Melanie Jackson: The Urpflanze
The Drawing Room London 29 April – 20 June 2010
Melanie Jackson has spent the last year getting to know plants. By which I mean really getting to know them: not only has she photographed every plant she has encountered in that time, but she has conducted research into plant genetics, biomimicry and genome sequencing, weird and wonderful tales of space pumpkins and fluorescent undersea pumpkins, and the myriad ways in which humans interact with the flora of our planet. She has conducted interviews with biogeneticists and natural historians, and explored the many disparate writings on plant life and the natural world, from UN manuals of plant productivity to Filipino novels of revolt featuring exploding, bejewelled pomegranates.
This wealth of knowledge has provided fertile ground for the production of a fascinating exhibition at the Drawing Room. Infused with, and enthused by, the passion, circumspection, and fascination with which plants are and have been regarded by scientists and artists throughout history, Jackson has produced a vivid display of arcane facts and aesthetic delights which examine and celebrate the plant, from grey and disquieting sculptures of grotesquely engorged pumpkins to tiny golden replicas of the smallest particles of pollen.
The exhibition takes its title from a work by Goethe, Die metamorphose der Pflanzen (The metamorphosis of plants), in which he posits the existence of a primal plant, the Urpflanze, which, containing within its leaves the archetype of ‘plantness’, and therefore the potential form of every possible plant, extant or not, provides the template by which we understand the notion of what a plant is. In a time before the sequencing of plant genomes, before scientists were able to take living things apart at the molecular level to see what characteristics were shared between species and individuals, Goethe was synthesising his observational knowledge of plants and their forms with an intuitive understanding that all plants and their components were somehow linked, and that something provided them with the characteristics which enable us to look at them and know them as plants.
At the entrance to the gallery, there is a stack of a newspaper-like publication, also entitled The Urpflanze, which contains writings by Jackson and her collaborator, Esther Leslie. Both artefact and document, it describes, illustrates, and engages with the various historical, technological, and artistic theories of plant use and production which have informed the work on display. Once in the exhibition space, the eye is immediately drawn to a video piece projected on a large screen near the entrance. Here are all the plants of Jackson’s year, coming thick and fast and accompanied by strange clicks and whirrs, a sound such as evolution itself might make as it searches through different forms, new adaptations, trying to find the best possible expression of its intent. Or perhaps it is the sound of science, searching among the known for a clue to how to make new and better species, historically inspired and technologically altered to fit our needs. We see plants arranged by colour, complexity, or type; a fruit sequenced from germination to decay on the bough of a tree; cactus-like forms repeating in a sequence which grows more and more complex and frenetic until it catches its own tail and snaps to something new.
Beyond this vivid display is a space that is dim, lit in places by monitors, and punctuated with microscopic particles re-presented in forms a thousand times that of the original: it feels as though you are inside a microscope slide, observing the minute workings of unknown lifeforms. These are papier-mâché models of pollen particles, the germinal orbs of new generations of plant life, blown up to a thousand times their true size and resting atop industrial structures of bare wood and cable ties. They are the natural building blocks of plants, contrasting with a tiny gilded sphere, lit as if in a jewellers by halogen bulbs, which takes the form of a natural particulate but references the use of gold in genetic modification machinery to transport DNA and RNA from one organism to another.
Beyond these spiky, complex forms lie three larger papier-mâché forms, very different from the compact vitality of the pollens: here are three enormous squashes, or pumpkins, reclining on pallets or set on the floor, their bases sagging under their unnatural weight. Seemingly another fantastic distortion of scale, these sculptures are in fact based on the enormous pumpkins grown for competition in the U.S. (the largest on record weighed in at 1,235 lbs). These lumpen, organic forms are set in contrast to a CAD animation showing on a monitor above them, where an unnaturally smooth vegetal shape slowly rotates, before we are given a glimpse into a phosphorescent green interior of dancing cells, to an eerie soundtrack of indeterminate, wavelike sounds. Nearby stands a small television showing videos of plants at a genetics lab, while through the headphones you can hear the artist discussing plant history and possible futures with the scientists there.
This show is a fascinating exposition of man’s interaction with plants, from the primordial (both known and postulated) to the yet-to-be-created, the nutritious to the purposeless. In her combination of tangibly handmade aesthetics with slick technology, Jackson echoes the odd conjunction of highly-developed technologies and plants which produce life from dirt, and her painstaking recreations of minuscule forms and gargantuan monstrosities show her passion ofr the various ways in which people and plants form and inform each other; the catalogue talks of plant science becoming ‘an art of morphology and mutation’ akin to the process of drawing, and Melanie Jackson has vividly, engagingly and eruditely conveyed these ideas in an intriguing exhibition of man’s complex relationship with the animate but silent vegetal world.