By Allison Palenske, contributor
Botany is having a moment; with the rise of the millennial-cultivated “jungalow” and a sustained appeal for urban agriculture projects, interest in plant life is thriving. Even Pantone’s 2017 Color of the Year, a “zesty yellow-green shade” called “Greenery,” is aptly verdant.
"Plant Scenery of the World," an exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s Inverleith House, captures and contextualizes this moment through a combination of contemporary works alongside botanical illustrations and material from the institution’s vast archives.
The exhibition begins with architectural drawings of the garden’s 19th century glasshouses. The combined artistry and advanced detail of these drawings demonstrate the heightened status of exotic plants during this time, as well as the volume of technical knowledge employed in order to recreate a tropical habitat in Scotland’s unforgiving climate.
In direct counterpoint to the colonial-esque botanical obsession of Europe’s elite in the 18th and 19th centuries, the exhibition proceeds with contemporary artist Charlie Billingham’s scenes of the era’s bourgeois society. Billingham’s paintings evoke the lavish frivolity that guided much of this obsession with exotic imports. The satirical scenes suggest aloofness and a misguided sense of morality, illuminating the unfortunate societal norms historically intertwined with the field of botany. This dichotomy between scientific exploration and misdirected fetishization resonates through much of the exhibition.
Bobby Niven’s work grasps the notion of specimen collections; Niven has created bronze castings of seeds, many of which are from exotic species that are vulnerable or endangered. A product of Niven’s research with the garden’s Carpological collection, the castings are displayed on carved wooden hands protruding from the gallery walls. The metallic composition of the seeds is a nod to the language of classic monuments, but celebrates a part of the plant not often heralded by botanical enthusiasts.
While Niven’s work celebrates the overlooked, Oliver Osborne captures images of an over-used and clichéd houseplant species (Ficus elastica, or the rubber plant). Osborne’s photorealistic oil paintings would be easily absorbed in a plant-forward Instagram feed, but when presented in the gallery the paintings seem isolated and undersized. The sparse arrangement of these works denotes a problematizing of contemporary digital culture’s visual over-saturation.
Nearing the end of the exhibition, visitors finally encounter the project from which the exhibition borrows its title. Plant Scenery of the World (c. 1858) was an ultimately-abandoned publication devised by John Hutton Balfour with lithographs of half-imagined exotic scenes by artist-botanist R.K. Greville. These depictions feature a number of presumptions about plant and human life in far-away locales, but permeate the visual language of allure that fueled so much of the botanical trade of the time.
Much of the exhibition focuses on historical botanical themes with commentary on the contemporary implications of these precedents. The final work in the show, however, is an ominous moving image work set in a future time. Ben Rivers’ Urth, filmed at the Biosphere 2 in Arizona, chronicles lab notebook entries. The narration traces fluxing carbon dioxide and oxygen levels alongside personal observations from the narrator, who is the lone survivor of a failed experiment to create a manmade enclosed ecological system. The plot ultimately elucidates the futility of constructing a version of nature to support human life, leaving the fate of the protagonist ambiguous and foreboding.
Inverleith House has been a topic of controversy recently, with a looming threat of the contemporary arts gallery being evicted and the building re-purposed for science-based and fundraising uses. Viewing the exhibition with this knowledge may make certain aspects of the exhibition seem a bit forced, such as the volume of archival material used in conjunction with the contemporary works.
However, "Plant Scenery of the World" is an exceptional attempt at navigating the pressure to find a middle ground between the research focuses of the institution and a need for publicly accessible engagement. The exhibition envisions a role for artists within the field of science beyond visualization of hard data, proving that artists can incite socio-political discourse by providing multi-faceted interpretations. Through the clever curation and implied dialogue amongst the works, the exhibition provides a self-reflection and critique on the irony of past and current practices in the botanical sciences, striving for a future that will (hopefully) fare better than the post-apocalyptic wasteland depicted in Rivers’ Urth. Much like the plot of the Rivers’ work, however, the fate of Inverleith House remains to be determined.