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Jane O'Neill

Reproduced with permission from the catalogue for the exhibition Demeter’s Garden at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne (2007)

Lauren Berkowitz commenced work on Demeter's garden (2006) with humble gestures, gathering plant materials from the grounds at Heide Museum of Modern Art. This floor work combines the detritus of indigenous, native and exotic plants, creating the vivid effect of a luxurious carpet. The interweaving of clusters of dried flowers, seeds and leaves creates a visual landscape that refers back to the botanical history of the area: its pre-European heritage; the introduction of exotics; and finally, the return to native Australian species.

Berkowitz has maintained a fascination with both man-made and organic refuse throughout her practice. Earlier installations consisted of dense groupings of domestic objects; onion sacks, elastic bands, bottles and paper bags typified her materials. More recently, the artist has employed organic materials such as sand, salt and plants. In each case, the matter is brought together in ways that serve to emphasise its tactile and visual possibilities. Charles Merewether describes how 'through the elaboration of discarded objects and materials she opens up their associative power, as if unpacking the symbolic energy condensed within each object'.(1) In Demeter's garden the artist has directed her abiding instinct towards Heide's expansive park. Together, the dried plants symbolise both the historical and seasonal changes that have occurred in the garden. The ritualistic acts of gathering and ordering have been informed in this case by a botanical curiosity and a passion for classification. The accumulated material was sorted, dried and preserved, then transformed, into sculptural form.

The use of organic matter belongs to the tradition of land art, and accordingly alerts us to some of the aesthetic conundrums associated with the movement. Behind much land art is a plea for environmental awareness, but what are we to make of the works of an artist such as British sculptor Richard Long, who happily pillages huge amounts of organic material to create his work?(2) When the artwork itself involves a wholesale depredation of nature, the result is entirely antithetical to any true sense of kinship with the environment.(3) By contrast, Berkowitz's work treads very lightly upon the land. Her process for Demeter's garden involved the seasonal collection of a very small proportion of the renewable resources of the area: plant matter which had fallen to the ground or had gone to seed. The artist's guiding interest here has been to preserve a certain knowledge of the area in a manner that is accessible to the viewer. Demeter's garden draws on the layers of botanical history that belong to Heide and reflects a desire to come to terms with the hybrid nature of our scarred landscape.

The format of the work represents a new compositional direction for Berkowitz. Previous installations involved the configuration of organic material in the manner of hard-edge geometric abstraction: the receding squares in Strata (1999) are reminiscent of the paintings of Frank Stella, while the contrasting rectangular and square forms in Verdant (2001) might recall the constructivist period of Ralph Balson. In Demeter's garden, we see an inclination towards more organic shapes. The artist cites David Aspden 'in his reference to the landscape through the exploration of colour interactions' as a defining influence.(4) Throughout his career, Aspden was fascinated with the compositional possibilities of irregular shapes and how they might merge together to form a cohesive surface.(5) Here we see his legacy of 'contained chaos' applied to organic materials. Rather than the hard edge of a masking tape line so familiar to geometric abstraction, Berkowitz uses tactile contrasts and varying contours to accentuate the alternations of colour. The groups of different plants create sensory shifts. Wispy purplish strands of smokebush fade alongside vividly' coloured lavender, violet and bluebells. The heady aroma of the lavender competes with the pungent smell of garlic. Rippled pods of wattle seeds sink below the knotted tendrils from a chestnut tree.

Viewed from the balcony of the gallery, the work assumes the appearance of an exotic tapestry. The artist remarks that it mimics the richly textured woollen carpet of the upstairs conversation pit and so responds to the original domestic interior of the gallery space.(6) Yet, for all of its connotations of cosiness and allusions to the Arcadian beauty of the local environment, Berkowitz's work also arouses a certain fear in us. It leaves us with the lingering anxiety that Demeter's garden may become a time capsule of sorts, an exhibit attesting to the past existence of a verdant world now lost.

1. Charles Merewether, Lauren Berkowitz, Anxieties of Revelation, Craftsman House, Melbourne, 2001, p. 16.

2. Examples of artworks by Richard Long which consist of rocks collected from the natural environment and re-configured in a gallery space include: Kilkenny Circle (1984), Sea Lava Circles (1988), Ring of River Stones (1998) and A Divided Circle (1998).

3. In 1991 Tim Hilton, art critic for The Guardian, complained that Long, 'far from society and its petty concerns', paid no attention 'to the life, the ecology or the peoples of the land he traverses', before asserting that, 'Long's photographs are often of beautiful places, but by today's standards they are ignorant.',11710,986533,OO.html

4. Research notes from the artist, January, 2007 

5. David Aspden (1935-2005) was a prominent Australian colour field painter who used hard-edge painting techniques. The artist also received encouragement and support from John and Sunday Reed.

6. Research notes from the artist, January, 2007

Jane O'Neill is a curator, writer and artist based in Melbourne.
Copyright © 2007, Jane O'Neill and Heide Museum of Modern Art