Lauren Berkowitz Interview
Monday September 20, 2010·
Ever noticed the glazed look that sweeps over someone's face as soon as the word ‘environmentalist' is uttered? Well stop yourself before you do that in this interview. Lauren Berkowitz is a visual artist whose concerns for the environment are presented as thoughtful but subtle commentaries on human consumption, waste and recycling. Her installations - composed of used objects and regenerative and degenerative products - are on display in the Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition, In the Balance: Art for a Changing World. Nell Greco caught up with her.
As a sculptor, your art has always contained had an element of environmentalism about it. Did you start out as a still-life, fruit-and-flowers painter then realise your passion for sculpture?
I have always been interested in sculpture, especially organic forms. From the earliest days when I was molding plaster and clay, they were derived from nature in one form or another. Even as a small child, I remember collecting flowers from the garden and pressing them or just collecting raw materials and using those. It's something I've just always been drawn to.
Although your work has aesthetic charm, there's also a strong conceptual element involved. When did you first see the potential for art to be more than just aesthetic?
I've always been interested in both aspects. I think that it's important to make works that are visually exciting on different levels. In the past my works have been quite immersive - they draw people into architectural spaces. I think the location specificity of the material, the scale and the overall look, is quite important to engage with the public, and then hopefully people are drawn to the other ideas within the work. I just think that if your work is not visually stimulating it's hard to get that hook with an audience.
Much of your work has been site-specific and uses materials like plants, plant seeds, weeds, bark - which are all degenerative or regenerative, adding to its ephemeral nature. Why has that always been a significant element?
I've always been drawn to specific sites and have often been commissioned to create works at a particular museum or environment, so…my starting point is often to go to a space, observe the landscape around it and kind of work with those materials. In a way it's good discipline too, because you're limited to a certain palette of materials - but it also just makes sense to use what's readily available in your environment.
That notion of using local materials ties in somewhat with both of your works on display at the MCA. Sustenance uses local, native plants and European, introduced plants. Why have you combined the two and how did you select them?
It was important to use plants that were drawn from the Sydney environment. For example, I've used the large Sydney Bush Orchid, which some Aboriginal people would roast and eat the stem of, but also use it for medicinal purposes. Then I've also got lavender and radishes, which were introduced. So I was interested in collecting foods from the pre-colonisation period, because when the first settlers arrived they basically thought there was no food and ended up introducing all their own. Long term, those plants [the introduced species] really aren't sustainable in the Australian climate, so I'm looking at ideas about food and sustainability.
Both of your installations for In the Balance require significant ‘crowd participation'. What was the response like?
It was great! All the pot plants [in Sustenance] are sitting on upturned plastic bottles collected by MCA staff as well as school kids who also contributed by growing some alfalfa sprouts, lentils, mustard seeds and broad beans.
I found it intriguing that you described the work Bags as ‘appear[ing] like a minimalist sculpture'. Could it not simply be called a minimalist sculpture? Why is that label shunned?
It could be, but the beauty of that work, for me, is more than just minimalism. It's not just about consumerist culture and you can read it on many different levels. I think everyone experiences that work quite differently, it's open to interpretation, which gives it a richness beyond minimalism.
As an artist who is conscious of being resourceful and constantly using objects from her immediate environment, do you think artists should be more ‘thrifty', and less indulgent than they sometimes are?
That's hard to say. I can't say artists should be this or that; people do what's right for themselves. In my practice, I'm certainly aware of the pollution that a lot of materials create and I've made a conscious decision to use materials that have a low carbon footprint because, 1) I have a hypersensitivity to a lot of artist materials and; 2) I just don't want to be working in a really toxic, smelling environment. That's my personal preference but more broadly, you just don't want to be polluting the environment generally.
In The Balance: Art for a Changing World runs at MCA until October 31.