Conversations With Plants: A Trajectory Of Nature With Janet Laurence
“This is not the 2020 that we all imagined.” With less of us humans indulging in daily activities, nature seems to have sprung back to life, unfurling its tendrils that have previously stayed hidden. One has to wonder – have we been so cruel; so destructive to the environment that it took a pandemic to allow Mother Nature to creep back to her rightful place?
As we embraced the rise of technology, we gradually forgot the grandeur of the natural world that surrounds us, favouring the familiar click that we now associate with the internet’s convenience, instead of taking time to hear the grass rustling beneath our feet as the wind whistles past our ears. With things put in clearer perspective, now is a good time as any to learn how to get along with nature.
And to do that, Australian artist Janet Laurence might just be the perfect person to turn to. For the past three decades, she has been an advocate for the interconnection of living things, using her multi-disciplinary practice to explore the natural world and its environmental challenges. Known for her installations that engage with biological forms, Laurence shares a close relationship with nature, even creating a “coral reef hospital” (Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef) and a “memorial” for threatened plants (In Memory of Nature) as part of her art.
Hearing the plight of plants
Laurence has always had an innate way of communicating with nature – over the years, she has become a middle person, a “plant whisperer”, if you will, taking care to convey the message in a manner that is as elegant as it is thought-provoking.
Earlier this year, Laurence presented her solo exhibition, Entangled Garden for Plant Memory at the Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art, in Nantou City, Taiwan. Co-organised with curator Professor Wan-Chen Chang, the “mother of modern museums”, it took three years for the exhibition to come to life. According to Chang, “entangled” is how one would describe the symbiotic relationship between humans and all other living beings. In this exhibition, Laurence captures her image of green Taiwan in a three-dimensional approach, combining video projections and wall-hanging paintings with animal and plant specimens. Locally-selected plants make up the core of the exhibition; Laurence lends her signature touch of aesthetic to marry the museum’s “vertical space” with the atmosphere of nature.
Visitors of Entangled Garden are granted an immersive experience across three levels of the museum, where natural elements intermingle with Laurence’s unique way of reflective, thought-provoking storytelling. Like a secret garden hidden within concrete walls, each plant acts like a guardian of the earth, under the watchful eyes of feathered specimens dotting the walls, witnessing the life cycle of nature.
“I don’t want branches; I want a real tree.” At Laurence’s insistence, a massive withered tree, found in Xiufeng Village, becomes the main piece of the first level, aptly named “Root”. Upon entering the exhibition, you are greeted by fragments of long-forgotten forests, depleted of the chlorophyll that gives life.
“I thought about this museum and its verticality, which is a bit like a tree, and I thought immediately about the idea of a big dead tree to talk about its relationship to the earth,” she shares. Look closely, and you will notice an assortment of items around the dead tree – minerals, laboratory equipment, bandages… alluding to the price of climate change and social development, especially mining, logging and construction, translated into an endless loop of damage.
Making a bold statement in silence
Call it timely, or divine intervention – what Laurence had not expected was to have the world come to a standstill in order to get her point across. As Mother Nature’s silent plea for help coincided with the pandemic, Entangled Garden now puts things into new perspective, providing an opportunity for a new way of thinking that might not have taken place if things had turned out differently.
As you ascend to the next level, “Foliage” marks a stark difference from what you leave behind. “To have this cultural understanding of plants and how to bring us in touch with nature and its fragility…” Like a symphony, 40 species of native plants, carefully-cultivated over the course of 6 months, burst forth from a centrepiece of glass receptacles in a dramatically-silent gesture. Around the room are images that depict memories of the forest, dispersing onto the walls with the movement of light and spilling onto the floor, ever-present and yet evoking a sense of loss. From dead trees to living, breathing greenery, Laurence paints a picture of hope through the excitement of life, unrestrained by limitations. “Like little babies, they have to be cared for and looked after,” she says.
Part of Laurence’s vision was to convey Taiwan’s characteristics through Entangled Garden, which is evident through numerous collaborations with local research and education institutes: the National Taiwan University’s (NTU) Museum of Zoology, TAI Herbarium, and Geo-specimen Cottage, all of which provided valuable specimens used in the exhibition. Her vitrine work is an impressive display of contrasting elements: from everyday discoveries collected during her personal walks, to painstakingly-preserved scientific specimens. Each compartment forms an invisible cocoon around itself, seemingly reminding us that despite all our differences, we still co-exist within the same space.
The top level, “Habitat”, showcases birds in a circular formation, lying face-up in an eternal slumber that is equal parts peaceful and sombre, as if lodging a silent accusation against mankind’s frenzied quest for development. As you move on, images of the forest, allow you to easily visualise yourself surrounded by lush greenery, a luxury that can only be experienced if we continue to champion for changes in environmental sustainability. While working as a resident in a zoo, Laurence also took time to shoot videos of animals at close range, clearly capturing their skin’s movement as they breathed. Translated into gray-scale tones, you enter an enclave to a huge projection of undulating tiger stripes. With each huff, puff and sigh magnified through speakers, you suddenly become surrounded by the majesty of the sounds we tend to take for granted.
The takeaway from Entangled Garden is this: if we fail to act, we are essentially setting ourselves up to fail the world that has continued to provide for us so selflessly. Maybe it’s time we, as humans, learned to listen. As Laurence sums it up so succinctly: “I really feel that our loss of contact with nature has gotten us into this terrible predicament we’re in.”
Cover Image: Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art
Writer | Michelle Tan
Underneath her RBF, Michelle is actually a friendly raccoon. Loves collecting ugly things, changing her hair colour, and dinosaurs (not necessarily in that order).