essay

Living Works

One of the most astute strategies for devising successful public art is to produce works that aren’t recognised as art by the public. Freed from the barriers of reverence or distain that some people automatically create when looking at art, works like this can be assimilated more directly into everyday life. Many of the interesting and pleasing things that we encounter in public spaces are put there by artists, but not necessarily as an alternative to putting them in a gallery. Nicole Voevodin-Cash is strongly aware of the need for public art to be a response to its environment rather than sculpture that happens to be located somewhere other than a space dedicated to art.

Her ‘living works’ – temporary and permanent rearrangements of landscape and vegetation – illustrate all this very clearly. Working with plants is now an important area of her practice, and has helped to define her approach to public art. These
living works are thoroughly integrated into the existing terrain, and their engaging qualities are largely derived from the fact that we don’t know exactly what they are when we see them. They don’t fit into the categories of sculpture or landscape design. Without a preconceived frame of reference we have to negotiate them on their own terms. This type of art catches viewers by surprise in a way that more conventional monuments and murals can’t.

As a finalist in the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award in 2003 she produced a patterned carpet of multicoloured grasses and groundcover plants at Werribee Park near Melbourne. This combination of the familiar and the incongruous recurs in much of her work. It causes viewers to do a double take, and experience a changed perception of something they might otherwise have assumed was not worth a second look. As well as providing an element of humour, the playful surprise makes people look more closely at their surroundings, and by seeing their environment differently they also think about it differently. RUG, the living carpet produced for the Lempriere Award, was set in an existing lawn - an outdoor carpet of grass. The formal geometric design of Voevodin-Cash’s carpet provided a subtle commentary on the way humans re-shape nature and by implication also alluded to the way European settlement has changed Australia. This was particularly appropriate for the site, the grounds of a grand colonial mansion.

Watermarks is a permanent living art work produced in 2003 for the Redlands Research Station, where the Queensland Department of Primary Industries is researching grass species that will allow the continued cultivation of lawns despite water shortages. Over 100 demonstration plots have been planted with grasses from all over the world. The deeply sculpted waves of earth that comprise Watermarks are also planted with multiple different types of lawn, so this work of art is directly related to the scientific work conducted on the site. It combines the twin subjects of grass and water in a lyrical and imaginative way, achieving the soothing effect of wave patterns without vast quantities of water. Drought has made fountains a thing of the past in public art and this work is simultaneously a reminder that the problem exists and a demonstration that there are ways of dealing with it. Vegetation, like water, renders an environment more sympathetic. It conveys a sense of sustainable life that fulfils the purpose of public art in the simplest possible way.

timothy morrell
brisbane 2007 terrains &

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