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Rachel Kent

Reproduced from the catalogue for the exhibition Salt and Sand at Sherman Galleries, Sydney, 2004

Melbourne artist Lauren Berkowitz has come to prominence over the past decade for her striking assemblages of found objects. Made from everyday materials, and the flotsam and jetsam of nature, Berkowitz's works are often placed directly onto the gallery floor, suspended from the ceiling or propped against its walls. In some instances the works are presented in their natural environment, gardens and waterways becoming meeting points for the convergence of art and everyday life.

Much has been made of Berkowitz's use of ordinary objects and 'detritus' - plastic bags, onion sacs, glass bottles - and her unique ability to transform the mundane into poetic, evocative configurations. Equally, her use of the delicate, ephemeral materials of nature - leaves, flowers, coloured sand and salt - suggests an aesthetic that is at once environmentally driven and not bound by convention.

Collecting, classifying and assembling for display form underlying themes in Berkowitz's sculptural works. There is an element of the obsessive in her meticulous constructions: of order imposed upon disorder, symmetry upon potential chaos. Combing supermarket skips, tips and railway embankments for materials, Berkowitz stockpiles her diverse inventories based around form, colour, texture and source. Art historical references also abound in these works: from references to abstraction and, in particular, minimal art with its emphasis on seriality, repetition and the grid, to the vibrating, pulsating colours associated with op art and the work of Bridget Riley.

Location has become an increasingly significant focus for Berkowitz in recent years. Created in response to particular sites, and constructed from the materials particular to them, her assemblages explore environmental themes and concerns, from the introduction of European flora into the Australian landscape to the impact of increasing salination on the country's waterways. Combining the aesthetic and the political, they suggest a landscape in perilous transformation. Several key works by the artist have addressed these and other concerns, among them her Herring Island installation Verdant of 2001, and Colourfield, created for the University of South Australia Art Museum in 2002.(1)

An earlier work, commissioned for McClelland Gallery at Langwarrin in 1999 and entitled Strata, featured rectangular bands of coloured quarry sands and crushed sandstone from the region surrounding the gallery. Inspired by Frank Stella's hard-edge compositions of the late 1960s and 1970s, the work equally suggested a landscape rich with beauty and vulnerable in the face of urban development. In Verdant and Colourfield, Berkowitz collected local and exotic plants as well as other materials including salt, stone and sheep fleece - each item referring to the history of the areas and their fragile eco-systems.

Since these works, Berkowitz's artistic trajectory has taken her to Japan as a participant in the acclaimed 2003 Echigo-Tsumari Triennale exhibition. For this event she created a site-specific, multi-part installation entitled Harvest House within a traditional Japanese wood and tatami dwelling. In many ways, Harvest House brings together the strands that have shaped Berkowitz's art practice over the last decade, each discrete environment acting as a conceptual marker in her development to date. In this work, the artist chose to focus on the region's strong agricultural identity and furnished it with products of the land, such as rice (in Harvest Room) and dried mountain flowers (Textile Room). A meditation on tradition and change, the work brought together local community members in the gathering, drying and preparation of its varied components.

For her most recent project, Berkowitz presents two new bodies of work: one at Artspace in Sydney's Woolloomooloo and the other at Sherman Galleries in Paddington, which draw upon local histories and materials in their realisation. In the former work, entitled Tide, sea salt is used to evoke the reclaimed land that comprises much of Woolloomooloo and its maritime roots; while in the latter installation, Salt and Sand, brick, concrete and plaster sands refer to the cycle of urban development in Sydney, post-European settlement, and the city's sandy geological composition. Berkowitz notes: 'I am interested in sand's texture and colour, its history and applications, its connection to both the natural and urban landscape. I am fascinated by the ways in which it has been used as a resource by Europeans (for building) and Aborigines (for paint and ritual).'

Ambiguity lies at the core of Berkowitz's new project: from the diverse interpretations that the materials invite to the titles of the works themselves. She concludes, 'I am drawn to materials such as salt and sand because of their beauty and banality, and because of their rich poetic associations, and contradictory meanings.' Lush in colour and compelling in their visual presentation, the works are also suggestive of the damage done to the Australian landscape in the past two hundred years via land clearing, grazing, rising salt levels and urban development. Salt has featured in several installations by the artist, including her 2002 piece Salt and Honey at Melbourne's Jewish Museum. In the current works, it stands for both the positive qualities associated with water, healing and purification, as well as the sharpness of taste and potential destruction that lies within its power.

1. Colourfield was created for the exhibition Eden and the Apple of Sodom (curator Erica Green), also featuring the artists Antony Hamilton and Janet Laurence.

Rachel Kent 
Senior Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Copyright 2004 the author and publisher

Quotes by the artist are drawn from her Artist's Statement, 2004, unpublished.