An art project at Cambridge University Botanic Garden
Giddiness and Fernweh
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for botanic gardens, and in particular glasshouses – the lush worlds behind the panes of glass have an irresistible pull for me. There is a sense of discovery and fantasy in these botanical collections. Groups of plants which in nature would not meet are here combined into credible climate-based landscapes. Although the glasshouses seem peaceful, there is a palpable energy in the air, as if the structures are under threat from a concerted effort by the vegetation to break free and spread.
As well as filling me with childlike giddiness, the environments also trigger memories and Fernweh – a longing for faraway and mysterious places. There is a theatricality in these landscapes which is reminiscent of movie backdrops. They fill me with anticipation; it’s like being on film sets that are waiting for action.
Journey through imagined worlds
Each time I visit the glasshouses, I make my way along the narrow main corridor which leads to the various areas of climatic planting. Stepping through each of its side doors is like entering a series of miniature worlds.
The first entrance takes me into ‘Arid Lands’ where it is hot and dry. The rocks and tall cacti arranged alongside a curvy path somehow create illusions of perspective and scale. I find myself reminded of the dusty road in the movie Thelma and Louise.
Further along, there is the ‘Tropical Wetland’. It is humid and warm and there are a rice paddy and a pond with some of those huge waterlily pads that can carry a small child. Impressions are I am in tropical Asia, roaming through the backdrop of Apocalypse Now.
Opening the door to the next room, I am hit with hot and humid air, thick with the sweet and sickly smells of blossoms and mustiness. The air is so pregnant with moisture it feels tangible, the plants are dense and vying for attention with their colours and shapes – tendrils are touching me as I follow the meandering path. We are in the ‘Tropical Rainforest’ and I can almost sense the plants around me growing. I am sweating and on the claustrophobic set of Fitzcarraldo.
The next space offers a stark contrast – it is cool and dry, a fan provides a light breeze. Breathing is easier in the healthy climate of the ‘Alps’. There is a central rocky display with small tree-like shrubs dotted around, giving it the appearance of a miniature alpine landscape; something that Heidi would skip around in. But my favourite bit is a small area at the back, where there is a grassy patch labelled ‘Alpine Meadow’ and another, mossy one, declares itself a ‘Mountain Top’. I am in The Sound of Music.
Learning and Ideas
Whilst letting my imagination loose among these landscapes, I have also become increasingly interested in the labelling of the plants. Keeping track and cataloguing this multitude of species must surely be a herculean task! Curious about the names and numbers on the labels, I found a detailed description on the Botanic Garden’s website, explaining accession numbers, names (Latin and other), distribution and provenance. I learned that the labels are easily damaged and lost, but who knew they are also vulnerable to theft, if not by people then from the local wildlife? The page cites a lovely little snippet from an article in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History from 1833, describing the habit of jackdaws stealing labels from the original Cambridge city-centre Botanic Garden to make their nests, often in the chimneys of nearby buildings: “from the chimney shaft, Dr Kerrick’s man-servant got out on one occasion eighteen dozen labels”.
From my numerous visits to the glasshouses, an idea for a project started to form; it will combine my personal emotive responses to the plant collections with the garden’s scientific system for labelling plants. I am currently undertaking the research for this project and am grateful to the Botanic Garden’s Education and Horticulture teams for allowing me to produce a site-specific installation in the glasshouses in Spring of 2017.
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