‘Tracking plants across history and cultures’ – review of The Botanical Mind Online - whynow

‘Tracking plants across history and cultures’ – review of The Botanical Mind Online


The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism, and The Cosmic Tree considers the spiritual significance of plants, from the 60s psychedelia of Bruce Conner to the sacred textiles and bead-work of Yawanawá people of Amazonian Brazil.

‘During this period of enforced stillness,’ the curators suggest, ‘our behaviour might be seen to resonate with plants: like them we are now fixed in one place, subject to new rhythms of time, contemplation, personal growth and transformation.’ Indeed, plants have held many different significances for people throughout history, and they are once again being reached for to understand our present.

…from the 60s psychedelia of Bruce Conner to the sacred textiles and bead-work of Yawanawá people of Amazonian Brazil

Nature is taking over the art world like the strangler figs at Angkor Wat. Eco-Visionaries (23 November 2019 – 23 February 2020) at the Royal Academy confronted ‘a planet in a state of emergency’. Somerset House went foraging in Mushrooms: the art, design and future of fungi (31 January – 26 April 2020). Hayward Gallery invited us to walk Among the Trees (4 March – 17 May 2020).

Meanwhile, Birmingham’s Ikon gallery is launching off from John Newling’s epistolary project Dear Nature (4 March – September 2020). Later in the year, Formafantasma: Cambio at Serpentine Sackler (29 September – December 2020) will examine the timber industry and its effects on the planet’s biosphere.

Scheduled to open on Earth Day (22nd April 2020) was Camden Art Centre’s The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree. The exhibition has for now migrated – and expanded – online, in response to the pandemic.

We begin with illustrations by the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung, which look like they could be torn from a medieval illuminated manuscript. In one, the Tree of Life sits inside an egg. Its roots mingle with 8-bit, mosaic serpents in hell. Stretching up to the sky, its canopy fizzes like phosphenes on the backs of your eyelids, with blue leaves like spermatozoa wriggling towards an ovum.

The exhibition has for now migrated – and expanded – online, in response to the pandemic

Was C.G. Jung on some kind of trip? Some critics speculate that the image described above, excerpted from Jung’s secret 1922 work The Red Book, was made during a bout of midlife psychosis – and you can see why.

Less exciting, more likely, Jung was formalising the cosmic tree as an archetype of the ‘collective unconscious’. He noticed that tree legends crop up again and again across history and cultures, from the Čumong in Korea to the Yggdrasil in Norse mythology.

C.G. Jung, The Tree of Life (L), The Philosophical Tree (R)

The Botanical Mind similarly tracks plants across history and cultures. Curators Gina Buenfeld and Martin Clark have Gone Big, and migrating online in response to the pandemic has allowed them to go bigger still, incorporating podcasts, films and texts into this trans-generational group show.

Modernist and contemporary works are shown alongside ethnographic artefacts, textiles and manuscripts spanning more than 500 years – and on subjects ranging from quantum biology to indigenous cosmologies.

… you could see the Cosmic Tree as an analogy for analogy itself: that relational figure that draws the universe together in wholeness

It’s tricky to get purchase at first, not least because the botanical mind is one structured by analogy. Everything is like everything else. In fact, you could see the Cosmic Tree as an analogy for analogy itself: that relational figure that draws the universe together in wholeness, able to connect all things, with branches stretching up to heaven and roots extending to far-flung lands.

The exhibition’s second chapter deals with ‘sacred geometries’, fractal patterns repeated throughout nature; how ‘the curve of a conch shell resembles the unfurling of a fern, or the spiral of a lizard’s tail’.

Another explores how important (what I would call) analogy was to the medieval world view; how ‘correspondences between movements in the celestial realm and the properties of the material world’ informed not only societal structures, but also plant-based medical practices – ‘As within, So Without’.

This relational way of thinking was fundamental to the medieval mindset, and the natural world was a key touchstone; in the Great Chain of Being, humanity existed above animals, and below them but above minerals were plants. Perceiving the world as a system of relationships is once again a crucial way of thinking through our time.

I would first say that we’re facing things like – oh, I don’t know – the destruction of the earth through global warming

Gun to my head and asked why are there so many ecologically themed art exhibitions at the moment, I would first say that we’re facing things like – oh, I don’t know – the destruction of the earth through global warming, the worst pandemic for 100 years; and these potentially cataclysmic events are forcing us to reconsider humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

Gunman appeased, I might then tentatively add that as much as we’re reconsidering humanity’s place in the order of things, this period is also marked by shifting relationships to one another. Moral relativism seems to be on its way out, with identity politics taking its place. It’s a way of thinking about the world that can feel characterised by sharp delineations between modes of being, correcting for the millennia of faux-universalism in whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, etc.

Hildegarde von Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works), 13th Century. Illuminated Manuscript. By concession of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities – Lucca State Library

Perhaps plants appeal because they represent the next stage of the conversation, in which we come together again, rather than floating on our own little islands.

The move from micro- to macro-, from the delicate venation of an insect’s wing to lightning forking through the sky – from ‘micro-aggressions’ to huge, underlying systems of power – is something we’re suddenly fluent in, and which plants (interconnected, symbiotic) articulate intuitively.

As Carl Jung says, ‘No tree can grow to Heaven unless its roots reach down to Hell’

Good cannot come by happily excluding perceived evil, just as climate change won’t go away if simply ignored. We might start, as The Botanical Mind invites us to, by looking inside ourselves, for an understanding of our relation to the rest of the world, and recognising that each of us has the capacity to do harmful things. As Carl Jung says, ‘No tree can grow to Heaven unless its roots reach down to Hell.’

As we reassess, and until we come up with viable solutions, I’d say ecology isn’t just a passing trend in the art world, but something that will underpin artists’ practices for a long time to come. How could it not?

You can view The Botanical Mind online, here.

Rampa  They Will Be