site builder

Natalie King

Reproduced courtesy of Art & Australia, Vol. 37, No 4, p.566-571, 2000 

"Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rocks." Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory(1)

The notion that landscape is a repository of memory permeates the sensitive and beautifully executed site-specific installations of Melbourne artist Lauren Berkowitz. Her most recent endeavour, Strata, 1999, was commissioned for McClelland Gallery in regional Victoria on the occasion of its redevelopment by architects Williams and Boag. As the new curator, Simeon Kronenberg injected a contemporary and challenging dimension to McClelland's exhibition program by inviting Berkowitz to respond to one of the gallery spaces, thus instigating the first indoor installation at a gallery renowned as one of Australia's premier sculpture parks. Berkowitz's installation continued McClelland's ongoing investigation of sculptural works sited in and connected to the landscape.

Made from local sands sourced from the adjacent quarry, Strata comprised ten concentric rectangles in different shades of sand which covered the gallery floor like a precious carpet. The rural landscape, visible from a large window at the rear of the gallery, created a distinct relationship between exterior and interior spaces. At the opening, viewers were asked to remove their shoes and take time to walk around the work, feeling the crushed pebbles beneath their bare feet while also being aware of the outside vista and the natural light within the gallery. For some it was similar to being in a Japanese Zen garden.

Berkowitz produced a geometric, abstract floor-piece as a conscious response to the hard-edged architectural origins of the building, which first opened in 1971. Formally, Strata is derived from Frank Stella's concentric abstract paintings of the late 1950s and 1960s.(2) Stella was interested in referencing the edge of the canvas and removing any sense of three-dimensional space from the picture plane. While his paintings do not evoke the presence of the artist through touch, Berkowitz deployed his rigid compositional device indoors with delicate materials. She combined his formal concerns with the sensuality of sand. Packed, shaped and laid out along the gallery floor, the work created an optical effect of pulsating stripes.

Berkowitz's adopted format also recalls Josef Albers's 'Homage to the Square' series of paintings, initiated in 1949, which she saw recently at Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Albers opted for a kind of geometric abstraction that is both anti-gestural and rigorously precise. He used contrasting colours to demonstrate how illusions of hue, space and form may be produced.(3) Berkowitz, however, deployed sand like paint, discovering a palette of ochres from pale yellow to deep brown. Her canvas was the gallery floor, compacted with tiny granules of sand that marked out striated bands of polychromatic colour. The result was a richly textured geometric pattern that subtly referenced historical abstraction while suggesting an exquisitely ephemeral realm.

We were also reminded of Nikolaus Lang's earth samples of varying colours displayed on paper in the site-specific work Ochre and sand: Dedicated to the vanished tribes of the Flinders Ranges and Adelaide area, 1987. Featured in the Australian Biennale 1988, 'From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c. 1940-1988',(4) Lang's natural 'painting' of pigments in cone-shaped mounds or 'dots' was connected with Aboriginal sand and desert paintings. Lang graduated from an art academy in Munich in 1966 at a time when land art, ecology art and earthworks were coming to prominence. At that time, Robert Smithson called for an 'abstract geology': 'I've always been interested in different sites and different kinds of relationships, you know, like the relationship in a white room as opposed to a quarry.(5) Smithson's interest in working with raw materials in conjunction with abstract form is apparent not only in his famous earthworks but in the geometrical stacks, Leaning strata, 1968, and Glass stratum, 1967.(6) Berkowitz paid homage to Smithson by subtly referencing his title in Strata, while also acknowledging his enterprise of' abstract geology'.

Berkowitz's installations are labour intensive and involve thorough research into site and materials. She investigates the buried history of materials and context in order to realise poetic installations with layered meanings. Materials are gathered, collated and placed in an obsessive, ritualistic way. Her fascination with objets trouves or recycled detritus obtained from unusual sources permeates each particular work.(7) Like Lang, Berkowitz often collects and utilises materials from her designated site, reworking them into elegant sculptural forms.

In his book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama meditates on the history of landscape 'as an excavation, beginning with the familiar, digging down through the layers of memories and representations toward the primary bedrock, laid down centuries or even millennia ago, and then working up again toward the light of contemporary recognition.(8) Landscaped parks and gardens are artificially constructed spaces designed for entertainment or pleasure. They are places of delight where topography is arranged to feast the eye. Schama's chapter on 'Rudeness and Confusion' traces landscape gardening books from 1700 that extol the virtues of a 'rude wilderness'. Such gardens featured statuary of monstrous birds and dragons, with trees carved to appear as if they had been blasted by lightning.

Berkowitz acknowledges the manner in which gardens and landscaped forms echo aspects of human occupation, preservation, artifice, sentimentality and sensuality. She considers the sedative role of gardens as well as their capacity to provide enclaves of fantasy and recollection. When commissioned by the Sydney Festival in 1999 to create an installation for the city's Queen Victoria Building (QVB), Berkowitz revisited the topiary and hedges of the formal eighteenth-century European garden. Topiary involves the trimming of growth and artificial shaping of vegetation. Berkowitz adopted a version of topiary by cutting and arranging eucalyptus into mathematical proportions. She then constructed an organic membrane which was suspended below the interior dome of the QVB. Gathered, arranged and clipped like a hedge into a large cylindrical form, Cupola, 1999, assumed immense proportions as it levitated within the voids of the building.

