By Joe Ferguson
When André Le Nôtre was designing the famed gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1657, he employed an optical illusion called anamorphosis abscondita--roughly translated as hidden distortion. This is most apparent in the reflecting pools which are narrower at the back of the chateau than at their farthest point. If you were to walk away from the chateau and look back, you would see a perspective that mirrored that of Renaissance paintings--linear perspective—which recedes away from the viewer into infinity with the chateau in the center.
Vaux-le-Vicomte was a domesticated environment that reflected the era’s desire to mold nature to fit its wishes. By the mid-nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie of Victorian England wanted a respite from urban development. Their small, highly manicured yards conveyed order and neatness. Ponds were rectangular, vines were forced to grow in straight lines, and the lawns had to be frequently trimmed. A wide range of plants from around the world were used to display new-found wealth. These gardens were a buffer zone between private spaces and the rest of the fast-paced, noisy world. Controlling trends in landscaping continued into the 20th century. Social Critic James Howard Kunstler might call the use of natural embellishments to imitate nature a nature band-aid.
As scientists, however, we want to know what’s real. We want to know how plants actually grow in their environment and how animals interact with the terrain. The Conservatory of Flowers, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, just opened a new exhibit, Aquascapes: The Art of Underwater Gardening, in which both perspectives, the natural and the contrived, are on display.
An aquascape is an installation that employs an ensemble of techniques and sciences. Aquaculture, hydraulics, zoology, and optics are some of the fields of competency required. Carbon dioxide levels, filtration, algae, and fertilization have to be carefully balanced. An aquascape is living art--a functioning ecosystem.
The exhibit takes the form of a cenote--a natural pit, or sinkhole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes the groundwater underneath. Set into the walls of the cavern-like enclosure are a dozen 4-6 foot long tanks. Nine of the tanks--three each--recreate African, Asian, or South America environments with native plants, rocks, hardwoods, and fish. Three additional tanks make use of more abstract, artistic themes.
Each tank is carefully labeled, and there are large-scale illustrations explaining the history and science of aquascaping. In addition to the tanks, there are verdant pools teeming with floating plants, turtles, and fish. The wood-and-glass greenhouse itself is no less impressive. It first opened in 1879, and is the oldest existing conservatory in North America.
As Elaine Hodges writes in The Guild Handbook of Science Illustration, “Scientific illustration takes the viewer to the often unobservable…” The aquascape exhibit is like peeking into a world we either cannot see with the naked eye, or is too far away geographically.
While this exhibit is a construction, it reveals a culture that is attempting to represent nature as it exists. Instead of an ode to sovereignty or a refuge from the evils of industrial progress, it reminds us that this is a world we share and not one in need of remodeling.
Aquascapes: The Art of Underwater Gardening runs through April 12th.