07 July 2020
07 July 2020 - Written by Laurence Cornet
Taking in archival imagery, conservation objects, and photographs of plant activists, visual artist Liz Orton dissects the field of botany to invite us to look at nature in a more profound way.
“According to botanists, today’s extinction crisis is partly a problem of plant blindness. We don’t see or know plants in the way we see and know animals, and they are going extinct at 500 times the ‘natural rate’”, writes photographer Liz Orton.
Her ongoing work, “Herbarium of Extinction”, revolves around this statement, questioning in a variety of visual forms the reason for this blindness. That is, while botany originated in prehistory as herbalism with the efforts of early humans to identify – and later cultivate – edible, medicinal and poisonous plants, these efforts to calatogue plants led in the 18th century to the binomial system, approaching plants according to their only biological aspects.
This system remains in use to this day, with the consequence to alter our emotional proximity to plants. In a poetic way, Orton introduces the notion of attachment and memory that we are lacking for the flora by including to her series objects that used to belong to her mother – a framed photograph of plants, a brush such as those used to clean nails after gardening, a dictionary open to the entry E as in “extinction”. “That’s a personal story around lost and care, how you might use representation if you want to retrieve or recover something”, she says.
Delving into the past of her subject, she was also interested by the latin naming of plants associated to the binominal system. “You could say in a way that botany was one of colonialism’s agents of operation”, she notes. To convey such an abstract concept, Orton worked with ancient botanical collections that have been digitised. Using available images of endangered specimens, she cleaned them, manipulated them, ultimately takes it one step further away from the plant itself. And by doing so, she also appropriates the process of digital repatriation - the return of items of cultural heritage in a digital format to the communities from which they originated – to subtly point at imperialism. And what, if not imperialism, turned us to think of the world as always more accessible and available, in other words, consumable?
As an engaging counterpoint, portraits of plant activists and experts interacting with plants round off the series. “Nature tends to be designated as a passive, static, backdrop across which the body works. And I was more interested in like the idea of the exchange between the body and the plant”, Orton explains. “I often told to the people, “let’s let the plant make the first move”.” The result is a gentle choreography of leaves and arms, branches and bodies, flowers and hands that arouse a curiosity to carefully look at nature again. With something else than our eyes.
* Many thanks to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for consenting to the use of specimen images in this project.
Liz Orton is a visual artist working with photography, text and film to explore the relationship between images, knowledge and authorship. Her work engages widely with archives, both real and imagined, to explore the tensions between personal and scientific forms of knowledge.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.
This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.
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