Matter and surface in Janet Laurence's installations

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 02:47 -- damien

Janet Laurence's Periodic Table series (1991- 1994), borrows its title from the organising principle derived from alchemy. Historically, the goal of the alchemist was both physical and metaphysical- that of transmuting base metals into silver or gold by freeing the crude materiats from their impurities; and that of achieving the salvation of the soul, and its ultimate reunion with the divine source. Because of its material and practical, yet also mystical and philosophical facets, alchemy has held a time-honoured attraction for artists, many of whom have seen analogies between the quest of the alchemist and the quest of the artist, to attain the sublime through the dominion of culture over nature. The history of alchemical ideas in art includes works of Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Jannis Kounellis and others who have drawn on its language, numerology, imagery, processes, and concepts. Alchemy's obsession with rebirth, and the links between its apparatuses and procedures, and bodily reproductive processes, have provided a fertile ground for the discursive practj.ces of feminist artists-notably, performance artist and filmmaker, Rebecca Horn.

Laurence's work deals poetically with the sublimated chemical reactions of elemental materials as metalanguage. Her appropriation of the language and technologies of alchemy stems from earlier painterly concerns, and is coupled with her desire for a process and surface that would speak the feminine. Her use of alchemical principles constitutes a deliberate reversion to a system that precedes the imposition of reasoned science, so that the abstracted means of 'making things sensible' privileged within the dominant order is displaced by a sensorial means 'of making things sensible'. Luce Irigaray articulates the underlying imperative in the search for the feminine voice:

(l)f a woman reads as she has been read, she will be limited.

Reading the sign of the woman, reading signs generated around women, reading the presence of the sign, woman, in culture, means reading a situation of being read. A woman writer is never just written, she is read, as a woman. So, as a woman, she needs to originate her own reading. Her own methods1. Laurence states:

lrigaray's plea for a language invented for our body's expression has been an important correspondence for a 'process' and 'surface' that can incorporate a biological and alchemical language that as a woman I can bring into the language of painting as both material and concept. The fluidity of paint itself and the suspension of it in the state of becoming a work corresponds to the moving from one state into another in the alchemical transformation of materials. As this is the state between it creates a language of interconnectedness, a theme I would like my work to embody2.

In seventeenth century Nuremberg, Johann Fredrich Helvetius described the process of alchemy as "the destruction of the body in order that the Artist might get at, and use for his own purposes, the living soul."3 This killing of the outward nature of material things in the crystallization of the soul was to be brought about by the processes of putrefaction and decay; hence the reason such processes figure so largely in alchemistic recipes for the preparation of the 'Divine Magistery'. Later, according to the Newtonian ideal of cerebral remoteness, it was thought that as the process of abstraction advanced, so the corporeal phantoms receded that notions gradually pulled away from the imagination toward the understanding and that ideas became purely intellectual. In Irigaray's return to the imaginary, the elemental is the corporeal foundation for a 'sensible' transcendental progression toward an autonomous self-conception for women in a future (God) which allows a meeting, an equitable exchange, a fluidity, between the sexes.

Like Irigaray, Laurence engages time, place and positions within the logic of interactive forces operating as combinatory particles; a logic of transmutation, thus one of 'becoming' and of subjectivity. Earth, air, fire and water-the primal elements–in various states of combination, create a significatory structure of reality–"this natural material which makes up our bodies, in which our lives and environment are grounded: the flesh of our passions."4 By going back to the dark pool of 'barbaric' experimentalism and ritual that preceded the Cartesian and Newtonian valorization of immaterial reason, Laurence confronts a tradition of masculinist scientific thought, based on a physics and mechanics of solid matter, with a feminised re-positioning which emphasises the destabilising processes of chemical reaction, the emission of energy, and a mechanics of fluids.

The alchemist's process of conversion was based on the belief that one common principle, the prima materia, underlies all that is, and being more universal than the individual substances, the prima materia could, therefore, change into all substances or be formed from them. This alchemic 'essence of all things', on a metaphysical level, was identified with the 'soul of the world'–a spirit of truth which could not be comprehended without divine intervention. The initiate, then, through a knowledge of the laws of Nature, its substances and methods of working, could learn to imitate Nature, artificially. According to Nietzsche, magicians, alchemists, astrologers and witches, "whose promises and pretensions first had to create a thirst, a hunger, a taste for hidden and forbidden powers" prepared the way for the origins and growth of the sciences, "where infinitely more had to be promised than could ever be fulfilled in the realm of knowledge.”5

Feminist critiques of scientific discourses have focussed on their infusion with cultural images and narratives that are not neutral. Science's most consistent metaphor-domination of the female body of nature 'illuminated by the light of masculine science'–constructs, at the meeting point of nature and culture, a reality which women can embody but not know. The dominant scientific imaginary has relied upon the sexing of 'nature' as (reproducing) female, thus revealing a structure of investments which has transformed the image of 'otherness' into an eroticized representation of a virile, dominating (male) self.

