We all know what it’s like to have a headache, indigestion or to just generally feel lacklustre. So you’ll be interested to know there are free, natural remedies right on your doorstep: in nature.

You can learn all about the health and medicinal properties of our plants at the Elixir Lab at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is also offering interactive tasting sessions.

It might sound like a pop-up by a pharmaceutical or naturopathy company, but it’s anything but. Elixir Lab is just one element of the sensory experience that is Janet Laurence: After Nature, the first major Australian survey of the cherished Sydney artist’s large body of work.

Wander through Laurence’s exhibition and you’ll be taken from the forests of Brazil to the Tasmanian bush, past a seed bank of endangered Australian rainforest species and on to the Great Barrier Reef.

Curated by MCA’s chief curator Rachel Kent, After Nature includes various existing works from Laurence’s 30-year practice and a large-scale commission, Theatre of Trees, where an entire room has been divided into various self-contained installations titled Wonder, a herbarium containing 19th-century botanical models, specimens and liquids; Knowledge, a beautifully constructed wooden reading room; and Desire, the lab.

Chatting to Laurence you can’t help but be drawn in by her passion for and alarm about our environment, and the evocative but direct way her art speaks to that.

Described as an environmental, multimedia and political artist, Laurence provokes discussion about some of this country’s most pressing issues – not that you’ll find our politicians taking heed.

“It’s very sad,” Laurence says, “artists are completely disregarded in any of these important political discussions and they should be included, because artists really investigate their field and have a deep understanding and knowledge of many things. In Australia our politicians have a total disregard for culture and it’s a tragic loss. It hasn’t been valued since the Keating era; as soon as John Howard got in that was the big downfall in the relationship to intellectualism of all forms, there’s a conservatism that’s made me ashamed many times to be Australian.”

She continues nevertheless to call Australia home, working from her studio in Chippendale, in inner-city Sydney. Her works are exhibited internationally – she represented Australia at the Paris climate change convention in 2015 and has had solo exhibitions in London, Berlin and Hong Kong – and her art is held in various institutions around Australia and abroad.

Laurence has lived and worked across the globe but her fascination with the natural world began when she was a child growing up in Sydney’s north and during regular visits to her mother’s farming family in central Queensland.

“The concern started back then. I saw hardship on the land, I saw the struggle. And I saw drought, that was shocking. I was horrified by it all.”

She has an abiding interest in the interconnection of living things, which she explores using sculpture, painting, photography, installation and video, incorporating taxidermy, glass vessels, test tubes and mineral matter. She highlights the beauty and complexity of our natural world, and draws attention to the alarming challenges it faces today.

When asked to create a new large-scale installation for the MCA she instinctively turned to trees. “For so long I’ve been gathering material about plants and trees so it felt natural to bring all these things together then really focus on trees and their plight today with climate change. Trees are really suffering and we realise more and more their importance, but at the same time it’s the battleground of the economy versus the environment. Trees are really very political.”

After Nature is deceptively gentle, such as the forest of gently swaying silk curtains printed with photos of trees shot around the world, accompanied by an evocative birdsong soundscape.

Vanishing takes you inside various mammal enclosures at Taronga Zoo, surrounding you with the gentle breathing of Kodiak bears and large cats, species that would die out if it weren’t for zoos and sanctuaries. Heartshock is a majestic six-metre forest red gum gently laid out on the museum floor. Closer inspection reveals bandages, test tubes and clumps of rock salt, testament to the drought that killed it.

It’s moving, if distressing. Laurence’s request of her viewers is simple: “I would love people to leave with a love and care for the natural world, and an awareness of its fragility.”

Janet Laurence – After Nature is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art from March 1 to June 10. Entry is free. There are 10 performances at The Elixir Lab where patrons learn about their health and medicinal values ($15); and talks throughout the season.