THE BOTANICAL MIND: ART, MYSTICISM AND THE COSMIC TREE
Pietra Galli, July 2020
The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree is an online exhibition presented by Camden Art Centre. It was my first experience with an online show. I have scrolled through a few before, but they never captured me long enough to fully absorb them. Living in London, I normally have access to so many physical gallery spaces, so pre-pandemic I hadn’t felt the need to look for online platforms. However, during the global health crisis I had no choice but to look online to find new ways of seeing art.
That was how I found The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree, which immediately caught my attention with its mystical title. It evoked a sense of spirituality that related to my thoughts during lockdown, as many of us were starting to turn to more cautious and introspective lifestyles. The idea of a ‘botanical mind’ related to the context of seeing myself and others turning to nature to find comfort during a stressful situation. Whilst life as we knew it was on pause, it was still spring; flowers kept blooming and days kept passing.
The show was originally scheduled to open on Earth Day, 22 April 2020 as a physical exhibition. However, due to the Covid-19 crisis, it had to be postponed. Quickly, Camden Art Centre and curators Gina Buenfeld and Martin Clark transformed the show into an online programme, offering informative content with new artist commissions, podcasts, texts, images and audio.
Karl Blossfeldt, Plant Studies, Urformen Der Kunst: Photographische Pflanzenbilder, 1928. Photograph, 31.3 x 24.2 cm.
The resulting programme is a trans-generational mix of artworks and historic documents from many continents and with works spanning more than five hundred years. It is organised in six different chapters, investigating the significance of the plant kingdom to human life on many different planes, cultures and times.
The first thing I see on the website is a seventeen minute video introducing the individual chapters to be explored: The Cosmic Tree, Sacred Geometry, Indigenous Cosmologies, Astrological Botany, As Within, So Without and Vegetal Ontology. The video is edited with a mix of archive imagery and new commissioned artworks, on top of a mysterious soundtrack by Kirk Barley. It immediately sets the tone for the entire show with a very scientific and informative language, almost resembling an exhibition from the Natural History Museum.
After watching the video, I question whether I would have watched the whole seventeen minutes of it if I was in a gallery space. I also wondered how they would have installed it and what kind of seats they would have. It was difficult to take the gallery space out of my mind at first but, due to the show’s diverse content, I soon became immersed.
Each chapter has different artists and mediums. Some are accompanied by podcasts, such as Rupert Sheldrake’s Why is there so much beauty in the world? in Sacred Geometry. The biologist and plant physiologist argues that beauty is not a subjective coincidence, but a unifying principle related to the harmonic organisation of the universe.
Other chapters are accompanied by moving image, like Adam Chodzko’s specially commissioned digital work O, you happy roots, branch and mediatrix. The video shown is an excerpt of the original artwork which is played infinitely and in real time. It was created in collaboration with computer coders Black Shuck, with whom the artist developed an algorithm that ‘scans footage of undergrowth, woodland and forest, looking for the ciphers in the shadows between and under the vegetation’.
Adam Chodzko, O, you happy roots, branch and mediatrix, 2020
Two screen video, Hildegard von Bingen’s lingua ignotae and image recognition algorithm. Courtesy the artist.
Chodzko describes his works as ‘propositions for aberrant forms of “social media”, which in this case are represented by a search for the secret language found in plants, the ‘Lingua Ignotae’ - created by the 12th Century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen. In the artist’s proposition, I find it interesting how a medieval concept becomes the main inspiration for a future form of social media, where words are not said directly, but scanned through shapes and energies.
In fact, Von Bingen has a very prominent presence in many of the contemporary works in the programme. Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess, who was also an ecologist thinker. Her cosmology is a major inspiration for the show and it is based on the combination of science, mysticism and art.
Hildegard of Bingen, Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary
Detail from Ceiling Painting (potato), 2019, gouache on gallery ceiling, dimensions variable. Photography: Andy Keate. Courtesy Hollybush Gardens, London, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles and Galerie Tschudi, Zuoz
© Andrea Büttner / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.