Feminist knowledge is continuously problematized by the question of the place of nature within it, because it returns to the dangerous ground of interwoven but subtly differentiated categories: essentialism, biologism, naturalism and universalism. However, re-interrogations of the meanings generated around nature and culture-as shifting guises for a patriarchy's justification for the subordination of women-are central to feminist praxis. The 'essentialist' debate is problematised by positioning 'woman' as an imaginary formation (like class or race) constituted by the hierarchical social relation of sexual difference. Further, the concept of 'woman' as imaginary formation, which centres on the idea that what makes a woman is a specific relation of appropriation by man, is problematized by an insistence that women's experience (as material practice) is that which creates not difference, but differences. Becoming a subject requires a reconstitution of ourselves outside the relations of objectification (as gift, commodity, object of desire) and appropriation (of babies, sex, services). Laurence's practice suggests a methodology of indeterminacy, rather than determinates.

The installation titled The Measure of Light, shown at the experimental space of the Queensland Art Gallery during 1993, made reference to "the principle of indeterminacy derived from cabbalistic literature, and to the Hebrew concept of loss of 'a Measure of Light' which denotes cessation of historical momentum within culture...”6  In the exhibition space, Laurence caused a metallic sea to levitate and shimmer. A strategically placed line of recessed fluorescent lights created a false vaporous horizon just above the juncture o f the floor and walls. Architecture was brought into play with landscape; the ancient hypnosis of the sea evoked a powerful longing to fall back into periodic structure. The boundaries of inside/outside were deconstructed through the juxtaposition of space and event, a strategic device which Laurence recognised in the literature of Virginia Wool£. This can be seen, for example, in Woolf's The Waves, where the central narrative about the lives of characters in their indoor setting is disrupted by the writer's sensory experiences of the elemental world outside the space and time of the drama of which she writes:

the wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously... the sky cleared as if the white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green and yellow spread across the sky like the blades of a fan ... the surface of the sea slowly became transparent and lay rippling and sparkling until the dark stripes were almost rubbed out ... slowly the arm that held the lamp raised it higher and then higher until a broad flame became visible; an arc of fire burnt on the rim of the horizon, and all round it the sea blazed gold.7

In Laurence's installation, chaotic layers of crystallised salt took on the appearance of foam amongst waves-suggested through the uneven metallic surface of malleable leaden tiles, and illuminated through the triggering of movement sensitive lighting devices. Laurence destabilised the alchemic narrative of decomposition (the movement from beginning to end) by engaging a competing discourse–a poetics of flux, repetition and continuity. The work of installation actively engaged the body of the artist The space and expanse of the gallery were transformed: the randomness of the scattered materials opposed the geometry of the minimal architecture, and the spectator, like Woolf's reader, was disoriented by the competing discourse.

The seven metals which equate with the metals of alchemy as well as with the seven heavenly bodies–Gold (Sun), Silver (Moon), Mercury (Mercury), Lead (Saturn), Iron (Mars), Copper (Venus) and Tin (Jupiter) appear in the wallmounted piece Solids by Weight, Liquid by Measure shown in the Queensland Art Gallery's recent survey of acquisitions entitled Reference Points Ill: The Immediate Past (1994). In this work, the component Alchemical Plates has an internal, spatial, modular structure of 9 x 9. The work is structured as nine (an important alchemical number) architecturally ordered vertical columns. The surface of the plates flows diagonally as a subtle transmutation from silver, through black and red to gold, and traces the evolution from the physical towards the spiritual levels of being. In this reactivation of alternative rhythmic laws and procedures, the semiotic is at fluid interplay with the symbolic surfaces of the plates, where, like a palimpsest, ancient text and iconic and symbolic images (the uterine vessel, the Chrysanthemum) operate as imprints, transfers, or traces; and the stains as erasures. Laurence appropriates the image of the Chrysanthemum from Mondrian, where it is associated with theosophy: the flower as the world, and the world within the flower, symbolise the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. While the light-reflecting qualities of the plates suggest immateriality, the physical qualities and states of the materials are emphasised by the powders and liquids 'by measure' placed at the foot of each column. Here, the material is both itself and something other–salt the feminine principle), mercury (the hermaphroditic moving element) and sulphur (the masculine principle). The animistic, sensorial conception of art makes reference to objects in terms of physical energy; Laurence dramatises a physical process to confer vitality and a sense of connectedness between objects.

While the quest for transformation into greater awareness which is fundamental to alchemy and to the project of the artist, might suggest a superiority of minds which suffer least from the intrusions of the body, Laurence's desire for a surface that incorporates the biological and alchemical raises, rather, the question of the union or mating of irreconcilables-of aboveness and belowness, of air and earth, of fire and water, mind and body, masculine and feminine.


1. DuPiessis, R. B., "Language Acquisition", Iowa Review, 16, No. 3, 1986, p. 267.

2. Laurence, J., Unpublished thesis. p. 2.

3. Redgrove, H.S., Alchemy: Ancient and Modern. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1911, 1973 Edition, p. 32

4. Irigaray, L., "Divine Women" trans. Local Consumption Occasional Paper 8, 1986, Sydney, p. 1.

5. Nietzsche, F., The Gay Science. Trans Kaufmann, W., New York: Vintage Books, 1974, S 300, p. 240.

6. Burn ham, Jack, Great Salt Works

7. Woolf, V., "The Waves" 1931. Reprinted in Virginia Woolf: Four Great Novels, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p. 1.

Glenda Nalder is a Brisbane-based writer, and a PhD candidate at the Queensland University of Technology. Janet Laurence is a Sydney-based artist. She is currently working on a major public art project for the new Museum of Sydney.