Diary Notes: Lauren Berkowitz

| Lauren Berkowitz
 + Remnants (detail)  Lauren Berkowitz, 2022. Dookie Agricultural College, Victoria, photo courtesy Lauren Berkowitz. Residual agricultural debris: pink, yellow, black and blue bailing twine, plastic: lids, dish and rings, orange bunting. Indigenous animal matter: sulphur-crested cockatoo and galah feathers, indigenous plants: eucalyptus, red gum nuts, bottlebrush, brush wire grass and introduced exotics: grape vine leaves and peppercorns.

Diary Notes: Lauren Berkowitz

Diary Notes: Lauren Berkowitz | Lauren Berkowitz

The following are a series of diary notes by Lauren Berkowitz developed between 11-29 April 2022 during the Art + Ecology Residency.

Monday 11th April 

Arriving in Dookie, I had romantic visions of a pristine bucolic landscape and looked forward to a retreat in the fresh country air.

I bought food supplies to last three weeks, due to my isolated location. My illusion of a charmed country stay was immediately shattered when I was advised to buy several mouse traps, as the campus was experiencing a rodent problem.  

Tuesday 12th April 

At my induction I was warned about snakes, spiders and fire alarms going off erratically. I was also cautioned not to walk near the lambs as they were breeding, nor anywhere in bushland unattended. I was advised to always take a first aid kit into the bush.  

Concerned Melbourne University staff worried I may not last the three-week residency after announcing that most teachers and students would vacate the campus at the end of the week for Easter break. 

Apprehensively, I began to explore and collect debris from the rural landscape surrounding the campus while carefully remaining close to the footpaths. I noticed plumes of smoke in the distance. It was very quiet, except for the dissonant sounds of cockatoos.   

Wandering down the road, I met Professor Timothy Reeves. He was curious about my artwork, and my interest in plants and evolving landscapes.    

We talked about the radical changes within the Australian environment from the past, present, to the future, together with climate change, including the challenges of rewilding, to the changing of plants to adapt to extreme drought and fire conditions. While raising ethical concerns, he also talked about food security to feed vast populations and trialling genetically modified plants.  

...

Wednesday 13th April  

The campus was becoming very smoky due to the burning of fields in preparation of planting crops. Concerned about the poor air quality, I collected eucalypt branches and filled my weatherboard house with fragrant bouquets. Filling every available pot, pan and vase, I attempted to purify and cleanse the air. 

Gathering white bird feathers randomly embedded in grasses near my house, I began investigating the vast grounds encircling the campus. 

I visited the greenhouse with Assoc. Professor Dorin Gupta, a lecturer in sustainable agriculture and her diligent PHD students studying indigenous plants and unexplored wild lentils seeds from Turkey for suitability and drought resilience. Painstakingly they measured and noted their plants’ growth on a daily basis. Enthusiastic about their research I discussed Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu with the students, which explores the development of Indigenous agriculture. 

 + Remnants (detail)  Lauren Berkowitz, 2022-23. Benalla Art Gallery, photo courtesy Eric Nash. Residual agricultural debris: water float, blue tarp and rope, Victorian ceramics, porcelain and glass. Plastic: white, pink, yellow, black, orange and blue bailing twine, lids, dish and rings, orange silicon mat and bunting. Crushed drink cans. Indigenous animal matter: sulphur-crested cockatoo and galah feathers, introduced animal matter: fleece, guinea fowl and chicken feathers. Indigenous plants: carbonised wood, eucalyptus: river red, kino, blue, manna, yellow and pink gums, ironbark, leaves and bark. Drooping she-oak leaves, melaleuca: giant honey myrtle paperbark, banksia seed pods, bottlebrush, wattles: silver, golden and early black. Grasses: kangaroo and brush wire and introduced exotics: palm seed pods, dried seed heads from various weed species, grape vine leaves, rosemary, smoke bush and peppercorns. Geological matter: Dookie rocks, earth and Benalla silt.

Thursday 14th April 

Adapting to a solitary life, I listened to Radio National and read books on adaptive ecologies. I became increasingly concerned about staff and students leaving for the Easter break and made a concerted effort to meet people.  

Introducing myself to several international PhD students from the Middle East about to retreat for Ramadan or meet their families on campus, I hastily endeavoured to enquire about their research.  

Amongst our discussions, we talked about arranged marriages and the expectations of widows in Muslim culture.  

Interested in innovative technologies and practices, I met a student researching microwaving plants instead of using insecticide, a scholar changing the dietary habits of cows to reduce farting and greenhouse gases, while another was studying and archiving soil samples.  

