This series of posts (1, 2) is highlighting projects sponsored by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Research Library. I’ve already mentioned their Zoom presentations. One particularly notable one was held in March 2021 and dealt with Humanistic Uses of Herbaria. It was hosted by New York Botanical Garden Humanities Institute along with Dumbarton which is home of the Plant Humanities Initiative along with JSTOR Labs. There were four speakers that day, all stars in their respective fields. First was Barbara Thiers, now Director Emerita of the NYBG herbarium, leader in many endeavors to digitize herbarium collections, and author of Herbarium (see earlier post). She gave a great introduction to the history and importance of herbaria and was followed by Pam Soltis, curator at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, one of the leads on the iDigBio project to digitize specimens, and an expert on evolutionary genetics and ecology. She presented on the future of research using herbarium specimens. Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books at Dumbarton, was the next speaker and discussed herbaria in the collection including a very interesting manuscript by the landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr., Leaves of Hardy Oaks and Maples. He created it early in his career as a way to study leaf form and how this might affect the shade a tree produced.
Yota Batsaki, executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, gave the last presentation on “The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns (2007).” She dealt with the herbarium as metaphor for the deterioration of life, particularly plant life, on earth. Kiefer is among the most noted postwar German artists and often uses plants in his works. He was born in 1945 in a Berlin bunker and played in ruble as a child, so it is not surprising that the war and the holocaust have been among his major themes. Many of his paintings, often multimedia works, are devastated landscapes, with thick layers of paint, sometimes splashed with molten lead and embedded with dried plants (Biro, 2013).
As Batsaki noted, more recently Kiefer has turned to other forms of devastation, including thoughtless abuse of the earth. In dealing with this theme he uses some of the same tropes he employed in earlier work. In particular, she discusses a large installation, Secret of the Ferns, that fills a room at the Margulies Collection in Miami. At the center of the room are two concrete bunkers that have seen much wear and tear. A two-story one is at the back and in front of it is one with a pile of coal at its entrance. Along the left and right walls are hung large framed works in two ranks on each side, 48 in all towering over the viewer.
Kiefer’s installations are complex; there are many layers to them and many details. I was intrigued by Batsaki’s presentation but I knew I was missing some of the nuances. I hoped that she would publish on this topic, and she has, in an article in Environmental Humanities (2021). Through the text and images of the work, I was able to dig more deeply into it. While I was somewhat familiar with Thiers and Solitis’s work, this was another realm. Here were plants being used in a very different way, not to reveal information about genetics or environmental change, but to get at deep questions of what humans value and how they relate to other forms of life on earth. Batsaki does a great job of “interrogating” the work. This is a term that scholars in the humanities use regularly, but it is sort of foreign to me. Interrogating living things seems rather aggressive and is a verb seldom used by biologists, though many of their techniques can be quite aggressive. It is an example of how science and the humanities have to learn each other’s language and attitudes if they are to do more than just meet occasionally as at the March seminar.
Hanging to the left and right of the bunkers, many of the frames hold large pressed fern fronds against a dark background, in some cases, with the stipe appearing to rise from dried, cracked earth. Each is encased in what Batsaki describes as a vitrine and framed in lead, a common material for Kiefer, who is intrigued with its role in alchemy. The ferns relate to the installation’s title which is from a Paul Celan poem. Celan’s work, often dealing with aspects of German history and the holocaust, has proved a rich reservoir of inspiration for Kiefer. The artist is drawn to ferns because of their long history on earth as the earliest vascular plants and one source of the organic material in coal. Their presence in the frames is tied to the coal by the bunker: a reminder that burning coal has led to disastrous changes in the earth’s atmosphere that threatens the long-resilient ferns and all life on earth, what Batsaki describes as the “slow violence of extinction.” (p. 394).
In this short post, it’s impossible to do justice either to the artwork or to the essay. There is a great deal here as Batsaki investigates a variety of themes including that of transformation, examining how ferns were long thought to be mysterious because they did not form seeds and so their mode of reproduction was unknown until their tiny spores were studied in the mid-19th century. One line from her essay that I find particularly memorable is: “If the herbarium started as an aide to memory [in the early modern era], the installation transforms it into a vehicle for memorialization.” (p. 409). Unfortunately too many sheets in herbaria serve the same function for extinct species.
Batsaki, Y. (2021). The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Mourning and Transformation in Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns. Environmental Humanities, 13(2), 391–413. https://doi.org/10.1215/22011919-9320211
Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York: Phaidon.