Joseph Paxton (1803–1865, head gardener at Chatsworth House, the Duke of Devonshire’s large country estate in Derbyshire, England, was also the creator of the prefabricated cast-iron-and-glass Crystal Palace, which was originally erected in London’s Hyde Park to contain the Great Exhibition of 1851, a showcase of the technological wonders of the industrial revolution.
The knowledge that Paxton developed to create a sunlit 128-foot-tall building of such simplicity, strength, and lightness came in large part from his experiments with greenhouses. He had designed heated conservatories of grand scale to house tropical plants and to get a jump-start on the summer growing season in England’s northern temperate zone.
In a similar time frame, a medical doctor with a passion for botany, Dr. Nathaniel Ward (1791–1868), created the Wardian Case, a tightly glazed wood-and-glass case that would eventually transport small tropical plants from the southern hemisphere to England. Tropical ferns were a Victorian craze, and the smuggling of rubber trees from Brazil, tea plants from China and India, and medicinal plants from other continents for pharmaceutical use broke geographical monopolies on cultivation and production of useful goods from living plants.
Long story short: the creation of a transportable “biosphere,” coupled with increasingly inventive technologies and the rise in botanical movement across the planet resulted in a plant explosion—a new world of human potential, both glorious and horrific.
My fascination with this period of history—and a childhood immersed in an agricultural landscape with close botanical and horticultural observation as play—has led me as an artist to explore the burning question: “What were we thinking?” How have plants played such a silent and surprising role in cultural and scientific evolution/revolution?
One question that stands out for me is: What are and were the ethical and spiritual dimensions of our relationship to plants in our zeal for invention—and where are we going with this? I think this NASA video about Plant Productivity in a Warming World tells an interesting story.
Plants: silent, mysterious, crucial, responsive, mutable, captured…and unique to our planet well beyond the view of even the most powerful telescope.
Paula Hayes, Nocturne of the Limax maximus is now on view in MoMA’s lobby through February 28, 2011.