Having befriended several students, I felt more confident venturing off the path into the bushland. Armed with emergency contacts, boots and gardening gloves, I discovered detritus mingled with remnant bushland.  

Walking daily became a meditative and investigative experience. Exploring what was once a rubbish tip in Victorian times near my house, I found decorative glass that a student suggested was uranium glass. It was mixed with broken china and earthenware pipes.  

I came across an old Winsor & Newton white ceramic lid that could have been from a paint box, suggesting artists were present on site or within the vicinity, perhaps painting en plein air.  

Decomposing and submerged in the rubble of generations of rubbish dumped in the landscape was a disintegrated plastic shopping bag, a legacy of the Anthropocene and our collective colonial inheritance.  

As the weekend approached it rained heavily and the smoke cleared the following week.  

 + Remnants (detail) Lauren Berkowitz, 2022. Dookie Agricultural College, Victoria, photo courtesy Lauren Berkowitz. Residual agricultural debris: pink, yellow, black and blue bailing twine, plastic: lids and containers orange bunting, blue silver foil, Victorian ceramics and porcelain, indigenous animal matter: sulphur-crested cockatoo and galah feathers, indigenous plants: eucalyptus and introduced exotics: peppercorns and grape vine leaves.

Friday 15th April 

Rising at dawn I did a COVID test before meeting with Liz and Sandsy, local artists and environmentalists who formerly ran the Seed Bank at the Dookie campus. Currently they are involved with revegetation of farms in the region, many of which are monocultures swallowing smaller farms. We drove through vast fields of wheat and genetically modified canola, to reach the wildlife sanctuary and remnant bushland at Dookie. Fortunate to have generous and knowledgeable guides I learnt about the local flora and fauna. 

Vigilantly locking windows and doors to my new home, I managed to lock myself out. Luckily a friendly campus worker climbed through the window to let me back in and we discussed the rowdy local pub, the spraying of fields and other environmental hazards in the area.  

Sunday 17th April  

Easter Sunday, I met with the dedicated and friendly group of PHD students cultivating ancient grains for a drought resistant future. I was excited to be returning to the bushland reserve. While on our way there we discussed their potential arranged marriages, children and careers, all while continuing their research in India. Surprisingly the students rarely visited the bushland.  

Monday 18th April  

I rearranged the studio reclaiming the meeting table as a canvas for my artwork. Initially consisting of a small pile of collaged matter, the collected materials began to evolve and expand daily.  

Walking, observation, research, and the gathering of matter from landscapes has been a seminal thread of my practice as an artist. Often acting as a caretaker, I have tidied landscapes of plastics and artificial pollutants, as a small gesture to repair local habitats.

My artworks often allude to what is invisible and absent, as well as what is uncovered through the exploration of the site.

 + Remnants (detail) Lauren Berkowitz 2022. Dookie Agricultural College, Victoria, photo courtesy Lauren Berkowitz. Residual Victorian ceramics, porcelain and glass with indigenous sulphur-crested cockatoo and galah feathers.
 + Remnants (detail) Lauren Berkowitz, 2022. Dookie Agricultural College, Victoria, photo courtesy Lauren Berkowitz. Residual agricultural debris: pink, yellow, black and blue bailing twine, plastic: lids, dish and rings, orange bunting, indigenous animal matter: sulphur-crested cockatoo and galah feathers, indigenous plants: bottlebrush, butter bush, sweet bursaria, gum nuts, kangaroo, spear and brush wire-grass. Introduced exotics: grape vine leaves. Yellow painted stones.
 + Remnants (detail)  Lauren Berkowitz 2022. Dookie Agricultural College, Victoria, photo courtesy Lauren Berkowitz. Residual agricultural debris: plastic: containers and rings, pink and black bailing twine, red and pink tape, orange bunting, aluminium drink cans, Victorian ceramics, indigenous plants: gum nuts, bottlebrush and introduced exotics: grape vine leaves, peppercorns, purslane and rose petals.

Tuesday 19th April   

Revealing a taxonomic inventory of the site, the richly textured work spilled onto the floor extending below the table. Fragments and remnants meshed and overlapped. The artwork was taking form and I felt more confident in its direction.  

Entangled together in a painterly composition of vibrant matter, the materials created a topographic layering of the landscape in which I was immersed. This abstracted conglomeration of residual plants, plastic and agricultural debris referenced Australian landscape painting practices, reinterpreting traditions of working en plein air.  

Exploring new terrain within Dookie, I gathered rose petals from the manicured gardens near the museum, whilst retrieving bailing twine embedded in the hay from the abandoned stables.  

