We Want to Believe
The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree
Camden Art Centre, London
24.09.20 – 28.02.21
Here is a fractal pattern. Here is a network of spores. Here is a repeating flower on fabric. Here is an algorithm. Here is a Tree of Life. Here is a cosmic resonance. Here is a viral pandemic.
The show is here, now, across the spaces of Camden Art Centre, and it is online ( The Botanical Mind Online ), across servers and through undersea cables. The show contains many objects created by human beings of different times and places, with different kinds of relationship to the plant and fungal kingdoms. And not only these: we return throughout the show to ideas of patterning, to panpsychism, and to a dispersed cloud of related concepts. The show has a desire: it wants to be a rhizome of ideas, aesthetic and spiritual and scientific, all melding together as if they were never estranged. Its actual achievement is to show how ambiguous this desire is.
It is difficult to give a clear picture of the variety of this show. There are six ‘chapters’ online, and each encompasses many views of a large and deep topic. In the galleries there are eleven themed sections. There are objects by more than sixty makers, and there are texts. There are commissioned works, music and podcasts.
The curators of the show, Gina Buenfeld and Martin Clark, have been reading widely. Buenfeld has been to South America. The show contains many objects, and they in turn are underpinned by many ideas from a network of related thinkers. Isn’t it true that art today is all about creating and mapping networks? Let us see how Eduardo Viveiros de Castro connects to Donna Haraway, how Donna Haraway connects to Anna Tsing, how Anna Tsing connects to Merlin and then to Rupert Sheldrake, how Rupert Sheldrake connects to Michael Marder, and so on. Plant intelligence, Gaia theory, Indigenous cosmologies, fungal metaphors, new materialisms; all of these are included as if they are friends of friends at a generous party. There is a form of associative logic at work all through this show; it is an old way of thinking, but one which has gained particular traction in the age of social media, naturally enough.
What I like about this show is its generosity. I like the overload of beauty and information; there is so much to look at and think about, online and offline. What I struggle with is the looseness, the imprecision with language and connections. It makes me feel a type of complex playacting is at work, one which in itself is interesting and revealing of our moment.
Some of the creators of objects in the show, mainly those from Indigenous communities, were people expressing their sense of the world through weaving, patterning and music; what the world is, how it is shaped, and the links between different forms of life and non-life. We can imagine that these makers sincerely expressed something that they believed, but which went beyond their individual selves. Some of the creators here were so-called ‘outsider artists’, in the catalogue’s terms, creating works that we may choose to approach with an anthropological eye, with a modernist eye for pure form, or with the generous eye of the curators, which attributes to these artists ‘personal mythologies and cosmologies’ on a par with any others. The show draws connections between the repeating, sometimes symmetrical, forms created by both artists from Indigenous communities and ‘outsider artists’, and the forms revealed to us by science: fractal plant forms, the forms of dividing cells, fungal networks, and others. It is suggested that the two previously mentioned categories of makers had an insight into realities unnoticed or rejected by the social and intellectual world inherited by the show’s viewers, and it is easy for those viewers to agree without committing themselves to anything very onerous.
The show does not dramatise the break between the above makers and those of the twentieth century – surrealists, psychoanalysts, hippies – but there seems a clear one. These people experimented with automatisms, with meditation, psychoactive drugs, with the study of mental illness and the temporary suppression of what they considered rationality. Knowingly artists, they saw something as missing from their own physical, social and mental worlds and tried to put right this lack, using ideas from the past and from cultures far from their own.
As we look at the professional artists closer to our own time, their relationship to subject matter of nature and mysticism seems to be doubly distanced. They come at the end of a lineage of art that includes multiple ‘returns to nature’ and they have a whole collection of mysticisms to choose from and to reference. The rejection of the normal art-historical canon, the referencing and valorising of different ontologies and epistemologies, is now a well accepted strategy within the global contemporary art world. The society in which they live makes the idea that an archetypal tree-form connects the human condition to the transcendental universe, non-meaningful but perfectly available for artistic exploitation.
In a sense, this distance forms the lineage of the whole project of this show. Something is wrong in the world, which silently structures our wish to believe in these ideas of spiritual echoes and vegetable intelligences. People in the twenty-first century might well feel guilt and sadness at the destruction of the non-human environment and of those peoples and cultures in closer proximity with that environment. When people of the industrialised world turn to spirituality of nature, it is often bound up with this guilt. This show offers a non-hierarchical, non-logical mindset as a kind of balm for its fatally entangled audience. However, to be engaged in every philosophy or spiritual tradition equally is fairly similar to being engaged in none at all, and the end result can be a bland spectrum of possibilities held in the hand, a complex playacting.
Alexander Tovborg makes paintings that appear heavy, dark, patterned and mystical. They have a non-accidental relationship to the Outsider and Indigenous objects that surround them here. In his press materials he presents a pure image, as if the naive messiah-figure from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet had time-travelled into a branch of COS. However, Tovborg is also part of the same art world as, say, Ryan Trecartin, and it is this that makes it both so hard and so attractive to suspend disbelief regarding his sincerity.