At the time of constructing Cupola, Berkowitz was eight months pregnant with her first child, symbolically reflected in the abundance of materials and uterine shape of her sculpture. Its fragrance filled the tiered shopping arcades with the sharp tang of the Australian bush. As shoppers rode the escalators, they were able to appreciate the work from different perspectives, with hues of green revealing changing plant varieties and textures.

Cupola was a technically challenging work. A circular armature was fabricated according to the artist's specifications, and clumps of leaves seamlessly attached to it by a team of assistants. Berkowitz then orchestrated the hoisting of the six metre high structure into position below the dome. Covered in light depending on the time of day, the work hung like a Chinese lantern - both aromatic and astonishing. A companion piece consisting of a thin blanket of eucalyptus was suspended above the patterned Victorian tiles, as if it were knitted into the architectural structure of the building.

For Australian Perspecta 1997, 'Between Art and Nature',(9) Berkowitz combined architectural references with the heightened sensory experience of plants. She accumulated significant quantities of fresh and preserved chillies, lavender and banksias to construct three large-scale woven suspensions collectively entitled Follies, 1997. This title recalls the eighteenth-century notion of an absurd structure or chamber suggesting rudeness and delight, terror and ecstasy. Each plant represented a continent: chillies (the Americas), lavender (England and Europe) and banksias (Australia). All invoked the sense of smell while stimulating personal and historical memory.

Lavender - associated with women's beauty rituals, scenting the body and healing - was transformed into an undulating baroque form redolent of nostalgia and romance, while the glistening chilli spiral evoked pleasant connotations of cooking, taste, smell and touch. The burning properties of chillies also signalled danger and a dystopic vision of the landscape; the sculptural form itself recalled Robert Smithson's Spiral jetty, 1970, taken indoors and infused with aroma. Just as Smithson's mammoth earthwork sank into the sea, having transformed over time, so Berkowitz's fresh chillies shrivelled up and decayed. Native banksias were suspended to form a muted green curtain, a sensuous wall of indigenous plants named after Joseph Banks, the botanist who travelled to Australia with Captain James Cook on the Endeavour. The nectar and fragrance of the banksias suggested earthly paradise and an Arcadian landscape. Laden with meaning, Follies also related to cultural institutions that collect, categorise, display, archive and preserve plant materials, including Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens, situated near the Art Gallery of New South Wales where the work was displayed.

Heartsease, 1995, was another ephemeral plant installation modelled on an abstract form. A sculptural garden bed comprising nine concentric circles of pansies and the indigenous plant melaleuca, it was sited in the rear garden of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art(10) in Melbourne. In this work Berkowitz alluded to Jasper Johns's flat target-paintings of the mid-1950s, inflecting his circular configuration with the natural. Situated between the Shrine of Remembrance and the Botanical Gardens, Berkowitz chose Victorian colours of purple and gold combined with indigenous plants in an attempt to reconcile European history with colonisation. Concentric circles and dots also referred to the motifs in Aboriginal paintings designating camp sites or sacred sites.

The title of the work was derived from The Language of Flowers,(11) which lists the symbolic meaning of plants - heartsease corresponds to the Victorian sentiment 'you occupy my thoughts'. Moreover, Berkowitz recalls her mother collecting old postcards and cards with greetings such as 'thinking of you'. Personal memories and the history of place surrounded Heartsease in a public commemorative gesture. Through sculpting the landscape, Berkowitz has unpacked the 'strata of memory' buried deep within natural materials to unveil personal, art historical and social memories with exquisite beauty.

1. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, London, 1996, pp. 6-7. 

2. For a discussion of Strata and geometrical abstraction see Simeon Kronenberg, 'Strata: Between geometry and gesture', exhibition catalogue, McClelland Gallery, Victoria, 1999. Exhibition 24 October- 16 December 1999.

3. See Abstraction, Geometry, Painting: Selected Geometric Abstract Painting in America Since 1945, exhibition catalogue, USA, 1989-90, pp. 31-4, as well as Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, Yale University, New Haven, rev. edn., 1975. 

4. See Daniel Thomas on Nikolaus Lang in Australian Biennale 1988: From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c. 1940-1988, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1988, pp. 174-5; also Thomas's reference in the same publication (pp. 20-1) to Lang's Earth colour and paintings, 1979, shown in the Third Biennale of Sydney and held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. 

5. Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1996, p. 262. 

6. ibid., pp. 97-8. 

7. Natalie King, 'Bag lady', in Bags, Bottles, Newspapers, exhibition catalogue, Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, Melbourne, 1994. 

8. Schama, op. cit, pp. 16-17. 

9. Australian Perspecta 1997, 'Between Art and Nature', curated by Victoria Lynn, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, August - September 1997. 

10. 'Seven Histories of Australia', curated by Clare Williamson, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, October 1995. 

11. Margaret Pickston, The Language of Flowers, Michael Joseph, London, 1974.

I am grateful to Lauren Berkowitz for her valuable insights and contribution to this article.

Natalie King is a writer and curator based in Melbourne
Copyright the author and publisher