Today, the most urgent challenge for human beings at a collective level is climate change. Think tanks, governments, activists, scientists, educators and others are each thinking creatively and strategically about how to provoke critical, mass-scale action and policy reform to tackle the ongoing concern for our environment. It is widely recognised that our relationship with the natural world is shifting on a global scale, and it is becoming more and more apparent that we must act now, before it is too late.
However, the unfortunate reality is that global markets and neoliberal conditions have largely stripped us of our capacity for interpersonal empathy, through this, clouding the urgency of a reform with the buzzing and whirling of vested interests, commercial viability and media manipulations.
Psychologically, this does make it a challenging time to live within the contemporary zeitgeist; no one recognises this absence of empathy better than artist Janet Laurence, who has been exploring these interconnected themes throughout her practice over the last 30 years. Her new survey exhibition ‘After Nature’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is a culmination of her practice to date.
Curated by the MCA’s Chief Curator, Rachel Kent, ‘After Nature’ is a continuation of a 20-year working history between the artist and curator, curatorially it draws reference to Kent’s and
the MCA’s commitment to working with outstanding artists at both an international and national level.
Kent says the following about Laurence’s work: ‘Empathy lies at the core of Laurence’s multi-dimensional practice, expressed in her concern for, and nurture of the fragile objects and creatures within the works. It also reflects her desire that we – as viewers, and human beings sharing the planet with other species – identify with and care for them as well. In this regard her work speaks to essential questions around reciprocity, understanding and co-existence: the fundamentals of survival and growth in a perilous age.’
How this is explored in ‘After Nature’ is through an enthralling labyrinth weaving together animal, plant and mineral through a variety of work spanning large installation to smaller more intimate pieces. Both the materiality and content here come together in a united platform to speak of the precariousness of our environment, our engagement with interpersonal empathy and how that relates back to the wider Anthropocene epoch that we find ourselves within.
Highlights include the works Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (2015-16), an ecological constellation of glass vitrines with earthy compounds re-situated in the gallery; this work draws audiences in, encouraging visitors to think about their own bodies in relation to these forms. Also, Solid by Weights, Liquid by Measure (1993) is a work that brings to our attention the beauty of alchemy and reminds us of the relationship between science and creative practice.
These earlier works are built upon with a new commission developed by the MCA for this exhibition entitled Theatre of Trees (2018-19). The work takes form in an installation that is part reading room, part earthy herbarium with specimens and part interactive ‘elixir lab’ ingesting and tasting plant matter themselves. This layered experience in three parts communicates the artist’s intentions and opens her practice up to wider audiences throughout this process – further developing this idea of empathy in the face of the Anthropocene.
Tess Maunder is a writer, curator and researcher based in Brisbane, Australia.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Until 10 June, 2019