. Although we still take environmental issues for granted we are far more conscious of the vulnerability of the physical world and its wildlife. If an exhibition such as After Eden is to be judged a success, it will not be because it makes us feel like members of an exclusive club of contemporary art aficionados. Its major achievement would be to bring us a little closer to those creatures with which we share the planet.
Janet Laurence: After Eden, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, March 16 – May 19, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 05, 2012