I get daily emails from Hyperallergic, a contemporary art website that definitely borders on the edgy. Many of the essays are not to my taste, but some of them are great, particularly those written by a professor of art history, John Yau. I scroll through the half dozen plus offerings each day, and often something catches my eye, as when I saw a detail from Silvina Der Meguerditchian’s installation, Treasures (2015). Against a black background are pages of text, drawings, and plant specimens. There are also various amulets and pieces of jewelry. Of course, it was the plants that attracted me as well as their juxta-positioning with so many other interesting items.
The accompanying article by Louis Fishman gave me some context for Der Meguerditchian’s work. She is an Armenian artist who grew up near Buenos Aires, in a family that valued their heritage, having been forced to flee Armenia during Turkish violence there in the early 20th century. She then moved to Berlin where she engaged not only with other Armenian’s but with Turkish immigrants as well, another way into her family’s past. It is this history that is the inspiration for Treasures. The plants that are presented—in tiny seed containers, as gold leaf portraits, in color drawings, and as specimens—are all native to Armenia and familiar to Der Meguerdichian’s family. They are among the plants described in a notebook of medicinal remedies she inherited from her great-grandmother. The act of pressing plants was part of memorializing this history, infusing life into it by working with the same plants the notebook described. This is a beautiful example of specimens being employed not as scientific documents but as profound statements about memory and life.
There are many examples of artists using specimens in their work to enrich a variety of themes. Margherita Pevere is a Finnish artist interested in exploring questions about the way organisms change and persist. Reliquiarium (2011) presented remains of organisms, such as a bird’s wing, a crab’s carapace, and seed pods half-eaten by mice, each set on red velvet and framed in gold, somewhat like a saint’s relics would be. This speaks to the sacredness of life, the inevitability of dismemberment and death, and the persistence organic material past that death.
Somewhat the same themes come up in Herbarium (2012), Pevere’s next piece. Here she worked with a folder of plants collected along the Adriatic coast of Croatia. When she opened it, she found that little of the plant material remained. It had been attacked by mold and insects to the point that, along with a few fragments, there were just stains on the paper with the tape that had held the specimens down and labels identifying them. Pevere framed the sheets and raised questions about who really created this work: the organisms themselves, the collector, the pests that altered them, or the artist who mounted them. She sees this work as relating to the medieval, to memento mori—reminders of life’s transience.
Mark Dion is known for his art dealing with natural history collections and also has a work called Herbarium (2010) , but he created new specimens in memory of those belonging to the horticulturalist Henry Perrine (1797-1840). They had been destroyed in a fire at Perrine’s Florida home that also ended his life. The sheets are stamped “Collection of Henry Perrine” and while a label is attached, no information is provided. These are ghost specimens of the opposite type from Pevere’s; here the plant remains and the data doesn’t. As an aside I’ll mention that Perrine moved to Florida from Mexico and brought with him plants including sisal he planned to grow commercially. After his death the property was abandoned, but the sisal thrived and became a source of plants for those, including Germans, who then grew it on plantations in their colonies (Brockway, 1979).
On a brighter note, there is a wonderful exhibit, In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss, now running at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. It’s based on the Harvard Herbaria’s collection of Henry David Thoreau specimens. There are 648 of them and they were digitized five years ago. Two artists have created an installation that allows viewers to look not only at the specimens themselves, but also artistic renderings of them. I have only seen the online version of this exhibit, but even that is stunning. Robin Vuchnich, a new media artist, designed an immersive experience in the gallery’s theatre using the digitized specimens along with soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond where Thoreau wrote his masterpiece Walden.
In addition, Leah Sobsey, a photographer and artist, created cyanotypes on glass from Thoreau’s specimens. She used a process similar to Anna Atkins’s in making algae cyanotypes in the 19th century. As the website notes, Sobsey produced cyanotypes for all the Thoreau specimens, creating “a stunning wallpaper consisting of original cyanotypes and digital imagery that tells a story of the survival and decline of plant specimens.” This sounds like an exciting way to both experience herbarium specimens and think about a classic in American environmental and natural history literature. It is interesting to consider what Thoreau would make of all this, to say nothing of how Concord, and Harvard, have changed since his day. What I find so exciting about this presentation is how not only plants, but herbarium specimens are at its core. Think of the thousands of visitors, old and young, who will discover herbaria in such a visually striking way.
Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.
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