I gleaned introduced exotics planted on the campus grounds, including peppercorns, pine needles and grass clippings, together with invasive weeds such at purslane and plants that become embedded in sheep’s fleece. 

 + Remnants (detail)  Lauren Berkowitz, 2022-23. Benalla Art Gallery, photo courtesy Rene Martens. Residual agricultural debris: water float, blue tarp and rope, plastic: white, pink, yellow, black, orange and blue bailing twine, lids, dish and rings, orange silicon mat and bunting. Victorian ceramics, porcelain and glass. Crushed drink cans. Indigenous animal matter: sulphur-crested cockatoo and galah feathers, introduced animal matter: fleece, guinea fowl and chicken feathers. Indigenous plants: carbonised wood, eucalyptus: river red, blue, kino, manna, yellow and pink gums, ironbark, leaves and bark. Drooping she-oak leaves, melaleuca: giant honey myrtle paperbark, banksia seed pods, bottlebrush, wattles: silver, golden and early black. Grasses: kangaroo and brush wire and introduced exotics: palm seed pods, dried seed heads from various weed species, grape vine leaves, rosemary, smoke bush and peppercorns. Geological matter: Dookie rocks, earth and Benalla silt.

Wednesday 20th April 

Whilst visiting the windswept top of Mt. Major with Gayle, a kind University of Melbourne staff member, we surveyed a dramatic 360° view of the campus and surrounding landscape. I found broken plastic electrical pipe debris scattered on the otherwise barren mount. 

Thursday 21st April  

Discussed sustainable Indigenous agriculture and regional festivals with Liz and Sandsy, who invited me to their home, gallery and plant nursery. Local artist Helen spoke enthusiastically about their community involvement integrating art with ecology in the district. 

Sandsy picked a bouquet of indigenous plants that was later incorporated into my artwork, including spear and kangaroo grasses, sweet bursaria, a source of honey and dye and butter bush, a medicinal plant used by traditional people.

We discussed Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu and the idea of growing enough native grass to viably produce vast amounts of flour. Due to small seed heads in native grasses, they thought it was potentially a niche market perhaps difficult to harvest on an industrial scale. 

Friday 22nd - Monday 25th April 

Greatly relieved to leave the campus temporarily due to the intensive spraying for spiders. I was given a lift to the train station by a couple cultivating the orchards and fields and informed my driver had spent the morning spraying the apples with pesticides in a HAZMAT suite. I asked if he was happy to eat the apples he was maintaining on campus. He replied he grew his own food organically.  

Concerned, I asked if it was necessary to spray so many chemicals onto the apples and why you cannot grow them organically on a larger scale. In his opinion it was not possible due to fruit fly that can easily devastate crops. 

Pleased to be reunited with Jeff and friends for the ANZAC weekend. We visited Bendigo for the Elvis exhibition.  

Tuesday 26th April - Friday 29th April 

Returned to Dookie a few days later to complete my artwork for the final week. 

Met with Professor Carol Brown, the charismatic head of dance at the VCA, and the compelling Indigenous dance lecturer Rheannan Port, a former Bangarra dancer, who were both doing a short residency on the campus. I was intrigued by their impromptu performances within the Dookie landscape that punctuated the week.  

I was inspired and mindful of each dancer’s Acknowledgement of Country. They thanked the earth, water and sky for giving them permission to use elements from the landscape within their performances and then returning them to the land. I felt this was something to be conscious of in my own practice.  

With my integration of Dookie earth, rocks, eucalyptus, grasses, feathers and wattle into my hybrid landscape painting of vibrant materiality, there was an acknowledgment of the pre-colonial landscape in which Aboriginal people lived sustainably with the land whilst recognising the interconnectedness and symbiotic relationship of all matter.

During several spontaneous talks I presented in the final week, the dancers and Rheannan were interested in my methodology where I spoke about being like a bowerbird. Rheannan elaborated that bowerbirds were from her Country in Cape York Peninsula in Queensland and they built nests from blue debris and foraged materials.  

One evening we watched The Sapphires, a film that was loosely based on four Aboriginal women and sisters who grew up on the former remote Cummeragunja Mission Station, an Aboriginal reserve situated nearby on a bend in the Murray River in New South Wales, near the Victorian town of Barmah. It touched on the White Australia policy of forced assimilation, racism, the stolen generation, and in contrast empowerment available through soul music. Some of the women became performers in Vietnam. Although I had seen this film many times, it felt more poignant experiencing it on Yorta Yorta Country, in the company of the VCA dancers.  

On Friday, Tiriki Onus, a Yorta Yorta man and filmmaker spoke about his reconnection to Yorta Yorta Country with the repatriation of artistic practices and stories. Having viewed Tiriki’s film Ablaze, which is about his grandfather, the first Indigenous filmmaker, I felt privileged to hear him talk candidly about growing up as an Indigenous man between two cultures.  

