My friend Janet Laurence currently has a show at the Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide with the title ‘Residue’. When I saw the announcement, with its bold photo of the main piece, I knew I had to go and visit in person.
Laid out on the floor of the gallery, like a god on a bier, is the huge, broken, leafless branch of a white-barked gum tree. Here lies this recently living thing: perfectly tree, perfectly beautiful, perfectly dead. This installation is called ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’.
Adelaide is at the forefront of the heatwave weather that is becoming a key index of climate change in Australia. On January 16, 2014, this small city had the distinction of being the hottest city in the world. Other records were broken in Adelaide this summer, just as they had been during the previous summer, including eleven days of temperatures of 42°C or more (107.6F). The hottest days were 45°C+ (113F).
The weather became a participant in Janet’s work. While she was searching for a broken branch to bring into the gallery, Adelaide experienced a huge windstorm. Gusts of 100 kms (60 miles) or more knocked down heat-stressed trees all over the city.
The branch is about 9 metres (30 feet) in length and 6 metres (20 feet) at its widest. It is horribly disconcerting to see it as it is now – so large and strong, so vulnerable and lost. Janet bandaged some branches in white gauze, and she has installed tubes running from empty phials to a dead tree in gestures of forlorn life-support. Such green as can be seen is darkly dying.
The great branch was placed on top of numerous sheets of mirror that were both reflective and stained. There were smears and drips, as if arteries had been cut into, and great gouts of blood had spurted through the area. And yet, almost everything here was white. This was a bleeding out that was desiccated, salty, bleached, and drained. It was beautiful, and it was scary.
All these white smears and gouts spoke of death that depletes and does not renew. The branch, whose limbs still seemed to reach out to life, was fallen in the midst of desertification, salinity, acid sulphate soils, endless heat, endless sun.
I kept walking around the piece, seeing on every turn another element of this great white terrain of loss. There was bleached coral. There were animal bones, including vertebrae, jawbones with teeth, and the long thin leg bones of, perhaps, water birds. There were dried leaves and twigs, and there were powders, salts and stones.
‘Blood and chlorophyll’ – trees and other plants, and the bones and exoskeletons of animals – is a desiccated deathscape assembled with the most loving care. Nothing here is ugly, nothing is out of place, nothing seems to be in pain. The vials and tubes testify to care, and the whole piece bears witness both to death and to those who live on after the deaths of others. It testifies to we who care, who mourn, who keep faith with life, and who honour death, even as we are becoming bleached out in the great desert of future-earth here in our part of this struggling planet.
There is a lot of synergy between Janet’s work and mine. In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote:
For some four billion years life and death have been working together, each finding its own level in relation to the other, and together sustaining a family of life on Earth, a family that is always changing, always finding connections, generating fit, seeking an always shifting balance in an Earth system that is itself far from equilibrium. We humans emerged in dynamic relationships with animals and plants; with them we share our dependence on water and air, and we share basic energy and basic substance: blood, and its plant counterpart chlorophyll.’
‘If we could hear the call of those who are slipping out of life forever …. We might encounter a narrative emerging from extinctions, a level of blood that connects us all.’
I have travelled through many of the bleached out deserts of Australia, and I have been made breathless with their beauty. In the early years of my travels, it did not occur to me that these white expanses of deeply arid desert might be the landscapes of the future. Janet’s work brings us this shock of recognition.
And yet – not only the weather, but tiny creatures also are participants in Janet’s work. Hugo Michell (gallery owner) and Ceridwen Ahem (gallery manager) told me that there were active ants in the tree. I thought immediately of borers or termites, but whatever they are, they are alive, and they are thriving. A couple of days ago Ceridwen wrote: ‘ANT UPDATE: When I came in this morning there were lots of little piles of sawdust – the ants are working so hard that you can hear them at it. The whole tree makes these little clicking noises – it kind of sounds like popping candy. I am loving it!’
‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ is just one of several pieces in ‘Residue’. The show also includes a lovely selection of Janet’s larger oeuvre. Those that worked most profoundly on my sensibilities as I sat in the gallery and contemplated the ensemble, are those that carried the theme of a salty heat-struck zone of violence and death. ‘Traded I’ from an earlier installation ‘After Eden’ has cast resin antlers, mirror, calcite, quartz, and the white pigment that I see as stains and smears – the aftermath of some unimaginable violence.
Along the back wall there was a set of x-ray images (duraclear and inkjet on acrylic and mirror) of endangered species.
Janet is famous for her work with lighting, veils, and mirrors along with scientific equipment and biological remains. The effect of mirrors is to require us to see ourselves in all these places of loss. Gauze, veils, and shadows cast by mysteriously ambiguous lighting are intended to slow people down, to disrupt the everyday and the expected, and to help us to experience anew the precious qualities of life in the midst of the haunting miasma of all this loss.
‘Hauntology’ is Jacques Derrida’s term for the spectre of the past which confronts us as the future. Like many of his excellent ideas, it is more readily grasped through the work of scholars who have sought to put it to work in analysing the contemporary world. Nick Mansfield writes beautifully about haunting and the Anthropocene. He presses us toward the understanding that what we are facing arises out of our past and comes at us from the future. He writes that ‘the material violence of the past emerges, reincarnate, re-fleshed, in our future, and in a politics for which our last centuries of politics cannot prepare or even forewarn us’.
What politics cannot do, Janet and other artists are actually doing. They bring us into encounters and recognition, they hold us in that place where mystery and understanding mingle and overtake us. They bring us to our knees, astonishing us with awareness of our own mortality, complicity, grief, remorse, and unbounded love.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Postscript ~ News from the Gallery: Ceridwen Ahern writes that borers are now visibly active, as well as audibly active!
More news from the Gallery: The installation has been removed. The tree has been taken to a nearby park. The ants went with the tree. Life goes on.
Acknowledgement: All the photos in this essay were provided by the Hugo Michell Gallery.