Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh observes, “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them”.
However weeds are more often derided. George Francis, the first director of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, championed, “The acclimatisation of Harmless, Useful, Interesting and Ornamental Animals and Plants into South Australia” – such descriptions apparently barring the weeds that might be defined as the opposite: malicious, useless, dull and plain.
The colonists’ importation of agricultural systems allowed the arrival of the desiderata together with their attendant weeds. Even some of the apparently harmless, useful, interesting and ornamental plants, turned out in their make-up, to be deceitful in their new setting and ran wild. Some free riders exploited the system of free trade. The whole of colonisation might be viewed a vast act of acclimatisation. The act of acclimatising new plants and animals completed the process of colonisation while the attendant free riders completed the act of colonisation – the inevitable unintended consequences that accompany (the best of) intention.
Japanese poet Shimpei Kusano’s contemplation of weeds complements Eeyore’s: “I do not scorn weeds. As a matter of fact, there are some instances where they are necessary for the garden. The question of propriety is decided by the dialogue between man and weed.” (Or in the case of Eeyore, donkey and weed.)
Caroline Rothwell’s Urpflanze street plants, the current exhibition in the apt setting of the Santos Museum of Economic Botany (a Museum established in significant measure to facilitate acclimatisation) also takes weeds as a meditation – here to explore the relationship between plants, people and cultures against the settings of colonisation, industrialisation and globalisation. The exhibition is a partnership between the artist, the Gardens and the Art Gallery of South Australia and it extends the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart beyond the Gallery where Rothwell’s Climatic is being exhibited until May 11.
The Museum’s curator, Tony Kanellos, and the Gallery’s managing curator for the Biennial, Lisa Slade, ably introduce the work in their catalogue essays.
The singular title of the exhibition takes Goethe’s idea of the archetypal Urpflanze described in letters to Charlotte von Stein and in Italian Journeys – the logic and ‘inner necessity and truth’ for all plants – as a theme. Goethe observed, “What pleases me most at present is plant-life. Everything is forcing itself upon me, I no longer have to think about it, everything comes to meet me, and the whole gigantic kingdom becomes so simple that I can see at once the answer to the most difficult problems. If only I could communicate the insight and joy to someone, but it is not possible. And it is no dream or fancy: I am beginning to grow aware of the essential form with which, as it were, Nature always plays, and from which she produces her great variety.”
In Goethe’s later, seminal 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants he’d realised that the archetypal plant was really Leaf, and the generative forces of plant morphology were variations of the base Leaf form. Goethe’s Urpflanze, now realised in molecular biology and genetic engineering rather than poetics again evoke enquiry of the inevitable unintended consequences that accompany (the best of) intention – a Utopian or a dystopian future?
Rothwell’s work here includes weeds collected, documented and reconstituted as polyglot herbarium specimens, including those collected by war artist Ben Quilty at Tarin Kot in Afghanistan in 2011 – these woven into their environment represented by Australian military camouflage cloth.
The exhibition also includes large cut PVC ‘paintings’ of Newton’s tree II (viewed by Newton’s bust atop a museum cabinet), Lexicon poppy (crop) and Lexicon (office plant). The material itself is the result of sunlight trapped by plants and fossilised for aeons before being reconstituted as PVC. The interplay between these PVC plants and the plant products in the Museum’s displays, as well as the setting of the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, provide a dialogue for\ our relationship with, and respect for, the oeconomy of Nature.
In the end, the miracle achieved by plants in transforming sunlight into life describes our past, present and future. Ultimately our future is dependent on the role of plants in food, climate and water security. Food security is, by definition, a meditation on plant growth. Climate security is described by carbon as a surrogate for energy and depends on the fine balance between contemporary and future plant growth, and our own capacity to manage our appetite for fossil plant carbon.
Water security, while less directly connected to photosynthesis, is intimately connected to plants – water quality defined through transpiration and a myriad of biochemical processes in wetlands, while on land most water participates in the water cycle by being drawn through a plant powered by sunlight. The exploration of our futures in terms of our relationship with plants seems to be the most important question we have, together with our relationships with each other and the Divine.
Caroline Rothwell’s Urpflanze street plants is showing in the Santos Museum of Economy Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden in collaboration with the Art Gallery of South Australia as part of the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart and is open daily from 10am to 4pm until Sunday, September 14.
Orginally published in The Adelaide Review.