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When Hades chanced upon Persephone gathering flowers, he was so taken by her beauty that he promptly abducted her to the Underworld in order to make her his Queen. Demeter, goddess of corn, was so distraught at her daughter’s disappearance that she abandoned her deific responsibilities to search for Persephone, leaving the harvest to wither and the land to become barren. Demeter’s distress was so heartrending that eventually Zeus was moved to intervene and consented to Persephone’s return to the surface for six months of the year. Thus the seasons were born.
Demeter is a fitting muse for Lauren Berkowitz’s most recent floor installation at Heide II. The culmination of a two-year project at Templestowe’s Museum of Modern Art, Demeter’s Garden comprises fallen or spent plant matter, gathered by the artist from the museum’s grounds while she was working on a concurrent piece, Karakarook’s Garden. The resulting work is an exquisite tapestry of interwoven spices, petals, seedpods, grasses, leaves and fronds contained within a hardwood frame. The arrangement of native, indigenous and exotic plants, with their various hues, forms and textures, speaks not only of seasonal changes but also those caused by human agency, illustrated in a botanical heritage that traverses pre-colonial natives through colonial and post war exotics, to reinstated indigenous specimens.
Given the brittle nature of most spent plant matter, there is a remarkable softness to Demeter’s Garden and the tapestry analogy applies as much to the tactile illusions of the work as it does to the metaphorical allusions. Wattles, smoke bush, feathery kangaroo grasses, bridal wreath and golden rod appear soft as mohair, while bottlebrushes, Indian horse chestnuts and dawn redwood leaves evoke hand-looped carpets and fleecy shagpile. Subtle shifts in colour that might otherwise go unnoticed are cleverly activated by complementary colours and textures; faded golds and bronzes are set against lavenders, violets and Spanish bluebells, the dusty carmines and wine reds of eucalypt flowers and rose petals are reinvigorated against soft silver greys and the misty blue-greens of Cootamundra wattle leaves. Russet browns, black-burgundies and muted gingers gain definition through spikes, fronds, tufts, seeds and stems. The pale limestone floor of Heide II heightens the palette. In previous installations Berkowitz has imposed strict geometry upon organic material. In Demeter’s Garden one catches the faintest whiff of ‘hippy’, with fleeting glimpses of the lumpy hand-knits and home spun wall-hangings of an environmentally self-conscious generation. In Berkowitz’s hands, however, the earthy tones and contours serve as an informed homage to the space’s original incarnation as a high sixties living room, creating a sublime foil to the strict geometry of Heide’s architectural show pony.
Indeed, one of the greatest successes of Demeter’s Garden is its acknowledgement of both the gardens and the architecture of Heide II. The domestic reference is particularly evident from the landing, Berkowitz’s textile allusions creating a bridge to the sheepskin wonderland of the upstairs conversation pit, while the full-length glass wall visually connects the work back to the landscaped grounds. This ability to straddle both domains harks back to an earlier understanding of nature and culture being inextricably linked, and reflects an ever-increasing awareness of the interdependency of the two worlds.
This connectedness is made more explicit in the relationship of Demeter’s Garden to its sister work, Karakarook’s Garden. Karakarook operates as an indigenous counterpart to Demeter, imparting knowledge of the medicinal and healing properties of plants to the women in her clan. Made in consultation with Joy Wandin Murphy, senior woman of the Wurrundjeri people, Karakarook’s Garden forms a living sculpture of indigenous plants, designed to be self-sustaining once established (although currently suffering the ravages of a brutal summer and savage pruning). The rituals associated with gathering, sorting, drying and preserving specimens in Demeter’s Garden draw on the Western legacy of botanical collection and classification while simultaneously hinting at alternative knowledge systems such as those employed in Karakarook’s Garden. Both works offer versions of nature mediated through culture, employing the mythology of plants to draw attention to cycles of decay, renewal and adaptability to which the natural and man-made worlds are equally subservient.
In a time of heightened environmental anxiety, Berkowitz’s latest foray into organic recycling offers a particularly poetic reminder of the fragility of the natural environment and the importance of treading softly upon the earth.