Connections: Science and Art

Illustration of the pepper Piper nigrum in van Rheede’s Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In the last post, I discussed the relationship between art and science in the 21st century rather theoretically.  Now I want to look at recent exhibits that have a botanical turn, though their reach extends well beyond botany, and beyond art for that matter and they all have a digital presence.    At the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) where she has been affiliated for four years, Siân Bowen presented an exhibit called “After Hortus Malabaricus, Sensing and Presensing Rare Plants.”  She drew on three different RBGE collections in her work.  First, from the library, she used the massive 12-volume Hortus Indicus Malabaricus published between 1678 and 1703.  I can understand why she was intrigued by it.  Hendrik van Rheede, a Dutch governor of Malabar in India, directed a massive effort to create this work focused on useful, and particularly medicinal, plants.  He gathered a team including indigenous and Dutch physicians to agree on plant names and uses, and also employed indigenous artists to create the striking plates.  They are definitely botanical illustrations, but also have an eastern flavor (see above).

Some of Bowen’s art comments on these images, but she also worked with specimens of Indian plants, mostly collected in the late 18th and into the 19th centuries, when Britain had taken over Malabar.  The RBGE herbarium became an important gathering place for plant specimens from this area in part because the University of Edinburgh was a major training ground for physicians who were later employed on naval ships going to the area or by the East India Company which controlled it.  Bowen selected several specimens and rather than working with them directly, made models of them which she then translated into other media, such as etching.  She did similar work with the illustrations, and also with living Indian species growing in the garden.  She sees drawing as a way to sense the presence of the plants, plants that are present at RBGE in several different ways.  She multiplied those ways through her work, even making paper from hemp, an Indian species.  She was attempting to use art to induce viewers to look more closely not only at the specimens and historic illustrations displayed, but at plant form more generally and more deeply, to sense plants differently through her representations.

At the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Italian design team Formafantasma created an exhibit called Cambio, a conceptually expansive look at trees and wood.  The title derives from the Latin word cambium, which means change or exchange, and also refers to the growth area of a tree’s trunk responsible for producing bark and new wood.  As at RBGE, they drew from a botanical collection, in this case the xylarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The wood samples presented were displayed at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace, at the height of Britain’s colonial power and when the search for timber to keep the empire supplied was particularly intense. 

In another room, there was an oak tree’s long trunk that had been sliced into boards, but that’s where its processing stopped.  The boards still had bark as a reminder of the complex process of turning trees into products.  There was also a large photo of an Italian forested hillside where all the trees were felled in an extreme storm, leaving just gray sticks on the slopes.  A stack of stools formed a display about the lifespan of furniture, with oak lasting much longer than walnut.  In addition, there was a presentation on the results of analysis of paper used in various editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species; most of the paper was made from pine and eucalyptus, helping to explain why so many tree plantations grew these species. 

The last exhibit I want to mention is now virtual, but its delayed opening is scheduled for September 24 at London’s Camden Art Centre.  Called Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree, it exists as a massive website divided into six sections or “chapters,” to correspond with a book on the exhibit being released soon.  The chapter titles give a sense of the show’s tendency to go much further than many art/science collaborations.  They include Astrological Botany, on medicinal botany and astrological traditions on the four humors, and Vegetal Ontology, about the new work on plants’ sensing abilities.  These move into a world where I am not terribly comfortable, but when I looked at the list of artists and writers represented that include Anna Atkins, Hildegard von Bingen, Carl Jung, and indigenous communities, the Yawanawá and Shipibo-Conibo peoples, I had to dig deeper.  The experience was definitely broadening.  I was forced to widen my horizons, and that’s not a bad thing.

The fact that all three exhibits originated in the United Kingdom is not a coincidence.  The country has always had a rich botanical and horticulture tradition, and its citizens still manifest a culture of respect for and love of nature.  The nation also has a long and fraught colonial history, with botanical imperialism being one of its hallmarks, so these exhibits that weave together art and science in very interesting ways, also take on history, politics, and philosophy.  That’s what makes them so intriguing and mind-expanding. 

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