From plastic flowers pinched from public places to a series of hand-painted seaweeds Abigail Ashford muses on our tangled and prickly relationships with the natural world revealing a constant human preoccupation with collecting, colonising and exploiting it
|Modern Nature, The Drawing Room|
What makes nature modern? Is it the very unnaturalness of the relationships we now cultivate with it? Or, like modern art or literature, has plant-life become explicitly self-reflexive?
An Instagram account dedicated to pleasing images of houseplants is perhaps our digital equivalent of the herbarium collections of the 1800s. In most cases, the scientific emphasis of the latter has been overridden by aesthetic considerations, such as colour, contrast and symmetry. This new exhibition at the Drawing Room testifies to this transformation, emphasising the cross-fertilisations between science and art, while revealing the subtle positioning of plants as witnesses to and companions in human struggles.
The show takes its title from Maggie Hambling’s quip, recounted by Derek Jarman, that he had through his gardening project in Dungeness, Kent, at last discovered modern nature. Jarman’s work positions the cultivation of plants as a form of personal therapy and escapism from socio-political hardship, but beyond this, the show encourages us to reflect on nature’s place in the wider histories of colonialism and gender.
Mark Dion, Herbarium,
2010, hand painted acrylic wash, spitbite aquatint, à la poupée photogravure,
with hand applied letterpress labels & stamps, 42x29cm each
Courtesy Graphicstudio, University of South Florida
Walking into the main gallery space, visitors first encounter a selection of spindly shadows of plants on fading paper, which seem to have been dug out of some dusty old archive. Inspired by the horticultural practice of Henry Perrine in the 19th, century, Mark Dion’s Herbarium mimics a lost collection of pressed marine algae. Each sheet bears a stamp and label declaring it part of the original herbarium. The hand-painted seaweed series is presented as work salvaged from an 1840 Seminole Indian raid on Perrine’s Florida home in which he was killed, and his portfolio of specimens destroyed. The 1830 Indian Removal Act had further exacerbated tensions between white settlers like Perrine and the Seminole Peoples who, in a series of wars between 1817 and 1858, fought the US army in defence of their diminishing territories.
Others have seen Dion’s piece as a response to and commemoration of a tragic scientific loss, yet I doubt the irony (and arguably poetic justice) of a colonial conservator’s collection of native plants being destroyed by an oppressed native people was not lost on the artist. As an advocate for the introduction of tropical plants to the United States, Perrine continued an insidious tradition stretching back to the 16th century of ecological imperialism in North America.
Dion’s careful reconstitution of the algae cuttings complicates a narrow view of this controversial history. Inviting a focus on the multi-pronged minutiae of natural forms, different perceptions of what is of value in ‘the land’ are synthesised in Dion’s ghostly renderings, which testify to the fragility of nature in human sites of conflict. The new herbarium promotes a rebuilding and remembering that includes the devastation of the natural world in human history.
Alberto Baraya, Compared Modernist Studies, 2011, photographs, found objects and drawing on cardboard, dimensions variable, collection Catherin Petitgas
On an adjacent wall, Colombian artist Alberto Baraya’s installation Compared Modernist Studies, showcases a very different survey of plant-life, one comprised of plastic orchids and fake flowers. In contrast to Dion’s Herbarium, Baraya categorises and labels objects pinched from public places and private properties, parodying the innocent collecting of men such as Perrine. Reframing this history as one of biological theft, the artist questions and subverts the ‘disinterested discourse of science’ practiced by men who came to the Americas to document its botanical resources, paving the way for their capitalist exploitation. In a 2007 interview for Frieze, Baraya explained that ‘by picking up some plastic flowers on the street, I behave like the scientists that Western education expects us to become. By changing the goals of this simple task, I resist this ‘destiny’.’
The very first photographically illustrated book produced in Britain was Anna Atkins’s British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions published in 1843. As Drawing Room curator Katherine Stout notes, botany was one area of the male-dominated field of science in which women were permitted to participate. Later in the 19th century, Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint began her career making botanical drawings in Stockholm. Despite her subsequent achievements in abstraction, the drawings on display here do not particularly reflect her compositional or stylistic talent, perhaps being overshadowed by the colourful, quirky studies of Amazonian flowers by artist and conservationist Margaret Mee. One of the first people to highlight the impact of mining and deforestation on the Amazon, Mee combined her fine arts training with a passion for social justice to produce never before seen portraits of exotic plants increasingly under threat from industrial expansion.
From the botanical drawings of Klint to the plastic plants collected and analysed by Alberto Baraya, the works featured fluctuate between documenting and idealising. Beside Klint’s work, the plaque notes that her wheat grains and thistles ‘display the natural world without elaboration or improvement.’ However, this detailed plant portraiture visualises subjects floating alone against blank paper backgrounds, severed from their naturally occurring foliage and wild green surroundings. Subtle anthropomorphisms reach a peak in Viktor Timofeev’s giant mural Godflower 7 drawn on the far wall of the gallery, where two tentacular bodies meld flora and fauna in a surreal alien disposition.
Viktor Timofeev, Godflower 7, 2019, Conté pastel on wall, 731x450cm
This selection of artwork asks us to consider whether conceptualisations of the natural world can ever really be free from personal, political and economic agendas. Nature and culture have long been conceived of as distinct and opposing categories. From the Enlightenment onwards distancing the human social sphere, theologically, ideologically and materially, from the nonhuman world, has served to justify the exploitation of the latter. Our current industrialised, capitalist modernity has relied upon and emerged from this distinction. Moreover, the natural world we now encounter is both composed of and mediated by the smog, chainsaws and drills that continue to envelop the plants, the animals and the Earth. Modern Nature does not gild the lily, but instead grasps the nettle in its representation of our tangled and prickly relationships with the natural world.
2 May – 7 July 2019