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Janet Laurence’s main preoccupation is with evanescence. A gentle war is played out in her work between permanence and ephemera, between stability and stasis. To some extent, it is the goal of all art to preserve matter or a moment in time, and to stay flux. The tension alive in Laurence’s work is her concentration on what is unpreservable, on what can neither be resolved nor steadied, on what it is difficult or impossible to remember. Despite or because of this, she has also been involved in memorial commissions (the tomb of the unknown soldier, Canberra, and more recently the Australian war memorial at Hyde Park in London). For Laurence, art is always a substitute for a certain unnamable quantity that is best embodied in real human striving as opposed to the material things that symbolise it. The survey exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery at the Australian National University (ANU) was an opportunity to reflect on the many ways Laurence has applied herself to the untellable stories of humanity’s efforts at restitution from decay.
Trace/Efface, 1991, about halfway through the passage of the exhibition, provided an easy point of access to Laurence’s project, and testified to the consistency of her concerns for at least twenty years. A single, long unit of adjoined black frames, it was alternatively photographic images lodged within the framed recessions, and, in a narrower enclosure, packed ash, which looked like concrete. Amorphously abstract from a distance, closer inspection revealed the images to be landscapes, barely visible because effaced with chemicals intended to accelerate the aging process. Ash is matter as remnant prior to its absolute disappearance—what remains behind after disintegration. Here it became the symbol for the inexorable erosion of time.
The frames, however, in Trace/Efface are metaphors for preservation, epitomised by the gallery itself, with all its pretensions to arrested, or suspended time and dispassionate truth. For the historic function of the museum is to preserve and represent time. Any work of art is immaterial in the ideas it purveys, but it is also always material, and, quite simply, matter is prone to metamorphosis and decay. What Laurence is saying with this work is that for the museum to maintain its air of detached historical authority, it must also detach itself from the reality that everything in it will also eventually change and ultimately decay. Much of the activity behind the scenes is to stagger this process, a battle against change, a neurosis of permanence. The photographs, buckled and mottled, come to us like the remnants of an unsavoury past, or some traumatic memory. This object represents the struggle against forgetting and decay, a struggle that can only ever be lost, soon or in some time to come.
Laurence’s photographic works based on graveyards and monuments maintain the same suggestion of our vain efforts to slow the passing of time. The in Stance of Memory, 2005, is a sequence of large photographic transparencies on perspex of images taken from the Hoffman garden in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, Berlin. The site itself is in the open air, adjacent to the main building, a grid of concrete blocks, grim surrogates for trees. Laurence’s translucent photographic skeins cause these images to shimmer and dissipate, then to collapse on one another. Libeskind’s building is dreadfully dour and is a manifesto first to architectural deconstruction, a monument to death second and, only third, a homage to Jewish history. Laurence has made Libeskind’s stylised garden appear ethereal. With the heaviness extracted from it, it is as if the artist wishes to give vent to the dead souls that are encased by the building’s inhibitive esoteric grandeur.
In the complementary work, Memory Fall/Natural + Unnatural Histories, 2004, the long hedges of the Potsdam gardens just outside of Berlin have been reduced to a series of geometric forms which, thanks to the autumnal fall, are in a gradual state of decomposition. Frederick the Great’s palace of Sanssouci is no-where to be found, just this unpeopled landscape in which the intervention of the human hand has struggled to impose itself but, according to Laurence, is bound to fail.
The much earlier works, Less Stable Elements (Equivalence), 1994-98, and Solids by Weight Liquids by Measure, 1993, are both about the scientific obsession with assigning stable qualities to things. While belonging to the discipline of science, they could also be said to be about the ways in which perception records the world and gives it shape. Both science and art are ways of form-giving and thus mechanisms for knowledge. Like Trace/Efface, both of these works contain the seeds of their own dissolution and disappearance through the methods in which human knowledge seeks to elude time and to make sense of the shapelessness of matter. Less Stable Elements is a series of fine aluminium shafts, placed vertically on a ledge. Down each band are engraved letters and numerals. It is probably better not to be a scientist when looking at a work such as this, as one cannot easily indulge in the game of identification, rather it was best to bask in perplexity at this game of false order that Laurence sets in motion. Equally, Solids by Weight rethought the alchemical process as an imaginative collision between desire, language and chemicals. The plates, again joined in vertical bands, had various ground compounds at their bases, small phials and measuring dishes. Alchemy was of course more than just the quest to find the secret to the production of gold, it resulted in numerous chance finds, Meissen porcelain among them. This work is like a ledger to a process that was as aesthetic and arbitrary as it was scientific.
The much more recent Greenhouse Series (Cellular Survival Gardens), 2005, was uncannily alchemical in appearance. Live tropical plants sprouted from glass conical containers, the soil enriched by tubes that fell from the base of each, like some kind of botanical drip. The plants were in a staggered procession; the apparatus was vaguely archaic. The difference between functionality and decorativeness, it seemed, was purposely confused.
Laurence’s current ambition is to create an installation that is a greenhouse fantasy-land. The epitome of the controlled environment, her styled greenhouse (and here, greenhouse fragments), would be a vast theatre that staged the encounter between the inherent order of nature with the imposed order of humans. Christian Boltanski once remarked that if he had to do a monument to the Holocaust it would be something that needed to be tended to every day, so as to evade neglect, which is the fate of most monuments. Laurence’s gardens do not have the same impersonality and climactic bombast of, say, Libeskind’s concrete garden. Their use of metaphor is a little gentler. The power in Laurence’s best work is to show us that for artworks to operate on our ability to remember, we have to be reminded first of our supreme willingness to forget.