Skip to content
23 Apr 2019

The art of life after death

A large river red gum (Eucalypt camaldulensis var. obtusa) that had once thrived at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan is now a key feature in a new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), created by one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists.

For over 30 years, Janet Laurence has explored the interconnection of natural and living things – animal, plant, mineral – through a multi-disciplinary approach.

She has a strong connection and appreciation of the environment, the Garden, and the scientific research and conservation work undertaken there by our leading Australian scientists. 

After nature

Janet has combined these narratives in her newest exhibition Janet Laurence: After Nature which launched at the MCA at the beginning of March, encompassing key works and themes from her practice, featuring sculpture, installation, photography and video.

A diverse collection of materials are used to explore the natural world in all its beauty and complexity, and highlight the environmental challenges it faces today.

The exhibition reflects on the key themes in Laurence’s work: the fragility of the natural world, its plight and potential restoration. Because at the end of the day if there are no plants, there is no life on earth.

The restoration works she highlights is the work being done by our very own scientists at the Australian Botanic Garden and Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.

ABC Arts

Artist Janet Laurence filled the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia with plant life to encourage us to reflect on our relationship with nature.

Works on display

Cellular Gardens (Where Breathing Begins) presents endangered rainforest species in delicate glass vials. They are supported in upright metal stands and connected by tubing, as though undergoing medical resuscitation.

Glass and scientific glass apparatus – beakers, test tubes, petri dishes – are reoccurring elements of Laurence’s recent practice. They allow us to ‘see into things’ more clearly and anticipate the environmental threats that might otherwise go unnoticed in our busy daily lives.

“Glass is the thing that creates the visibility; glass creates lenses, windows. Scientific glass is something that I’ve continued to use, for its symbolic use in the fact that it indicates transformation, or the alchemical story of one material transforming into another.” - Janet Laurence

Where Breathing Begins

Referring to the works title, breath is a powerful life force, suggesting the possibility for survival and new growth in the face of threat. Many of the rainforest plant specimens on display are threatened species, forming part of the Rainforest Seed Conservation Project, which works towards the restoration and management of Australia’s vulnerable rainforests. 

Many of the threatened plants selected for Cellular Gardens highlights the work of our scientists at the Garden including Dr Cathy Offord and her work on the endangered Wollemi Pine and Dr Karen Sommerville's work on conserving seeds of Australian rainforest species.


Creating art after death

After Nature is over a year in the making and Janet worked closely with the Garden’s Arborist and Science teams to ensure the very best materials were selected for the exhibition.

The large river red gum tree used in this exhibition lived at the Garden for 32 years near the signature horticulture feature, the Connections Garden. In 2018 a seven-month long drought challenged the survival skills of even our toughest natives and unfortunately many trees eventually succumbed to the lack of rainfall. 

The tree was carefully removed by the arborist team in July 2018, fumigated and all its bark removed but what was revealed is now one of the key features within the exhibition. The trunk and limbs are marked with the ornate bore holes of many beetles that once inhabited the layers of the tree beneath the bark when it was alive.

Janet bandaged parts of the tree to represent an intimate experience of nature but also its fragility which is a constant theme through Janet’s work and one that she aims to create conversation around especially around the Garden’s conservation and research work in the Rainforest space.

About Janet Laurence

Janet has exhibited widely both in Australia and internationally. She has been a recipient of Rockefeller, Churchill and Australia Council Fellowships, and was awarded with an Alumni Award for Arts, University of New South Wales.

In 2015, she was one of the 30 artists who exhibited work in the Artists 4 Paris Climate Exhibition, exhibiting Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef – which is currently on display at the MCA – at the Muséum National D’Historie Naturelle, in Paris, France.

This exhibition has evolved from two decades of collaboration between Janet Laurence and MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent, who curated Laurence’s exhibition Muses at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne in 2000.

After Nature is now on at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and runs until 1 June 2019.

Images by Jacquie Manning and provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

For more information, visit, or follow @MCA_Australia.

If you are a journalist and have a media enquiry about this story, please click here for contact details and more information.