The art of planting

This feature was written for City Planter

The natural world has inspired artists and designers for centuries but now real, living plants, not just representations, are being used to create works of art.  At this year’s London Design Festival, French duo Scenocosme and design studio Physical Pixels have both created installations using living plants, which are given an extra dimension with sound, light and movement. They aspire to an Alice in Wonderland-like quality, and both invite visitors to interact with plants and expect a response.

Scenocosme’s exhibition at the Waterman’s Arts Centre is in two parts.  Hanging baskets of ordinary looking ivy swing from the roof of the gallery lobby.  Walk past and a murmur of sounds will emerge; touch the plants and that murmur becomes a cacophony.  Waterman’s lobby is transformed into a jungle, as the visitor gently tugs and twists on the trailing leaves.

The second part is a dark room, filled with branches that have been painted white and decorated with garish artificial flowers.  The wood glows in UV light and visitors are given torches to shine onto the strange blooms, which respond to the light with music.  Where the hanging baskets surprise and delight, this seems clumsier and squarely aimed at kids, although the artists insist not.

“We like to offer extraordinary experiences to the public with our installations.  In all our interactive artworks we are most interested by the human inter-relation.  Adult reactions are very interesting too” say Grégory Lasserre and Anaïs met den Ancxt from Scenocosme.

“We like mixing nature and technology, because we live in a world where technology is only made with cold materials – plastic and metal.  Our artwork Alsos was the first combining plants and technology.  After this, we worked for a year to invent and realise Akousmaflore.”

Physical Pixels’ exhibition, ‘Inside Playful Minds’ at The Arts Gallery in Central London features an installation which invites the visitor to run their fingers through long lemongrass.  This activates a mechanical facade, built from fan-like objects that snap open, letting in shafts of light and glimpses of High Holborn.  Sensors that respond to touch are hidden within the casing holding the grass and are invisible to the visitor.

“We’re interested in interweaving technology with the world around us, and showing co-existence with, rather than separation from, the natural world” explains Tom Siddall from Physical Pixels.

“The installation used to be called ‘Subtle Touch’ and it’s fascinating how people instinctively know to be gentle with it.  A lot of our work is aimed at kids with autism and this has a tactile quality that’s therapeutic. The technology is quite simple, for us it’s the interaction that’s important.”

Physical Pixels created a similar piece using sedums and sounds for the RHS Experience at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where the Queen was among the many that enjoyed communing with the plants.  Siddall feels there’s a trend emerging, linked to that popular buzzword – sustainability.  “We all graduated from the Royal College of Art last year and there was definitely a strong trend in favour of using natural materials” he says.

What is odd about both exhibitions is that they make the natural feel unnatural.  Tom Siddall says he’s keen to work outside, and to see how the sensors could transform woodland spaces.   He dreams of a sensory trail weaving through an urban nature reserve.  Other artists are already experimenting with plants in the great outdoors.  Over the summer, the pop-up Urban Physic Garden in Southwark saw architects and artists join forces with urban growers to create something that functioned as both a community garden and a gallery.

One of the artists featured in the physic garden was Anna Garforth, who teases moss into wonderful graphic shapes and words.  Her planted artworks are like playful graffiti, blooming in surprising spaces.  For the medically themed garden, she created an eye-catching moss cross.

Art’s relationship with plant-life is a long running one, and it seems more and more artists are keen not just to represent the natural world but to use it as a medium.  This year’s Design Festival has highlighted a strong desire to combine and contrast the organic with the manmade, and to make work that is interactive.

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