Dr Alana O’Brien
Reproduced with permission from the catalogue for the exhibition "Three Degrees of Change", LUMA’s Art and Sustainability Project, at La Trobe University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2009
Like the alighting of the Biblical Manna on the ground, Lauren Berkowitz, in her artistic practice wishes to tread lightly on the land, and just as the Israelites gathered up the Heavenly Manna for nourishment in the desert, she collects together plants that are both edible and sustainable. Found materials, frequently drawn from the immediate environs, comprise a significant section of a work, if not the entire work. The artworks regularly consist of post-consumer waste. Similar to the Manna the materials are easily accumulated and require low technology, while many of the artworks share with it an ephemeral nature. Berkowitz’s carefully conceived works are richly layered with meaning. Among the various themes that she explores are the stratified history of a landscape, issues of sustainability, Jewish culture, and memory.(1)
At the beginning of the 1990s Berkowitz’s works began to emphasise the enormity of consumer waste. While studying in New York Berkowitz was shocked by the masses of paper bags that were distributed with nearly every purchase. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the allocation of a bag with a takeaway cup of tea, provided to hold the sugar, napkin and spoon. During her time in New York Berkowitz collected all the paper bags that were given to her, eventually constructing Recyclable, 1993 at the SVA Galleries, N.Y. In this work a flat cardboard ‘road way’ or ‘path way’ enabled the viewer to navigate their way between the tightly clustered collection of bags; like a giant walking through a crowded cityscape.(2)
Berkowitz has frequently utilized the plastic waste objects that clutter our lives in her art works. They pass through our houses, workplaces and life with ever increasing frequency – plastic cups, take-away food trays, cherry tomato and strawberry containers, compartmentalised trays for kids school snacks, and beverage bottles. People are becoming more accustomed to recycling - a relatively easy process at home where councils provide most households with recycling bins. But a quick glance at any public bin will reveal that vast quantities still go directly to landfill. And what of those containers that we confidently throw into the recycling bin? Can we really be certain about where it all ends up?
The excess of plastic containers is just a part of the process through which we have lost touch with nature, and a sense of where food comes from. Supermarkets are well-known for their over-packaging of produce, especially in the fruit and vegetable section. Lemons, avocados and odourless tomatoes are frequently presented on trays under several layers of plastic, and mushrooms are found in containers, pre sliced.
A connection of food with plastic packaging is made in Berkowitz’s Manna produced specifically for Three Degrees of Change, but here the herb and food plants – the food sources –are delicately arranged, in, amongst, and balanced upon, the plastic post-consumer waste. Berkowitz’s plants congregate on a long low table. The gallery space has been temporarily transformed into a greenhouse. The lighting has been modified to provide environmental conditions able to sustain and promote the growth of the plants. But the artist’s intervention is required to sustain and maintain the art work. As the planet becomes hotter, water becomes scarcer and the weather becomes more extreme, the sustainability of food production becomes a growing concern.
The plants are diverse in colour, form, and continental origin- most being exotics. Berkowitz has included many edible plants or ones with medicinal properties. Like a kitchen garden, the work is a sensory delight. It does not only appeal to the eye, but also to the olfactory and potentially even to the tastebuds.(3) Most of us will be able to recognise the lettuce, parsley and tomato plants or the aloe vera.(4) But who can pick the indigenous species, the chocolate lily, the bulbine lily, apple berry, pigface and ruby saltbush – all of which contain edible fruit or tubers – or the river mint, used to ease the symptoms of coughs and colds. The tableau also includes a number of succulents, plants that have evolved to inhabit harsh, water poor locations.(5)
When Europeans first colonised Australia, they attempted to create a new Arcadia in the image of the landscape they had left on the other side of the globe. They found the Australian environment harsh, threatening, and unaesthetically scraggly. They wanted to transform the landscape into something more ‘comforting’, bringing water or nutrient intensive crops, aggressive and ultimately unsustainable agricultural processes and animals that would degrade the fragile Australian environment. Despite the fact that Aboriginal people had lived off the Australian landscape for 60,000 plus years, the indigenous plants and animals were largely ignored in favour of the foods that the colonisers and later migrants introduced.
While the introduction of many exotic plants from the Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas has caused immense damage to the Australian landscape, it would be naïve to suggest that we now abandon these sources of nutrition/food. Rather, Berkowitz suggests that the way forward will include these introduced species, but not at the expense of the indigenous plants. There needs to be a cultural shift, part of which can be facilitated by further research and education into the use of bush tucker.
In keeping with her practice of sourcing material from the local environs, Berkowitz has sourced most of the indigenous plants from the Melbourne Wildlife Sanctuary (previously known as Keelbundora), a significant indigenous nursery specializing in flora from the Lower Yarra Valley. Located in the northern area of the La Trobe University (Bundoora) Campus, the Sanctuary was established in 1967 to restore and manage the pre-colonisation local environ, both for fauna and flora. Through the inclusion of food plant species specific to the local area, Berkowitz also wishes to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who used and managed the resources of this area sustainably prior to colonisation.
In Manna Berkowitz draws together themes and practices explored in various works produced throughout her career, but it is not a summary of these works. It is a step forward. While many of the past works provided commentaries and created awareness about certain issues – and this is in fact the case with many art works that appear in ecology or environment exhibitions – in Manna Berkowitz is offering the viewer a course of action. The work draws on the richly layered Jewish concept Tikkun Olam, which can be loosely translated as healing or repairing the shattered world.(6) It allows that even simple, practical steps can be undertaken by an individual to contribute to the restoration of the world at large. From an ecological viewpoint the planting of food and medicinal plants might comprise some of those small steps.
Manna celebrates and encourages the expansion of the ‘grass roots’ (or should they be called ‘herb and veggie roots’?) movements in urban spaces around Melbourne, and many other western cities where people are spontaneously reclaiming land – the nature strips before their and their neighbours’ houses, and even before town halls. Perhaps the most notable reclamation of land for cultivation is Michelle Obama’s construction of a garden within the presidential lawns of the White House. These movements draw on the tradition of Victory gardens – which began in England, Europe and America as a result of shortages of fresh produce at the time of World War II.(7) Just as the world was in need of healing during and following the war, it needs healing again.
The people of the world are searching for their own answers, performing their regenerative acts toward the earth. The ‘random acts of edible gardening’, whether performed by individuals or communities, on the nature strip, rooftops or tiny balconies, helps us to reconnect with the natural world. Berkowitz is inspired by "futuristic images of apartment buildings with balconies covered in greenery to feed and [to] offset greenhouse gasses".(8) She suggests that food production within the cities might be part of "a practical solution to combat global warming and depleted food supplies".(9) This solution would also contribute to planetary health through the saving of ‘food miles’. And people could also ensure for themselves, that they were consuming food that is not sprayed with pesticides or genetically modified.
While in the gallery space Manna will demand a level of active and continual care unusual in an art work, it won’t cease to exist at the close of this section of Three Degrees of Change. Like the Manna from Heaven the food will be gathered and distributed as a gift. The plants will be dispersed and planted in various sites around Melbourne, including a school vegetable garden, and community and individual gardens; this is in keeping with the theme of Tikkun Olam, a small gesture toward healing the world.
1. Links to many texts discussing Berkowitz’s artworks can be accessed at: http://www.laurenberkowitz.com.au/text.html.