Art among the plants: a lament

Across the globe, botanical gardens are luring crowds with sculpture. An artist asks: Is the art undermining the mission of the gardens?

By FRIDERIKE HEUER

What’s wrong with this picture?

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida

“Nothing?” the astute observer might reply. “I see some pretty glass in beautiful surroundings. Say, don’t you like Chihuly?”

Let’s try again: What’s wrong with this picture?

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

“A version of ‘Is that art, or just something that got tossed in the flower bed’?” the discerning viewer wonders. “Give me some context!”

Context it shall be: Have you set foot into a botanic garden lately? Not a sculpture park, not a designated area for environmental or land art, not a private or semi-private garden, but a botanical garden? I dare you to find one that has not been invaded – or graced, depending on perspective – by frequent, ever-changing sculpture shows. Just try to google “Botanic Garden” and you’ll find a list of famous sculptors for the big ones and less familiar names for all the others, advertised as their new visitor attractions. The gamut runs from celebrated Segals to melancholic simians.

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

Atlanta, New York, Denver, Tuscon, Phoenix, to name just a few botanic gardens, have succumbed to the “Wow” factor. As Sabina Carr, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s vice president for marketing, succinctly put it: “Wow, you have to see this.” Ever-changing attractions are aimed at getting people to attend on a recurrent basis.

“You don’t like sculpture?” asks the perplexed reader. On the contrary, I say, over the years I’ve gotten fascinated with the form, despite my own endeavors in 2-D.

 “So why the moping then? Isn’t it true it’s hard to find a space for sculptures and so one might as well appropriate a public realm already in existence? Isn’t it true that botanic gardens have a tough time staying funded, and will be helped by larger crowds who pay admission to see new exhibits? Isn’t it likely that this introduces artto a new audience, one that is not always drawn to regular museums, but is quite happy if the kids run in the garden?”

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Yes, all is true. And part of a consistent pattern that I find deeply worrisome. We’re losing the ability to pay the attention necessary for learning of, and finding out about, a single subject. This happens when attention magnets are on offer that are linked to entertainment, visual pleasure, and, generally, distracting from the task at hand. And I am saying this not just as one who loves botanic gardens, although I am a fan, one as devoted as they come.

I was initiated by the kind of mother who would drag you around the world to visit gardens, unhesitatingly climbing over fences after hours, if we arrived late, after closing, once again. (This was indeed still possible, some 50 years a go, when my obsession started.) I rose above the shame of her stuffing her pockets with gathered seedpods, or her exchanges with the gardeners until I thought I’d faint with boredom. I saw the gardens as a place of refuge, later, when living in large cities that were overstimulating. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden reigns in this regard supreme, but so did Hamburg’s Planten & Blomen. My youngest child took some first steps among the tropic wonders of La Orotava, the botanic garden established by the Spanish in the 1700s on the island of Tenerife.

La Orotava Botanical Garden, Tenerife, Spain

The history of botanic gardens, a drawn-out and distinguished one, began some centuries ago in Italy. The physics gardens were created in the 1500s to explore the possibility of medicines from plants. With later colonial invasion of the tropics, gardens were created as scientific laboratories, for the study, preservation and (cross) breeding of plants. The early, often economic goals of improving seeds and understanding the universe of plants were joined by the gardens’ educational functions through the ages. The first botanic garden in our country was opened in Missouri in 1859 and is still going strong. Across the world we now have more than 1,700, including arboreta, and they have seen their fortunes rise over the last decades with the increasing support of the conservation movement. This is where you first learn about nature if you live in urban environments with little exposure to the real thing. This is where you start to understand taxonomies, or possibly develop interest in biology. This is where pressing issues of conservation are made tangible, where you begin to understand the links of flora, climate and geography.