Wednesday 27th April  

Met Paddy, a lecturer at Dookie, who revealed he had an artistic heritage. I was fascinated to discover his mother was a bohemian and ran a radical bookstore in the 1930s. She was friendly with the Heide circle of artists and writers, who explored and interpreted the Australian landscape through myths and legends of bushrangers and outlaws. 

Lucy Galt, a Dookie lecturer, explained to me what the different materials in my sculptural composition were. She suggested some other things that were integral to the region that I should consider in the composition, such as wool and burrs. She also donated some grains cultivated at Dookie.  

Visited the new Shepparton Art Museum with Suzie Frazer, the enthusiastic instigator of the residency program, and had a guided tour with acting director Shelley McSpedden of the pottery archives and the curated exhibitions. I was particularly drawn to the Hermannsburg School salon hang of paintings including the works of Albert Namatjira. Training in a European painting tradition, these artists reinterpreted the outback landscape with a coded Indigenous sensibility focusing on sacred sites and traditional knowledge. 

Thursday 28th April

Keenly aware of the layered histories of the region, it became even clearer that the concept of pure nature is a myth and that, during the Anthropocene, we have polluted and altered the planet irrevocably.

Tangled weeds, matted fluro bailing twine, fleece, broken glass, discarded plastics and earthenware intermingled with eucalyptus and kangaroo grass, greeted the assembled audience, for my final presentation. 

The gathered VCA dancers, Dookie staff, students, locals and curators from the nearby Shepparton Art Museum were intrigued and perplexed by this evocation of a hybrid and troubled landscape in flux.

Suzie and I dined that evening with a local artist in a former Scout Hall that was used as a studio, with crawling critters on every surface including the floor, walls and ceiling.  

We reflected upon the evolving and complex relationships to our fragile ecosystems. Ruminating whether there was any hope for the planet or if we are doomed environmentally, we wondered if art could help or heal our ailing earth. 

 + Remnants (detail)  Lauren Berkowitz, 2022-23. Benalla Art Gallery, photo courtesy Rene Martens. Residual agricultural debris: blue tarp and rope, plastic: white, pink, yellow, black, orange and blue bailing twine, lids, dish and rings, orange silicon mat and bunting. Victorian ceramics, porcelain and glass. Crushed drink cans. Indigenous animal matter: sulphur-crested cockatoo and galah feathers. Introduced animal matter: fleece, guinea fowl and chicken feathers. Indigenous plants: carbonised wood, eucalyptus: river red, kino, blue, manna, yellow and pink gums, ironbark, leaves and bark. Drooping she-oak leaves, melaleuca: giant honey myrtle paperbark, banksia seed pods, bottlebrush, wattles: silver, golden and early black. Grasses: kangaroo and brush wire and introduced exotics: palm seed pods, dried seed heads from various weed species, grape vine leaves, rosemary, smoke bush and peppercorns. Geological matter: Dookie rocks, earth and Benalla silt.

Note: Remnants was installed at the Benalla Art Gallery in 2023, as part of 'Always and Altered'. Additional material was added to Remnants from the local environs.

Links & Info
Cite this ArticleCite
 Colophon

Art and Australia logo


Art + Australia
Publisher: Victorian College of the Arts
University of Melbourne


Editor-in-Chief: Su Baker
Editor at Large: Edward Colless
Managing Editor: Jeremy Eaton
Art + Australia Study Centre Editor: Suzie Fraser
Digital Archive Researcher: Chloe Ho
Business adviser: Debra Allanson
Design Editors: Karen Ann Donnachie and Andy Simionato (Design adviser. John Warwicker) 


Contact: info@artandaustralia.com


Receive news from Art + Australia



Art + Australia was established in 1963 by Sam Ure-Smith and in 2015 was donated to the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne by then publisher and editor Eleonora Triguboff as a gift of the ARTAND Foundation.


Art + Australia acknowledges the generous support of the Dr Harold Schenberg Bequest and the Centre of Visual Art, University of Melbourne. 


@Copyright 2022 Victorian College of the Arts
University of Melbourne ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



The views expressed in Art + Australia are those of the contributing authors and not necessarily those of the editors or publisher.


Art + Australia respects your privacy. Read our Privacy Statement.


Art + Australia acknowledges that we live and work on the unceded lands of the people of the Kulin nations who have been and remain traditional owners of this land for tens of thousands of years, and acknowledge and pay our respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging. 


Art + Australia ISSN 1837-2422