Adam Chodzko’s commission uses a simple artificial intelligence to analyse the shapes of shadows in terms of the coded writings of Hildegard von Bingen, to produce the names of plants both real and chimeric. Like much computational art, the result is so dependent on the chosen parameters as to make it meaningless without great goodwill on the part of viewers; when Chodzko suggests that Bingen’s writings analysed thus might be a hidden guide to the future, he is being wishful and obfuscatory. Other contemporary works by the members of DAS INSTITUT appear as if they too are an AI-guided remix of the show’s images and themes, although this is not in fact the case. Andrea Büttner’s slide show of mosses is studiedly inconsequential, which is significant in itself to the changed role of the contemporary artist today. All of these works fit very easily into the show’s schema, and tend to act as corroboration, as illustrations of the curators’ mood board, rather than complicating or transforming ideas.
Many of the contemporary works in the show exhibit the kind of open, pragmatic approach to spirituality that seems anecdotally common among young educated people. Tamara Henderson describes practices of hypnosis and dream-work which, rather than making into a counter-cultural defiance, she seems to integrate fluidly with everyday life and art-institutional relationships. Her work here is sometimes engaging, with a sense of atmosphere and the bodily, but there is a slipperiness resulting from this kind of careful triangulation between the real and the wishful. In all of the text around the show, and in the selection processes behind the exhibited works, there seems to be a great caution about making judgements. Every claim is accepted, within the scheme of the show’s broad ideas. Although so many of the objects and ideas in the show felt beautiful in their different ways, this refusal to make distinctions became irritating to me. The voluminous discourse around this show never attempts the question of what makes the difference between meaningful and non-meaningful patterning, between the mystical and the pseudo-mystical, between true panpsychism and vague goodwill towards natural forms. Finally, it makes no attempt to distinguish what is true from what would be nice. We want to give agency to non-human forms of life, we want to create non-hierarchical structures and we want to believe in something beyond the immediate. We look open-mindedly at images, and we juggle discourse.
The light is now fading as the exhibition begins to empty. The roots of the trees outside the gallery are under concrete, entangled with power cables and sewage pipes and fibre-optic broadband. Inside the gallery, we are learning to call it the ‘more-than-human’ world.
展览的策展人吉娜·布恩菲尔德（ Gina Buenfeld ）和马丁·克拉克（ Martin Clark ）有广泛的阅读。布恩菲尔德曾去过南美。展览指涉了许多对象，而许多相关思想家的想法又指涉着它们。今天的艺术难道不都关于创建和绘制网络吗？Eduardo Viveiros de Castro如何与Donna Haraway联系，Donna Haraway如何与Anna ching联系，Anna ching又如何与Merlin联系，然后是Rupert Sheldrake, Rupert Sheldrake最后又是如何与Michael Marder联系，等等。植物智能、盖亚理论、本土宇宙论、真菌隐喻、新唯物主义，统统包括在内，就好像在一个慷慨的聚会上朋友介绍朋友认识那样。这样的一种作品间的关联逻辑贯穿于整个展览。这是一种古老的思维方式，但在社交媒体时代，这种思维方式相当自然地获得了特别的牵引力。
亚历山大·托夫堡（ Alexander Tovborg ）的画作显得沉重、黑暗、神秘和纹样化。它们与周围的素人创作和土著物件产生了一种非偶然的关系。在展览的宣传材料中，托夫堡提供了一张纯粹的图像，仿佛来自德雷尔电影《奇迹》（ Ordet ）中天真的弥赛亚式的主角穿越到了COS的一个分支。然而，托夫堡和瑞安·特雷卡丁（ Ryan Trecartin ）一样，来自同一个艺术世界，正因为如此，这让我们很难停止怀疑他们的诚意。
亚当·柯兹克（ Adam Chodzko ）的委托创作使用了一项简单的人工智能技术：根据希尔德加德·冯·宾根（ Hildegard von Bingen ）的编码文字来分析阴影的形状，从而生成真实或虚构的植物名称。如同很多电子艺术，作品的结果是如此依赖于参数选择，以至于如果没有观众的善意参与，它就变得毫无意义。当柯兹克暗示如此分析宾根的作品可能意味着通向未来的隐藏指南时，艺术家的立场是一厢情愿和含糊不清的。其他来自DAS INSTITUT艺术团体成员的当代创作看起来也仿佛是由AI引导的展览图像与议题的混杂，或许事实并非如此。安德里亚·比特纳（ Andrea Büttner ）展示苔藓的幻灯片故意显得无关紧要，这对当代艺术家的角色变化本身而言意义重大。所有作品都很容易融入这次展览的模式，并倾向于作为佐证或是策展人的情绪要素，而不在意深化或转变什么观念。
展览中的许多当代作品都展示了一种开放、务实的精神态度，这种态度在受过教育的年轻人中似乎很常见。塔玛拉·亨德森（ Tamara Henderson ）描述了催眠和梦境工作的实践，将其与日常生活和艺术机构性质的关系流畅地融合在一起，而没有让作品变成一种反文化的抗争。她的作品在展览中塑造了强烈的氛围感和身体感，但这种处于真实和愿望之间的谨慎的三角关系也催生出了几丝不可捉摸。