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And this is where you now are lured, at best, into split attention, or, more likely, into focusing intently on the objects to be found among the plants. This is inevitable given how evolution geared our visual system to segregate figure from ground. Think of it as a survival mechanism: What has the greatest informational value for the perceiver? Figures or objects: They could be the food you hope for, the obstacle in your way, the mate you’re seeking, or something geared to eat you for their dinner and thus best avoided. Moving objects have an even stronger pull – just think of how you cannot help but move your eye when something flits across the visual periphery. The decision of what is figure (to be attended to) and ground (safely ignored) is automatically made for you by your perceptual senses, helped along if there is clear contrast provided by color, borders, easily perceived 3-D, all, of course, present in the sculptures standing out against amorphous greens.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida

Zilker Botanical Garden, Austin, Texas

I’m thinking back to a sabbatical in Cambridge so many years ago, the kids still young. We spent our hours in the university’s botanic garden, which at that time had an ingenious section of plantings in the order of their historical arrival time in England. Much talk of how trade spread around the world, how colonial powers brought new treasures of coffee, chocolate, corn, and tea. How plants were crossbred to endure new climates, or increase the harvest yield for ever-growing populations. All done while teaching how to identify and recognize each species. The boys would jump and roll across the groundcovers in the medieval kitchen gardens, crushing the mint just as the monks had done to supersede the smell of months without a bath. Learning about the plants was just a first step toward deeper knowledge of the world at large. But learn you did.

We do so many things in parallel these days, it makes you wonder what gets lost. Here is the reverse case of what I just argued: I find myself quite often torn in art museums when I do take advantage of their education. Listening to all the information pumped through headphones surely gives me background and I’m learning much about the art, the history, the symbolism or the craft. I am so busy attending to the expert voices that I mostly see what they intend me to discover; what I no longer have is a spontaneous view creating thoughts and feelings of my own.

Note, then, I am not arguing that education per se is the required goal, or that spontaneous pleasure and experience should be avoided, in gardens or museums. Both count, but they should not affect each other, which, alas, they often do when presented simultaneously, rather than experienced in turn. In the museum, you have at least the choice of turning off the running commentary. That is not true for fending off the visual pull of art works spread amongst the shrubbery.

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I can conceive of compromise, however, if you insist on art to lure the visitors to your botanic garden (and buy into the argument that you can only educate the people if you can get them in the door). The art works could be made of plant material, to keep the focus on biology. Mosaic sculptures are a popular example of such a trend. I let the pictures speak for themselves and leave my commentary to your own imagination.

Atlanta Botanical Garden. Photo: Atlantabotanicgarden.org

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

Here is a larger sampling.

There is environmental sculpture out there, though, that I find interesting, and more so due to its ephemeral existence, its sometimes rapid deterioration.

Some gardens have it made a specialty to show environmental sculpture, or earth art, as it’s also called. The South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson University has been an early proponent of this movement.

So have, among others, gardens in Canada, Taiwan, Australia. Materials are either plant-based or sand or stone, but all derived from nature. Some elements are fleeting; sculptures made of seeds, or leaves. Jane Ingram Allen’s work – she taught occasionally at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, at Cascade Head on the Oregon Coast – uses handmade paper from plants she collected, releasing seeds into the earth when it disintegrates.

Jane Ingram Allen, Eco Quilt Preparation. Photo: Jane Ingram Allen

Nils Udo, “Clemson Clay Stack,” Clemson University Botanical Garden, Clemson, South Carolina. Photo: Artstack

Earth art installation at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, Ontario; Alfio Bonanno’s “Organic Refuge.” Photo: Barry Gray, The Hamilton Spectator/2014

These sculptures will, of course, draw your attention just as those of metal, glass or other often used materials. But they can link to what it is the gardens offer, by starting conversations on their biological origins, the bridging between earth, nature, and art. And while you ponder if that’s true or if I’m narrow-minded, I’m off to get a ticket for the lottery. How else would I be able to afford to visit my next garden, under construction as we speak, in far away Oman. You want to bet, they’re going to show sculptures too?

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