Q&A with Janet Laurence: The role of Artists in this moment of planetary environmental crisis

“I try to bring an engagement with empathy for the natural world – the world that we have been blind to for so long. Now we really need this wake-up call, to understand our interconnection with the natural world, and our interdependence on it, and to overcome the dualism within Western thought.”

'The Underlying' by Janet Laurence. Belgrade Beannali Exhibition (2016). Image courtesy of Nikola Marinkovic.

On Tuesday 27 March 2018, Sydney-based Australian artist Janet Laurence joins us for the public lecture ‘Artists have never been more important’, which explores how artists are working to address climate change through their creative practices.

Below, SEI’s Knowledge Translation Officer Anastasia Mortimer talks to Janet about her art, and how she defines it within the environmental crisis.

AM: Your past works have addressed environmental issues and worked to question the conflicting relationship between human beings and the natural world. How would you define your work within the environmental crisis?

JL: My work creates a space for people to engage with scientific information about the environment, but not in a didactic or documentary way. It is evocative, and it calls for empathy. Through my work, I create a space of intimacy, in which the audience can engage with the natural world – with whom we share the planet.

I try to bring an engagement with empathy for the natural world – the world that we have been blind to for so long. Now we really need this wake-up call, to understand our interconnection with the natural world, and our interdependence on it, and to overcome the dualism within Western thought.

Waiting – A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants 2010
transparent mesh, duraclear, mirror, oil, acrylic, glass veils, plant specimens
500 x 300 x 300cm
17th Biennale of Sydney, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

AM: Do you consider your artworks to be environmental activism?

JL: I do, as it is always an engagement with or a presentation of the natural world, to bring attention to its fragility. But, I would frame it as soft activism, because while it is political, it isn’t activism in the traditional sense.

Additionally, not all of my work can be defined as environmental activism. It is not great to be categorised in the art world, and I do not want to be locked into a space. While I want my work to speak beyond these boundaries, it is what my work is centred on.

AM: What inspires you to explore topics of communal loss through environmental change through your artworks?

JL: The inspiration is twofold. Firstly, I cannot help but see communal loss in my everyday life; in the collapse and the consequences of our actions or inactions. I want the loss to be expressed in my art – my voice is my art. It is important for the arts to bring in the emotional side of what science has been able to offer us, and the more emotional dimension makes loss more meaningful for us.

Secondly, I see the collapse of the natural world, and I value the richness and diversity, and extraordinary wonders of our planet. I want it to be cared for, and this inspires me to act.

Inside the Flower – installation views
transparent mesh, duraclear, mirror, acrylic, water lense, tubes,
stainless steel, books, specimines and medicinal plants
4500mm x 4000mm x 4000mm
Site-specific installation
Photos by: Leslie Ranzoni

AM: What role does environmental restoration have in your creative practice? 

JL: Restoration is a transformative process, and through my work, I have always loved to express transformation. So much of my work is about the aesthetics of care and the aesthetics of healing, and in the past, I have done this through metaphors like making a hospital for plants.

The thing is that examples of restoration are important. Restoration brings hope, and of course, we need hope because it offers a space of possibility for us to act. Therefore, the aim of restoration needs to be there.

Empire Roots, Ankor Wat 2016
dye sublimation print, polished stainless steel mirror, oil glaze on acrylic, burnt plywood
100 x 216cm
Dominik Mersch Gallery

AM: How has your work been received by audiences within the context of building an awareness of environmental issues?

JL: I have had a very rewarding response to my work from audiences, and hopefully in getting people to think and talk about these issues. The work that comes to mind is “After Eden” – a work on lost animal habitats. I realised that people did not even know about these habitat issues, and it was rewarding to help in bringing awareness.

There are limited audiences looking at art. When someone walks into a gallery, they are already receptive to art, and so it is important to think about how we might reach the other people who are not. In Australian society, the voice of the Arts is not acknowledged as a relevant political voice.

It is vital for the arts to speak and to be included in discussions on the general state of the world because we have interesting and unique insights that are missing from current discussions. That is why these talks are important, because it is more than overdue for the arts to speak.

After Eden. Photograph by Jaime North.


Join Janet Laurence on Tuesday 27 March 2018 for the Sydney Ideas public lecture: ‘Artists have never been more important’. For more information, and to register, click here.

Below are some examples of Janet’s past works and exhibitions. For more information, visit Janet’s website

Resuscitation Garden 2011
After Eden 2012
Anthropocene 2015

Janet Laurence is a Sydney-based Australian artist who exhibits nationally and internationally. Her practice examines our physical, cultural and conflicting relationship to the natural world. She creates immersive environments that navigate the interconnections between organic elements and systems of nature. Within the recognised threat to so much of the lifeworld, she explores what it might mean to heal, albeit metaphorically, the natural environment, fusing this with a sense of communal loss and search for connection with powerful life forces. Her work is included in museum, university, corporate and private collections as well as within architectural and landscaped public places.

Anastasia Mortimer is the Content Editor & Knowledge Translation Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours. Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.