It began with a mesmerising and melancholic song. Laura Wills played alongside singer-songwriter Naomi Keyte, as she launched her exhibition at Sauerbier House, with the audience also participating. Singing collectively, plays a significant role in Laura’s expanded practice – much of her work is based on listening to her surrounds, both beneath and above the white noise of progress.
Laura is an Adelaide-based artist who explores social contexts of environmental concerns and ideas. Her multifarious practice continues to defy being pigeon-holed into a definitive description. Instead, she takes a cross-disciplinary and multimedia approach, unpacking and offering enduring ideas, actions and impact.
Laura is best known for her hybrid paintings and works on paper, particularly her use of maps. Her site-specific installations and public art projects – which often involve collective actions – also focus on process and experimentation, expanding the current perceived boundaries of drawing.
Having spent a great deal of her life travelling, Laura continues to honour and absorb diverse cultures and unique environments from far and wide. The impetus is to search – for self and others, for kin and belonging. As a concept that many artists explore, ‘belonging’ and how we are defined by a place are as much about what we can contribute to it, as it is about what it has to offer us. Art residencies are the hotbed for such investigations and Laura has undertaken several in Australia and overseas.
Residencies offer artists a concentrated period of enquiry, thinking time and experimentation – they also create the opportunity to intensely experience place-specific changes in pace, and a break in the linear rote that we all too easily find ourselves caught in. Likewise, Sauerbier House provides a platform for cultural exchange and site-responsive research. Perched on the bank of the Ngangkiparri (Kaurna Women's River or Onkaparinga River) and hosted within a colonial villa, this particular residency is positioned in a culturally important and complex location.
Laura recognises the special energy at the intersection of Ngangkiparri and the sea, and has long been drawn to the place with a particular feeling of connection. By immersing herself here for three months, she continued her exploration into the idiosyncrasies of natural bodies of water: their movement and what it brings with it; the ways in which they speak (e.g. heralding weather patterns); and the importance of biodiversity and how a healthy river system ensures a healthy community. Comprised of new drawings, an ephemeral public art installation and song, Woven Acts and Spoken Maps, explores the ecosystem of the Ngangkiparri, and the complexities and potential of our relationship with it.
Laura is the inaugural Sauerbier House Artist in Residence linked with the Resilient South Climate Change Partnership arts exchange program. Her practice often involves working with scientists, ethicists, gardeners and educators, and her two concurrent and connected projects in this region – both investigating concepts relating to ritual, travel, transience and mapping – have included discussions with a local historian, social planner, Biodiversity Team, Spatial Information Services Sustainability Team.
In this series of works on paper, people and landscape embrace, melding into one another. It’s a reminder of the importance of two-way respect and nurturing, and the vital need to understand that we are merely a part of this ecology – not its authority. Conversely, some works articulate the post-colonial insistence to manipulate the environment to our supposed advantage – a concept that is essentially an oxymoron in terms of sustainability.
Laura’s work often encompassed community engagement, exploring the capacity and function of participation and collaboration. Such reciprocal processes enrich dialogue, meaning and context for both the maker and his or her participants. Evolving through a series of workshops with the local community and made with her collaborator Will Cheeseman, the ephemeral Watercourse installation responds to the significance, power and purpose of Ngangkiparri. Laura has mapped its winding path from Port Noarlunga to Old Noarlunga (which sits surrounded by the river) using materials found on site.
This living installation creeps through the property’s Victorian garden and curls around to surround Sauerbier House; we are invited to remove a weed from the site and add it to the watercourse. The council has stopped spraying weeds for the duration of this exhibition, so it will be interesting to see what and where they grow. Laura has always been attracted to the ‘arc’ shape and is perpetually fascinated by river bends. She sees them as spaces of water flow changes, transformation, filtering, and wind breaks; a place where rivers embrace the land with meandering riparian zones.
Watercourse speaks to the area’s saltwater and freshwater ecologies, and the natural environment’s enduring right to exist (preserved) within the conundrum of moving between public and private land. In time it will leave a trace installation that will carry its narrative’s momentum until it disappears – a sobering thought.
Contextualised within an environment that (as is the predicament of most regional centres) is surrounded by growing urban development, Woven Acts and Spoken Maps embodies the importance of tuning into the experiences, stories and histories lived by the land’s bio-network, and to take responsibility for its future.
Contemplating the ecosystem, from trees and rocks to riverbed, Laura asks us: ‘what have they witnessed?’ In posing questions about what might be in store, her works encourage us to listen, to feel, and to refocus the way we see, experience, and treat our own natural environments.