DOWN TO EARTH
Reproduced from the catalogue for the exhibition Cornucopia at Sherman Galleries, Sydney, 2007
Naomi Cass, 2007
Lauren Berkowitz returns things to the ground. For many years now her installations have been situated at floor level, inviting us to look down and read vibrant geometric abstractions, which, on closer inspection, are grounded in concerns ranging from the environment to Indigenous culture.
Harvested from trees and bushes, quarries, suburban supermarket shelves, from spice and grain merchants – small natural things are grown or gathered and categorised according to size and colour and to how they perform in western, Indigenous and Jewish culture. Then, filtered through her literate understanding of western art, through extensive research with experts and locals alike, these things are painstakingly laid out for our delight, as floor architecture. Transformed into colour and form their skilful placement almost deceives us into forgetting their source, but ultimately these things remain connected to their origin as leaf, seed, stamen or mineral and to their longstanding associations as food, symbol and cultural capital.
It is Berkowitz’s patience with and reverence for elemental things that enables us to find the interconnectedness between nature and culture. Through her deft workings, such things are delivered – via art history – to the gallery floor. Berkowitz’s work is remarkable for its disciplined, discursive even cool aesthetic, given her often-impassioned subject matter.
Salt is a reoccurring theme and material in Berkowitz’s work. First used in Verdant, 2001 – in Salt and Honey, 2002, glistening in the darkened gallery, salt was a transformative medium in form and content. Laid on a platform just off the floor, salt was both her canvas and mnemonic for its capacity to convert fresh into preserved, infected into clean, un-permitted into kosher. White salt recalls the purity of a Sabbath tablecloth which, when placed on bread, renders the table a metaphoric altar. Salt represents the potential for God's anger, wrath and destruction – salt is both the beginning and the end of life.
The recuperative capacity of salt diminishes in subsequent installations where Berkowitz returns to a long held unease about environmental degradation. In Tide, 2004, sea salt bears reminder of the corrosive effects of so-called progress on both Indigenous culture and the environment. In Shadows and Light, 2005, described as her ‘darkest work to date’, the metaphoric burden of salt is now carried by coal which, unforgivingly, frames alternating rhythms of cream, pink and yellow wood shavings. Reminiscent of the emblematic train tracks leading towards the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, Shadows and Light concerns a kind of ’time lapse image’ of the intricate workings of colonisation upon both the people and land of the coal mining Lake Macquarie district.1
Karakarook’s Garden , 2005–06, is a permanent installation in the grounds at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. Here Berkowitz acknowledges the original inhabitants, the Wurrundjeri clan, through her garden of living, rare and endangered indigenous plants. Karrakarook imparted her gift of fire to Kulin women and taught them how to use sticks with a fire-hardened point to dig out plants with edible tubers. She assisted them in the healing and medicinal qualities of plants. Once again, Berkowitz draws together knowledge and narratives from Indigenous and European culture while the garden’s restrained abstract composition refers to John and Sunday Reed, founders of Heide, as cultivators of Australian modernism, which metaphorically ‘grew from the soil of Heide’.2
Demeter’s Garden , 2006, is a temporary installation, like a large textured rug made from dried exotic, native and indigenous plants harvested from Sunday Reed’s extensive gardens, and located in their second residence. Unlike Berkowitz’s earlier work, this lyric abstraction bends and weaves to reflect changing attitudes towards the Australian environment, in particular during the 1960s, in the work of architects, artists and gardeners. Berkowitz references the hard-edge abstraction of architects McClashan’s and Everist’s Heide II, which frames and encloses the landscape, and the paintings of David Aspden, which respond to the colours and light of the Australian bush. Similarly drawing together cultural and botanical narratives, Demeter’s Garden is the story of the coloniser’s relationship to the land.
Cornucopia , 2007, as the title suggests, is a celebration of the bountiful, vibrant and colourful produce witnessed by Berkowitz in local Middle Eastern produce markets. She brings foods of humble origin into the gallery, working grains, seeds and spices as if they were elevated materials, and creating for the first time a vast and unified curvilinear installation. Berkowitz is inspired by paintings and furnishings of Sonia Delaunay, where the interplay of cold and warm tones, the alternating, radiating colour and light brought the rhythms of daily life, together with modern art, into the domestic realm. Unlike her modernist predecessor Berkowitz is less enamoured with progress: bleached of colour, salt is both an essential compositional element and a nagging reminder of the fragility of the soil. Rings of salt encircle life-affirming, colour-drenched foodstuffs, both enhancing their colour and threatening their existence.
Naomi Cass is Director of the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne.
1. Sally Couacaud, ‘After Nature’, in After Nature, exhibition catalogue, Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, Booragul, 2005, p. 3.
2. Lauren Berkowitz, unpublished artist statement, July 2007.