Janet Laurence | What can a garden be?

23 September – 6 November 2010

Janet Laurence The memory of nature, 2010 detail

Over twenty-five years Janet Laurence has ranged across painting, sculpture, photography, and installation, working with pigments and ash, taxidermied birds and trees, scientific instruments and all manner of glass. Her work incorporating botanical elements has served a variety of purposes. The salvaged timbers in "Edge of the Trees”, for instance, co-produced with Fiona Foley for the Museum of Sydney, were explicitly memorial; the Casuarinas and she-oaks planted for "In the shadow,” commissioned by Sydney’s Olympic Park in Homebush Bay, were reparative. Most recently for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, Laurence’s combination of living, ailing and dead plants in "Waiting: a medicinal garden for plants,” installed at the Royal Botanical Gardens, sounded a warning note about environmental fragility.

Laurence is known as an environmental artist and just as important as the ecological concerns inspiring particular projects is her interest in creating what she has called "spaces of perception that can bring us into contact with the life-world.” These "slowed spaces” generally take the form of installations, "immersive” environments where different processes of flux, fusion and transformation are given form. Here Laurence often makes extensive use of glass, playing on the connotations of the glasshouse and through the use of scientific instruments, botanical science. "Waiting” also exploited the glazed vitrine’s associations with natural history’s and museology’s intertwining of life and death. (Historically both have relied on dead specimens to explain the living.) Laurence’s Biennale work also invoked the Wardian case, the timber-framed glass box that enclosed an ideal growing environment and which revolutionized plant exploration in the second half of the nineteenth century while enabling city dwellers to grow plants indoors.

"Waiting” was designed to function like a plant hospital, a triage tent in a botanical garden where viewers are already in contact with the life-world. Put this way we could say that "Waiting” aimed to refine the kind of attention a viewer might already bring to bear on the botanical garden, focusing it specifically on the mutual and intertwined fragility of plants and humans in a threatened environmental collapse. Laurence’s project in BREENSPACE is very different. Although she uses many of the same elements, and in some cases, the same specimens, we are not in a glasshouse-like structure in a garden but in that quintessentially late twentieth century space for art—the white cube, sealed off from the vicissitudes of time, weather, and the possibility of change. Here Laurence’s acrylic boxed microgreens want to pose the question: what makes a garden?

Definitions will take us only so far. Mara Miller, in "The Garden as an Art,” suggests a garden is "any purposeful arrangement of natural objects … with exposure to the sky or open air, in which the form is not fully accounted for by purely practical considerations such as convenience,” and David E. Cooper proposes  "Gardens are places whose ingredients, typically and significantly, are living, growing, or other natural thing … they are human artefacts imbued with purpose.”(i) Yet the nineteenth century collections of ferns grown in Wardian cases and closed to the atmosphere were gardens, and the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto houses a famous garden which comprises no living material apart from the moss surrounding the fifteen boulders installed on a sea of raked gravel.  Laurence’s question is less about the minimal conditions necessary for a definition than it is an attempt to approach the garden as something that exists in addition to the presence of plants or soil or atmosphere. This means thinking of the containers of plant matter on view here—the test tube with its fledgling eucalyptus, the cubes of proto-salad—as sites demanding a particular response, one which might be summed up as follows: gardens require a constancy of care.(ii)

Gardening’s engagement with care was a feature of  "Waiting” where the conceit of the plant hospital reversed the medicinal garden’s onus of care. Instead of the garden holding healing plants—the plants that care for us--it held plants waiting to be healed. This reversal chimes perfectly with the current mode of environmental crisis but in BREENSPACE Laurence looks beyond the question posed by "Waiting”– can we keep the plants that keep us? – to consider the making of gardens as an activity defined by human needs other than simple survival. What makes a garden then is not simply the compendium of natural and other elements found within it but something in the relationship of the gardener to the plants tended, a thing Cooper calls "a shared good.” (iii)

By putting the garden into the precincts of art, Laurence encounters significant but surmountable practical problems. ("Waiting,” which was housed in a purpose-built structure in the midst of a public garden, demanded the daily ministrations of an attendant.) Water, mud, slime: the gallery space can in any case accommodate all these and, as Brian O’Doherty noted in his now classic 1976 analysis of the white cube’s ideology, it will turn them into art. (iv) What is harder to accommodate is the garden’s dependence on human care for this is a relationship unfolding in time, and time and change are, according to O’Doherty, sealed off from the gallery’s space. Laurence uses the white cube to throw the issue of care into sharper relief, forcing, by way of contrast, one of those "spaces of perception” that bring viewers into contact with the life-world. 

The life-world she conjures up in BREENSPACE is not all green. Laurence combines stuffed owls, miniature lights and possibly fake greenery with living plants to suggest the idea of a garden, knowing that garden history countenances artifice of various kinds—fake ruins, concrete faux bois, and topiary, as well as the symbolic and representational use of plants. The small room within BREENSPACE strikes a different note for among the acrylic boxes, dried specimens and laboratory glassware there are no living plants. Laurence speaks of this as a memorial to lost gardens, indeed to a lost nature.

As a human product, the garden is never exclusively "natural” but it may be all we have, and not only because true wilderness is disappearing but because the garden says something about our place in nature. Robert Pogue Harrison, looking at gardens made by homeless people in New York, puts it like this. "The fact that human beings create such things as gardens is strange, for it means that there are aspects of our humanity which nature does not naturally accommodate, which we must make roomfor in nature’s midst … gardens mark our separation from nature even as they draw us closer to it.” (v)
Ingrid Periz
i. Mara Miller, "The Garden as an Art” (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993, p. 14; David E. Cooper, "A Philosophy of Gardens,” OUP 2006, pp. 28, 39.
ii. Robert Pogue Harrison, "Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition,” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. p. 7. Harrison writes, "the true gardener is always the constant gardener.”
iii. Cooper, p. 74.
iv. Brian O’Doherty, "Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space” (Santa Monica: The Lapis Press, 1986) was first published in three installments in Artforum in 1976.
v. Harrison, p. 41