Last week I visited Katoomba to see The Visitors exhibition at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. This is new work for Heidi and Hugo, following on from their focus on housing in Owner Occupy commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.
It extends their thinking about inhabitation into the plant world, considering how humans can work for plants.
The Visitors explores alternate means of encounter and exchange between the human and botanical worlds. Rather than simply using plants to do things for us, could we work for them? The exhibition investigates the potential of ‘Plant agency’.
It is a small exhibition, installed with Julie Paterson’s large retrospective show, Cloth: From Seeds to Blooms. Julie is an award winning print maker who also has a close relationship to plants, drawing inspiration and designs from flora native to her Blue Mountains studio. Although her exhibition focuses on creative human (rather than plant) agency, urging us to start drawing, collect found objects, and value the imperfect, the two shows work well in combination.
The Visitors is like a secret garden shed at the back of the gallery space. Inside there are forgotten future tools, with the potential to throw human beings off their high horse. There is a vest with seeds sewn in patchwork pockets; shoes for tilling the soil, a wearable hooded chamber for gas exchange; and (my favourite and the best object for explaining the concept to my 8 year old) a copper pipe for collecting human urine, a fertiliser for plants. Each object is crafted beautifully, with simple designs that reveal their function in their form. Knotted ropes, straight stitching, and neatly sanded wood trick us into thinking these tools are for us, and yet they are for plants, seducing us into servitude.
The Visitors is an interesting turn for Heidi and Hugo, as their work is so grounded in the human-centered practices of architecture. The work is reminiscent of critical design, particularly Dunne and Raby’s The Foragers came to mind. But I am also reminded of Tega Brain’s The Pollination Service.
Plant agency is an emerging field of interest, but has clear limits in terms of the role of the artist. After all, plants may not care whether people call themselves artists, architects or academics. I write this from Banjarmasin Indonesian Borneo, which is conservatively estimated to contain 15,000 plant species many of which are under threat. If we are the guests of plants, we are more than inconsiderate guests, we are destroyers at a mass scale.
The objects in The Visitors work at a small scale. To tie them objects together, Heidi and Hugo have designed a flag which claims this space as a kind of alternative territory. There is also a beautifully shot instructional video projected onto a layered cloth screen. As we say in design teaching, this ‘documents the object or system in use’, but in this case, it also documents the scale of human intervention in a landscape. And if this is all a bit too radical, there is a beautiful tent for contemplation and refuge, made from timber and felt. I can’t imagine Hugo and Heidi exhibiting without offering us a shelter.
For more information please visit: http://bluemountainsculturalcentre.com.au/heidi-axelsen-hugo-moline/
The show closes at 5pm 14 January 2018.