London’s Modern Nature: Nurturing green spaces in the capital. Panel discussion with Katharine Stout, curator, Joyce Cronin of The Bower and Michael Smythe of Phytology. Saturday 1 June, 4pm. Booking
Alberto Baraya, Mark Dion, Simryn Gill, Derek Jarman, Hilma af Klint, Margaret Mee, Christine Ödlund, David Thorpe, Viktor Timofeev
Modern Nature explores our interaction and fascination with plants in relation to aspects of social change, personal well-being and scientific research.
The exhibition brings together drawings never before exhibited in the UK by historical artists Hilma af Klint and Margaret Mee, alongside works by contemporary international artists, including self-styled botanist Alberto Baraya and explorer, activist and artist Mark Dion. Modern Nature explores utopian ideas of the redeeming qualities of nature and the contradictory reality that plastic waste and over-farming are damaging the natural world.
Also included are unique works on paper by Simryn Gill and Christine Ödlund, diary entries by filmmaker, diarist and gardener Derek Jarman, anthropomorphised botanical watercolours by David Thorpe and an exuberant newly commissioned wall drawing by Viktor Timofeev, which together consider the notion of care in relation to man’s interdependency with plant life.
Human interest in plants – their value for food and healing – dates back to the earliest days of our species. Botany has been a scientific study since the earliest civilisations, whether these were centred in Ancient China, Greece or Rome. Historically, botanical drawing was one of few acceptable artistic pursuits for women and there are a number of distinguished female artists who led in this field. As part of the first generation of women studying alongside male colleagues in the late 19th century, Hilma af Klint drew and painted detailed and accurate observations of plant life and nature early in her career. She went on to devote her life and work to an exploration of the spiritual world – including developing a diagrammatic language to represent the energetic and emotional signature of individual plant specimens.
Drawings and watercolours by Margaret Mee made between the 1950’s and 80’s depict the unique and often unknown flora of Brazil. Observed and recorded on intrepid expeditions into the Amazon rainforest, they exemplify the role botanical artists have played in discovering new plant species. Notably, Mee was also one of the first to draw attention to the environmental damage enacted by large scale mining and deforestation in the Amazon Basin.
The exhibition also includes a selection of ‘Garden Books’ by British artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. During the same period in which London’s gay scene, like New York’s, was devastated by the AIDs crisis, Jarman devoted himself to creating his now famous garden in a then desolate corner of Kent. For Jarman, cultivating his garden and teasing life out of a barren landscape was a form of escapism, but also therapy at a time when he was battling the disease that would take his life.
Mark Dion’s Herbarium (2010) is inspired by the work of Henry Perrine, one of the first horticulturists to study Florida’s vast agricultural offerings, and to document its many plant species. This series of works on paper represent the few remaining species salvaged from Perrine’s herbarium, which was destroyed during a Seminole Indian raid on his house – part of the fierce resistance by the American Indians to the white settlement and mass displacement imposed upon them during the 19th century. Perrine was also killed in the raid, and with him his conservation project. Himself an explorer, activist and collector, Dion deploys scientific techniques and the methodologies of museum display to reveal the fragility of the natural environment, invariably due to the carelessness of man’s interventions.
For nearly twenty years, Alberto Baraya has pursued his own ‘expeditions’ throughout the world, collecting and cataloguing artificial plants for his Herbario de plantas artificiales from which he derives anthropometric studies. These artificial flowers are accompanied and annotated by detailed drawings of the specimen and information about its collector and location, replicating the methodology of earlier western botanical artists. In this way, Baraya questions how colonial Western tradition came to categorise not only plants but also the people encountered.
For Simryn Gill, an underlying concern across her varied practice is ‘looking for the overlap – of connection, or separation – between us and plants’. Gill asks, ‘What is the nature of that overlap? If the botanical world falters, so do we…’ Travelling Light (2017) is a series of unique works on paper, a form of drawing made directly by wrapping sprouting coconuts in paper. These vibrantly colourful works offer a palpable sense of the fertility and life within this most mobile and versatile of plants.
Christine Ödlund’s series Aspects of Linnaeus’s system of shape and colour (2018) references Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus’s 18th century system, which classifies plants according to their shape and colour. In her works on paper, Christine Ödlund uses pigments extracted from plants such as stinging nettle to explore plant to plant communication and ways in which humans may learn to ‘speak’ to plants.
David Thorpe’s works update the 19th century impulse to record and celebrate flora and fauna as idealised forms, as expressed in the Arts & Crafts movement, in particular within the theories and artworks of William Morris and John Ruskin. In meticulously realised botanical watercolours, Thorpe re-imagines plant specimens as fantastically humanoid and erotic, thus extending the close identification of mankind with nature espoused by the Victorian artisans.
Viktor Timofeev’s exuberant wall drawing depicts in pastel an otherworldly depiction of flora, one that is informed by decorative reproductions of plants and flowers, in particular an iris motif on a well-loved bedspread. Like much of his work, this large drawing derives from smaller drawings and sketches, and has evolved over the course of various renditions in spaces across the world. His site specific commission represents a science fictional version of nature and reality, rather than one based on empirical observation.
Curated by Katharine Stout (Deputy Director, ICA, London and Associate Director, Drawing Room) with Jacqui McIntosh (Exhibitions Manager, Drawing Room).Photo: Andy Keate