Janet Laurence is wearing a living plant in a glass vial around her neck. The bright pop of green stands out against her flowing white dress. It’s as if she’s just stepped out of one of her own artworks – perhaps the one in which endangered rainforest plants are grown in beakers of laboratory glass, with lines of transparent tubing connecting the plants’ roots.
“All my life I’ve been very empathetic with other species,” she says. “I have incredibly vivid memories of always being very caring of things in nature, of plants and other animals.”
Meeting Laurence feels startlingly serendipitous. The Australian artist’s work has been exhibited in Paris, London, Berlin and is held by museums the world over. Her career spans more than three decades, yet the concerns at the centre of her art have never been more urgent – climate change, environmental destruction, humanity’s failure to adequately reassess its relationship with nature.
Laurence’s art feels like a project that’s more important than ever, especially for those of us who have desperately tried to make sense of the catastrophe we’re facing – extreme weather events becoming alarmingly more frequent, pollution infiltrating the deepest oceans and highest mountains, governmental failure to address it – and fretted about how to reconcile that with their daily lives.
But her work hasn’t always been well received.
“When I first started making art and wanting to work with nature, I was really criticised a lot for it,” she tells Guardian Australia. “In the feminist era I was told, you shouldn’t work with nature.” To do so would be to reiterate reductive ideas about women as nurturers – as opposed to men, who were, well, everything else. “It was very odd.”
After Nature, now showing at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, is the first major survey of Laurence’s work. The title, a reference to the nature writer WG Sebald’s prose poem of the same name, evokes both the idea of a time post-nature, and an homage to it – threads that Laurence’s work deals with simultaneously. While she sees herself as part of the fight against the destruction of the natural world, she’s equally concerned with our ability to transcend the very concept – to do away with the artificial separation between humanity and the rest of the living earth.
The installation of endangered rainforest plants, Cellular Gardens (where breathing begins), forms part of the retrospective. In a room nearby is Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef: coral and fish skeletons are tagged, wrapped in brightly coloured thread, sewn into translucent pouches and held in glass vials inside stacked perspex boxes, while footage of the living – for now – Great Barrier Reef is projected onto the surrounding walls. It was Laurence’s – and Australia’s – contribution to the Artists 4 Paris Climate Exhibition that was held alongside the 2015 climate change conference.
In the Theatre of Trees, a new installation created for MCA, a flowing fabric structure of concentric rings, like the growth rings of a tree, fills the centre of the room. Walking through it in the dappled, moving light, you can hear birds, the breeze, leaves falling. Outside the tree in the corners of the room are three smaller installations: Knowledge, Wonder and Desire.
The first is a partly interactive reading room full of works that Laurence says have inspired her. (She cites the writing of Luce Irigaray, Deborah Bird Rose, Judith Wright as influences; she singles out Amitav Ghosh’s “beautifully explicit” book The Great Derangement in particular.) The second is a herbarium; the third an “elixir lab” in which audiences can book tasting sessions to sample liquid infusions of different Australian trees: ginger, a native mint, Davidson plum, lemon myrtle and pine pollen.
Laurence’s work is, before everything, very beautiful. The beauty of it is partly to entice an audience. “I am very aware in my practice of creating an attraction to enter a space,” she says. “I want you to linger.”
This aesthetic is tightly coupled with politics; hers is an activist practice. Yet her work feels less like a polemic than a way of angling the light to catch the filmy webs that connect, say, the breath of a sleeping tiger to human vulnerability; blood vessels to the seedling of an endangered plant; and things as disparate as a taxidermied owl, a fallen tree, test tubes and bandages.
If all this seems to border on the mystical, that’s not entirely an accident. In the 90s, Laurence’s work focused on alchemy and the transformation of matter; over the last decade, she has interrogated the potential of medicinal and psychotropic plants as a way to overturn archaic modes of understanding the world. We’re so accustomed to associating nature with the unknowable, the “other”; to thinking about civilisation and the natural world as two opposing concepts, rather than interconnecting parts of the same whole. That division, Laurence says, has been “culturally enforced and religiously enforced for so long, it’s the biggest obstacle we have”.
“We have to get back in touch with nature in order to care for it. We’ll all be lost if we don’t do that,” she says. “There’s an amazing groundswell of activity happening, of caring for the planet happening, but how can we deal with this enormous global capitalist force that’s still so powerful? And it’s almost incomprehensible how it’s still so powerful. So I do believe it’s going to take probably something almost disastrous to break that.”
It would be easy to give in to despair in the face of that, but Laurence says her resilience comes, in part, from her art. “Because I’m involved in what I think of as an activist practice and because by acting we get hope, I don’t feel overwhelmed by those forces myself,” she says. “But I know they’re there.”
There is an inspiring honesty about the blur between Laurence’s work and how she tries to live her life. During our conversation, she tells me that she gardens a piece of public land on Sydney Harbour. It now includes two enormous bay trees that began life in a hospital for native plants she created for the 2010 Sydney biennale, called Waiting: A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants, full of damaged or impaired seedlings and saplings covered in bandages and gauze. The plants that died were preserved and used as part of a subsequent artwork; those that survived, she planted.
“I want to bring you into an intimacy with nature. I feel the most important thing we have to do today on the planet is care for it and recognise our interconnection with it. And of course, what are we fighting against? We know the weight of our civilisation.”
• Janet Laurence: After Nature is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until 10 June