Andrea Büttner is another artist showcased in the Cosmic Tree chapter, whose work evokes religious themes associated with Catholic monastic traditions. The works shown form a small retrospective of her practice, focusing on her study about moss, potatoes and her most recent work on overgrown planting beds on former Nazi concentrations camps.
The artist’s ceiling paintings of potatoes caught my attention for the way in which they highlight a seemingly mundane subject as a symbol of survival and proletarian work.
The images are accompanied by an essay by Malin Ståhl reflecting on the artist’s practice. Ståhl describes how Büttner found interest in the theme, after discovering that local farmers from Bavaria used to make reverse glass paintings as offerings to the church, hoping they would be blessed with good harvests. When the harvests were still unsuccessful, the paintings would become an exchange currency to fight poverty.
The potatoes represented in the artist’s ceiling paintings are simple forms made with confident strokes of light and shadow. The background is cyan blue, which makes the vegetables look like asteroids in space, but asteroids with sources of life, as we can see from their subtle sprouts.
The Botanical Mind places a big emphasis on the theme of Indigenous Cosmologies - taking inspiration from how indigenous tribes live in harmony with the natural cycles of nature. The chapter focuses mainly on the Yawanawá people, an indigenous tribe from the Amazon rainforest, with whom artist Delfina Muñoz de Toro has been collaborating in a new artwork for the show. The work is inspired by ‘kené’, sacred geometries found in nature, which are depicted on skin and ceramics. Some believe that ‘these geometries once connected the universe in a continuous tissue - a primordial reality in which the planes of existence (material, immaterial, visible, invisible) were once unified and whole’.
In the current climate change debate and the emphasis on the Amazon rainforest preservation, the idea of a unified universe is undoubtedly essential. Considering every action and every life form, is a way of learning from each other and making way for a more hopeful future.
Priscilla Telmon & Vincent Moon, Híbridos, Spirits of Brazil, Vol. 3 Povo Yawanawá, 2014-2017
© Priscilla Telmon & Vincent Moon
Camden Art Centre compares the exhibition theme to the lockdown context: ‘During this period of enforced stillness, our behaviour might be seen to resonate with plants: like them we are now fixed in one place, subject to new rhythms of time, contemplation, personal growth and transformation.’ As plants are in constant response to their environment, so are we now starting to pay more attention to our surroundings and our positions within them.
I was recently talking to a friend who is an avid consumer of online shows. He was arguing how online shows had to be interactive and fast paced to grab the viewer’s attention. The Botanical Mind is the complete opposite of this: its design is classic and straight forward, it is organised as a dense archive, with chapters filled with many time consuming works including essays, podcasts and videos. Although this format can sometimes be overwhelming, it somehow aligns perfectly with the period of lockdown - a slower way of life. Perhaps flashy and catchy images are not what we are looking for right now. The context of a global pandemic and being in isolation made me feel more conscious of how I spend my time and more selective about the content I want to explore.
Being a multi-continental and trans-generational group show, it also highlights the importance of learning from our ancestors and past experiences, as well as from different cultures and civilisations. Crucially, it also recognises the importance of attributing traditions to the culture in which they originated. The idea of sharing generational knowledge was so strong in my parents and grandparents generations but it seems to have been lost somewhat after the appearance of the Internet. After so many people went back to family homes to isolate, I observed many exploring their relationships in more profound ways, by sharing knowledge, memories and emotions. It is not a surprise when I see people around me now making sourdough, fermenting food or starting to plant. These are centuries-old human activities which require time and patience. In times of uncertainty, nature and generational knowledge is what gives us peace.
The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree is a celebration of the knowledge we have gathered through the centuries by simply observing and interpreting our environment. It illuminates the past, highlights the present and also shows us a way into a more considerate and enlightening future.