Deep Breathing: Resuscitation of the reef

Deep Breathing is at once a metaphor of healing, a tragic drama, and a rational scientific analysis.

Last Thursday, SEI’s Ian McCalman had the honour of opening “Deep Breathing”, an outstanding exhibition by celebrated artist Janet Laurence at the Australian Museum. Last year, Janet was invited to curate a version of “Deep Breathing” at the COP 21 conference on climate change in Paris in order to raise awareness of the dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef. The artwork being presented at the museum today is smaller and different as she has incorporated elements drawn from the splendid species collections from the museum itself, but the main message remains the same: “to understand and, if possible, to remediate the dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef, for it is the greatest marine ecosystem in the world and the only living organism on our planet that astronauts can see from outer space and a cornerstone of our natural heritage as Australians” as McCalman expressed during his opening speech.

Janet’s artwork addresses our relationship with nature and how humans impact the natural world. Drawing on inspiration from the Cabinets of Curiosity, or Wunderkammer’s, designed by the wealthy Enlightenment scientists, Janet’s recent works have achieved a beautiful and intricate form seen in the “Deep Breathing” installation. These cabinets, that were originally designed by the cognoscenti to impart knowledge, ignite the imagination and engage the emotions, now invite us to plunge our heads underwater to see the Great Barrier Reef through the lens of a multivalent artistic creation that teems with submarine life and death. Deep Breathing invites us to contemplate, participate and to act. Her installation evokes three distinct but related institutions: an ecological laboratory for scientists, an emergency field hospital for the rescue and healing of afflicted corals and fish; and, sadly perhaps, a hospice to comfort the last days of marine creatures on the point of death. Janet’s installation thus tempers despair with hope, as she displays reef species in trauma yet simultaneously invites our empathy and action. Deep Breathing is at once a metaphor of healing, a tragic drama, and a rational scientific analysis.   

More specifically Janet asks us to reflect on a series of scientific and social challenges to the Reef’s survival that are both vast and minute, local and global, combustive and stealthy, visible and invisible.  The Great Barrier Reef must cope with threats that range from the ferocious violence of super-cyclones and mass bleaching events to the slow, stealthy violence of acidifying waters that are beginning to dissolve the calcium skeletons of corals in the same way that we dissolve alkaline tablets to combat acid indigestion. Janet’s artistic talent and scientific insight give material form to the often inaccessible calculations, formulae and data contained in specialized scientific papers.

Embedded in her installation are a series of implicit questions. How do reef-growing corals manage to establish a symbiosis between a polyp and a tiny algae that generates such a supercharge of energy that it can build vast limestone walls in defiance of the Pacific’s massive rollers? Why does seawater warmed only a few degrees beyond the normal cause the symbiotic algae to abandon their polyp hosts to leave behind cemeteries of stark white skeletons that will soon be covered in thick green slime? Why are the waters of the reef becoming slowly more acidic so that newborn corals become brittle and deformed?   And these are only a few of the perils conveyed in Janet’s haunting video images as they flicker and glow above her installation.

Janet Laurence is passionate but never didactic: she does not try to force answers or actions upon us. Instead, she invites us to turn our minds and hearts to thinking and caring about how to rescue the Reef in whatever ways we can. By awarding Janet an Artist-in-Residency, the Australian Museum has thus made a major contribution to bringing these looming environmental dangers out of the laboratory and into the world.


Image by Tim Levy and Australian Museum.