Thursday 28 July 2016
“I’m honored and delighted to be opening this marvelous installation, Deep Breathing, by celebrated artist Janet Laurence, the Australian Museum’s current artist-in-residence. As you probably know Janet was invited to curate a version of this installation at the COP 21 conference on Climate Change in Paris in late 2015. This version today is smaller and different in that she has curated it to incorporate elements drawn from the splendid species collections of the Australian Museum. Both in Paris and now in Sydney Janet’s recent work explores a subject about which we all here share an passion: to understand and, if possible, to remediate the dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef, for it is the greatest marine ecosystem in the world and the only living orgasm on our planet that astronauts can see from outer space and a cornerstone of our natural heritage as Australians.
Before drawing your attention briefly to some of the many fascinating dimensions of this installation, I’d like to make a few observations on why I think Janet Laurence’s work is so brilliant and so important. I first saw one her works and heard her discuss it some four years ago at a conference held by our Sydney Environment Institute. We were seeking to explore the deluge of wicked environmental challenges that confront our planet now that humans have become a destabilizing physical force of nature. As Bill McKibben the nature writer neatly puts it: ‘once we were tossed around by the forces of nature: now we are those forces’. Janet’s brilliant contribution to our conference drew on the tradition of wealthy Enlightenment scientists and cognoscenti who loved to design, build and display Cabinets of Curiosity or Wunderkammer’s. These were small, cunningly arranged, display cabinets containing an array of carefully arranged wonders of nature that were designed to impart knowledge, ignite the imagination and engage the emotions. These hybrid displays of scientific knowledge and artistic imagination were, in effect, miniature versions of what we would today expect from an innovative museum exhibition.
Janet’s recent works have extended her modern adaptations of wunderkammer to achieve the beautiful and intricate form of installation that you see here today. Deep Breathing invites us to plunge our heads underwater to see the Great Barrier Reef through the lens of a multivalent artistic creation that teems with submarine life and death, and one that invites us to contemplate, participate, and to act. Her installation evokes three distinct but related institutions: an ecological laboratory for scientists, an emergency field hospital for the rescue and healing of afflicted corals and fish; and, sadly perhaps, a hospice to comfort the last days of marine creatures on the point of death. Those glittering rows of tubes and glass retorts remind me both of life-support systems for blighted reef creatures and also of alchemical alembics for achieving wondrous new transmutations. Janet’s installation thus tempers despair with hope, as she displays reef species in trauma yet simultaneously invites our empathy and action. Deep Breathing is at once a metaphor of healing, a tragic drama, and a rational scientific analysis.
More specifically Janet asks us to reflect on a series of scientific and social challenges to the Reef’s survival that are both vast and minute, local and global, combustive and stealthy, visible and invisible. The Great Barrier Reef must cope with threats that range from the ferocious violence of super-cyclones and mass bleaching events to the slow, stealthy violence of acidifying waters that are beginning to dissolve the calcium skeletons of corals in the same way that we dissolve alkaline tablets to combat acid indigestion. Janet’s artistic talent and scientific insight give material form to the often inaccessible calculations, formulae and data contained in specialized scientific papers.
Embedded in her installation are a series of implicit questions. How do reef-growing corals manage to establish a symbiosis between a polyp and a tiny algae that generates such a supercharge of energy that it can build vast limestone walls in defiance of the Pacific’s massive rollers? Why does seawater warmed only a few degrees beyond the normal cause the symbiotic algae to abandon their polyp hosts to leave behind cemeteries of stark white skeletons that will soon be covered in thick green slime? Why are the waters of the reef becoming slowly more acidic so that newborn corals become brittle and deformed? And these are only a few of the perils conveyed in Janet’s haunting video images as they flicker and glow above her installation.
Janet Laurence is passionate but never didactic: she does not try to force answers or actions upon us. Instead, she invites us to turn our minds and hearts to thinking and caring about how to rescue the Reef in whatever ways we can. By awarding Janet an Artist-in-Residency, the Australian Museum has thus made a major contribution to bringing these looming environmental dangers out of the laboratory and into the world. I thank her and the Museum from the bottom of my heart, and I hope you will do the same”.
Photo: Tim Levy, courtesy of the Australian Museum