A deep dive into the botanical mind. Natasia explores patterns in nature, indigenous sovereignty, and the role of arts institutions in conversations about climate change.
I came to Camden Art Centre’s The Botanical Mind Online via a lockdown spent delving into ecology. More an archive than an exhibition, the digital space is organised into chapters that loosely bleed into each other. There’s a story being told about man’s relationship to nature, although there does seem to be a lack of plot. This works when it comes to ecology – there’s no protagonist in nature, so this isn’t a conventional story.
The last couple of years, and even the last few months, have seen a rising interest in botany and ecology in art and literature; Somerset House’s Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Mushrooms, The Serpentine’s ongoing Back to Earth series as well as in literature with Anna Lowenpthaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at The End of the World and David Wallace Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth among others. From Fungal networks, to plant intelligence and climate change, The Botanical Mind Online invites us to explore a web of interconnectedness between all living things. Faced with a global pandemic and the climate emergency, we’re being forced to question the individualism that has for centuries positioned man as separate from nature, and given rise to patterns of exploitation and unsustainable consumption. Ironically, this message of interdependence came through while I was, well, isolated. Exploring the digital space as a body in a space of introspection, alone with my laptop, and removed from the 9-5, the idea of a ‘botanical mind’ resonated somehow.
The exhibition starts by highlighting similarities across the symbolism and mythology of various world cultures. It’s explored within the Cosmic Tree archetype, a representation of an interdependent life and a ‘transcendental universe’. There is a focus on Hildegarde of Bingen’s work, a twelfth century Christian mystic, whose idea of the universe as a single entity formed of parts that both contribute to and contain the whole, stretches through The Botanical Mind. The paintings that make up her Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works) are an uncanny marriage of science, art, and mysticism. I recognise this drawing style from Orthodox Christian paintings of saints whilst the globe sprouting plants and seeds feels more pagan and even occultist. The artwork marries different strands of religion and moves beyond traditionally didactic and conservative Christianity to communicate something more primal.
Gemma Anderson’s new series The Garden of Forking Paths features in ‘As Within, So Without’ and ‘Vegetal Ontology’, borrowing its name from Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ seminal essay. Both explore the idea of infinity – one through text, the other through art. Anderson’s works are pretty in pastel and considered the study of DNA, cell division, and amino acid chains. The complexity of biology is made accessible through art, offering a sort of bird’s eye view of ‘energetic relationships and movement patterns’ that go on at a cellular level: Living systems as flow rather than stasis. There are visual and conceptual reflections of Hilma af Klint, another mystic whose abstract work predates the surrealist movement in art, as well as Emma Kunz’s work, a healer whose art was also overlooked until after her death in 1963. Like Anderson, their works explore rhythm and pattern over distinctive forms, representing an ethics of universality and connection that has historically been side lined. To have them so strongly referenced in this exhibition, and seeing how contemporary artists are engaging with their work, is refreshing.
In a physical gallery space your eye prioritises images, and you’d be less likely to linger on a piece of text, but digital exhibitions democratise a space. Image and text are equalised so that the liminal message of this exhibition comes across to the thoughtful visitor. The richness of the information is incredible, and although not all of the text is written in accessible language, there’s enough variety that most people are likely to come across something that speaks to them; whether it’s a podcast, sound bite, or a captivating image. In The Botanical Mind Online, you can take your time. Those curious and open to carving out a path through the digital space on their own will be rewarded, but does this exhibition actually speak to everyone with its arguably universal message? And should it?
In my opinion, all good art is political in some way, or at least speaks to the future of the time that we’re living in now. The ‘Indigenous Cosmologies’ chapter was a step in the right direction. Delfina Muñoz de Toro’s paintings and music are the kingpin of this chapter. Visually rich, looking into Nii Txana (Singers of the Forest) is like looking upwards and inwards into the canopy of the rainforest. We see a chain of birds becoming flowers, becoming birds receding ever backwards in a gorgeous representation of the fractal essence of nature, a nesting doll, echoing shapes and repeating patterns. Look at it alongside the melodic Wiwi, a song that was created as ‘A way of connecting with primal essence and the natural world’. It’s deeply appreciative of the way Indigenous societies have preserved their knowledge and relationship with the land. But what are the implications of consuming indigenous South American cultures as content on the screen of a Macbook? In some ways, the ‘violent contact with western society’ that the Yawanawá people have survived still continues. The ongoing issues of exploitation and overconsumption and the consequences of this for indigenous people and people living in the global south are not explicit. Nowhere is the audience made to feel uncomfortable.
I’d like to see institutions aligning themselves with the values the artworks in their exhibitions put forward. Without this, there’s a risk of proliferating the colonial power dynamic involved in the act of collating, categorising, and exhibiting nature and artifacts. Arts organisations can go further to grapple with the implications of this type of work: what does it mean for how humans are positioned in the environment? How can indigenous knowledge guide how we handle the climate crisis? How can we in the westresist this disconnection from nature caused by the values and pressures of a capitalist society, and change the way we think about ourselves in relation to nature?
As a second wave of Coronavirus is upon us and we look into a future drifting indefinitely in and out of lockdowns, I hope you can find some comfort, intrigue, and inspiration inside.
The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree is now on view (in real life) at the Camden Arts Centre until 23 December 2020. Make sure you book your timed slot by clicking here – it’s completely free too! You can still access the online exhibition via this link as well until closing date.