Plant Scenery of the World
Third in a series of responses to Edinburgh Art Festival, Catriona Gallagher visits Inverleith House's new exhibition 'Plant Scenery of the World' 27 July - 29 October
Plant Scenery of the World celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s Front Range Glasshouses, with new works alongside material from the garden’s collection. The first exhibition at Inverleith House since RBGE’s controversial closure of the gallery, this reinstatement of the contemporary art programme has been eagerly anticipated.
Some of the gallery’s staunchest supporters may be frustrated by an exhibition the title of which declares itself for the plant world first, and the art world second. The catalogue states that the curatorial focus is on responses to ‘plants under glass’, although the works mostly deal with the greater history of botany, in different ways. Most excitingly, several Scottish artists were commissioned to make new works for the exhibition, in conversation with the living and preserved collections of the garden. These responses address the imperial histories and representations of plant collecting as much as the scientific research of the institute itself.
Moving through the rooms of the gallery, the exhibition reveals a story of plant study as it has been against reflections on what its future might be. Charlie Billingham’s colourful reception room decorated with koi pond wall prints, painted plant pots and a dividing screen, satirises society and characters at the height of Imperial tropical plant fervour. Oliver Osborne also evokes a grand room from this period, minimal but with sumptuous, ochre-yellow cloth-lined walls and embroidered paint splashes. Above these hang small paintings of his own rubber plant, a play on historic plant representation and its methods of display.
Laura Aldridge fits out a room with wall to wall cloth floor covering, printed with a natural process that captures garden leaf forms. Shoes off, it is a space to take time in. A smattering of hollow, coloured glass spheres with evil eye concentric circles lie on the floor like oversized sweets. And, outside the building, within the Front Range Glasshouses themselves, Aldridge’s work illustrates the exciting opportunities for artist intervention offered by the new curatorial direction. Here, Aldridge’s coloured metal tabs installed in the jungle of plants, create additional intrigue in the vast, contained space.
Bobby Niven—who has created another work for the festival, a palm house and garden studio in Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden—also focuses on the processes and materials of plant matter, casting seeds and pods from the garden’s herbarium in bronze. Like weathervanes held out on wooden hands, the accuracy and detail of the sculptures echo the process of close examination undertaken by the botanist-collector. In the final room, Ben River’s film Urth (2016), filmed at another glasshouse, Biosphere 2 in Arizona, projects a post-apocalyptic story of plant examination. Urth brings the exhibition to a subtle but challenging, future-facing close. It’s well worth staying with it for the full 19 minutes.
Juxtaposed with this contemporary work, the exhibition includes a selection from RBGE’s collection: photographs and archive material, architectural glasshouse plans, three enormous botanical illustrations of the famous Titan arum or ‘corpse flower’ (which flowered in the glasshouses at RBGE recently), and an unpublished suite of plates from nineteenth century artist-botanist Robert Kaye Greville. Where these interact with the contemporary works they form innovative assemblages which curiously collapse the timelines and critiques of this history. The 1856 plans of the grand Palm House hold ground amongst the ostentatious fun-poking of Billingham’s room, and help to conjure visions of plant collecting at its theatrical peak. In Aldridge’s room we fast forward to 1965, where plans for the more modest, modern-utopian Front Range Glasshouses illustrate the innovation of planting directly into the ground. Both communicate a feeling of grounding down, into floor or soil, and mirror each others’ intricate patterning.
This juxtaposition between contemporary and collection does not always feel curatorially integrated, however. Without any obvious linking factors other than the loose theme of plant scenery, Greville’s suite of book plates (with accompanying text written by Henry Noltie), the Titum arum illustrations (selected by Lorna Mitchell and Jacqui Pestell) and the archival photographs are given rooms of their own between the installations of contemporary work. It would seem there are many hands involved alongside those of the curator, giving this exhibition boxes to tick in its inclusion of archive material, botanical commissions and new works by contemporary artists, all whilst marking an anniversary for the Botanics. It might have been a stronger show had curatorial control been given to focus on one aspect alone.
However, Plant Scenery does have curatorial strengths despite, perhaps in part because of, these contrasts. The exhibition satisfies on two levels. Superficially, it is visually alluring and celebrates our enduring fascination with the beauty of plants and botanical research over the centuries. At its core, it scrutinises the garden’s history with an assertive self-awareness, opening a discourse on darker ideologies of the past and critiquing the foundations on which institutions like RBGE were built. This is about imperialism, exploitation and a greed to 'perceive and possess'  the plant life of foreign lands: a brave critique resounding from within the walls of the garden itself. Uneasy reflections, but there for those who choose to acknowledge them.
A reminder of these undercurrents is best illustrated in Ben River’s film. The voiceover text, by Mark von Schlegell, includes an extract from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. It’s about the extinction of the human species:
...will the seasons change, the trees adorn themselves with leaves, and flowers shed their fragrance, in solitude? Will the mountains remain unmoved, and streams still keep a downward course towards the vast abyss; will the tides rise and fall, and the winds fan universal nature; will beasts pasture, birds fly and fishes swim, when man, the lord, possessor, perceiver, and recorder of all these things, has passed away, as though he had never been? 
There have always been voices—even in the nineteenth century—willing to question man’s possession of the natural world.
Catriona Gallagher is an artist based between the UK and Athens, Greece
 Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 1826, as quoted in Ben River’s Urth 2016