Plant Scenery of the World, Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden

Publication: The Times.  
August 2017

Recently, the critic Alastair Sooke dismissed “…a dreary-sounding exhibition called Plant Scenery of the World”, while another commentator, Laura Cumming wrote “…one keenly feels the lack of an Inverleith House show, now that Paul Nesbitt’s marvellous programme … has been so ruthlessly cancelled by philistines. A collection of botanical images doesn’t cut it…”

Had either of these journalists actually bothered to see the exhibition they so casually damn, in absentia, they would have taken an altogether more positive tack.  Granted, maverick curator Nesbitt is not involved here, but his talented colleague, Chloe Reith, is. She has performed a splendid balancing act.  On the one hand, she has heeded the wishes of the powers-at-be, who wish to see the exhibitions’ programme more closely reflect the presence and work of RBGE.  On the other, she has worked with a number of cutting-edge, internationally acclaimed artists.

Reith was tasked with marking the 50th anniversary of the garden’s Front Range Glasshouses. Designed by architects George Pearce and Allan Pendreigh, the glasshouses, like them or loathe them, were a pioneering example of Scottish Modernist architecture. As well as contemporary artists, Reith has worked with a group botanical illustrators, and has included an unpublished folio of plant geography by the celebrated bryologist, mycologist and artist Robert Kaye Greville (1794-1866), from which the show’s title derives. Its use here is, of course, at least in part, ironic. The composite illustrations derived from numerous and diverse sources, and not from first hand observation, inevitably show groups of ‘natives’ who have been reduced to the status of illustrated objects.

The artists have addressed the place of the gardens from a post-imperial stand-point (bearing in mind that the botanical collecting was at least in part a product of colonialism); they also address questions of the exotic and the ‘other’. Each of the rooms of Inverleith House’s magnificent Georgian interior has been transformed into a specific ‘environment’, mirroring the various artificial biomes in the glasshouses. All of the work here is characterized by its thoughtfulness, its relevance to place, and its inter-connectedness with the adjacent pieces. 

Charlie Billingham has created an immersive space, which references 18th and 19thcentury interiors.  This includes wall-coverings emblazoned with a carp-in-a-pond motif; palms, aspidistra and other house plants in outrageously decorated pots; a dressing screen and a pink marble console table. Various paintings borrow from the etchings of well-known English satirists of the period, Cruikshank, Rowlandson and Gillray.

Oliver Osborne also uses irreverent juxtaposition as his modus operandi, linking meticulously painted rubber plants, ficus elastica, with cartoons and sketches from language text books.

There is a shocking series of depictions of the well-named amorphophallus titanium or carrion flower, by illustrators Isık Güner, Jacqui Pestell & Sharon Tingey who have created near life-size images of the plant, which flourishes in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, reaching a height of 2 metres.

Ben Rivers’ film, Urth, set in a dystopian future, and filmed in Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system for scientific research in the Arizona desert, typifies his blend of documentary and fiction. Bobby Niven has cast various seed pods and cases from the garden’s carpological collection, such as casuarinabauhinia purpurea andmimusops elengi, which he has combined into sculptural forms, displayed on wooden, hand shaped plinthes. Laura Aldridge spent time collecting the leaves of various species from the Front Range and has created what is described as a delicate, intricate “nature printed floor” using an eco dye process that stimulates the plants’ natural colourants.

It’s strange that some elements were not sited in the glasshouses themselves.  This show is anything but dreary – it’s a complex, but fun, interconnected architectural, aesthetic, botanical and cultural ecology that should not be missed.