Installation of 39 white porcelain handmade flowers (Amazonia) at the Jose Celestino Botanical Gardens, Bogotá, Octobre 2014. Text, Mariangela Méndez
by Mariangela Méndez, Associate teacher, Art Department, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia
Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
“Correspondences”, Charles Baudelaire
Trees, flowers, grass, rivers, mountains, clouds and stones… Nature is a metaphor. A landscape is the reflection of human feelings, a cultural construction that can be decoded as a textual system in which the objects, such as trees, flowers, stones and water, are read as symbols, as allegories of something else. Nature is just an idea, said Eugene Delacroix, a painter from the French romanticism.
Representing a landscape in art has been one of those attempts from the human spirit to create harmony with the environment; however, nature does not have a clue of what we call landscape.
A landscape is not only the contemplation space; we live the landscape, we inhabit it, it surrounds us and alters us, we can move through it, walk through it and get lost in it. We have tried not only to appreciate it, but also to dominate and conquer it. A landscape also moves and changes, just as the way we understand it. A landscape is a natural scenery mediated by culture; it is a space that is presented and represented at the same time, it is a way of exchange between what is human and natural, between what is ours and foreign. A landscape is not a pure entity, free of human intentions. On the contrary, it is a cultural construction; it is a power agent that affects our relationship with nature.
The Nymphaea salvaje installation especially made for the Tropicarium of Bogotá’s José Celestino Mutis Botanical Garden is a landscape of contrasts; it is a composition of 39 flowers that have been handmade, one by one, in white Limoges porcelain. It has five different species that are native to Colombia’s Amazonian jungle: Victoria Regia, Passiflora, Warczewiczella Marginata, Dionaea Muscipula and Góngora orchid. A blend of nature sounds and whistles that transform into piano music accompany the spectator in his walk through the space where natural and artificial elements are combined, the paradise garden and the brutal jungle, traces of colonization and ancestral knowledge.
Nymphaea Salvaje seems to have been developed from the aesthetics and the attitudes toward landscapes from the romantic artists and the travelers from the end of the 19th century. The taxonomic classification of the plants, that has its origin when botany and medicine separated, was used by the European botanical gardens in their tropical colonies in order to name the new plants they discovered. This scientific ambition from the 19th century contrasted with the elaborate flower porcelains that decorated the shelves of the European elites and the exotic and remote landscape paintings that seemed to be untouched by civilization. These settings attracted romantic painters who believed that in these landscapes they could still find the order and “natural” harmony before human intervention.
However, even if Nymphaea salvaje takes into account this ideal European landscape from the 19th century, it is more than an affirmation of this model, it seeks to set the knowledge context once again; it is a revision of this “ideal” from the place that has represented it. The scientific names of the flowers, the porcelain, the piano and the greenhouse are elements that are full of symbolism that contrast with the tropical jungle landscape and the indigenous knowledge that recognizes these five flowers, in which this work is inspired, as sacred bodies. In a process of restitution Nymphaea salvaje returns the place of knowledge, within a botanical garden, to the communities who have lived with these plants for many years. It is a knowledge that has been displaced by the violence implicit in the colonization processes, which following the ideal landscape, usually an ideal achieved by means of exploitation, annulled different systems and narratives that were in the way of the appropriation and colonization process of the tropical landscape.
Displacement has always been a central topic in González’ work, even though it is not always explicit. González has been working for more than 10 years with indigenous communities all over the country (Córdoba, Chocó, Huila, Cauca, Tolima, Caquetá, Amazonas), that have been displaced to Bogotá or that have arrived to the capital running away from violence. It is a knowledge exchange, in which the artist teaches them how to produce handcrafted objects that can be easily sold, respecting their ancestral knowledge and elaboration, and they give her information such as which flowers have the power of purifying the world’s negative energy.
In a kind of blend that can be perceived from its title, the work “Ninfa salvaje” (wild nymph) combines knowledge, or knowledge finds its own space. The Victoria Regia, from the Nymphaea family is the largest water lily known. According to western botanical history, the English botanist John Lindley made the first description of this plant in October of 1837, named in honor of Queen Victoria of England. By contrast, for the ethnic group Uitoto, whose beliefs are based on words, (rafúe “something that comes out of the mouth” from ra “thing” and fúe “mouth”), each flower should be named according to its uses. Thus, the Victoria Regia or Joraimo comuide ratoki in their language is the water plant because it purifies water.
Following its discovery and classification, this plant turned out to be a competition between Victorian gardeners who always wanted a new and spectacular plant for designing gardens and impressing with exoticism.
The English gardens, which were popular in the 18th century, were an idealized version of nature that gradually spread throughout Europe replacing the formal and symmetric French gardens of the 17th century. Joseph Paxton, English naturalist and landscapist, was the first one to be able to reproduce the water lily’s habitat in November of 1849. Two years later, this plant would inspire the construction of the Crystal Palace, that was a building with the structure of a greenhouse, designed by Paxton and that held the Great Universal Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.
From the 18th century on, the European botanical gardens changed their mission of promoting learning and glorifying God, to studying and cultivating the plants brought from the new world’s colonies. However, they were not truly scientific spaces, but a place to plant, show, collect and exchange plant seeds that had a great commercial potential. There was a time when in the Tropicarium of Bogotá’s botanical garden there was a Victoria Regia, but it died for lack of good care.
The Amazonian jungle, humid and tropical, is the opposite of this kind of garden. Its density does not even let you imagine it as a simple landscape, but as an imposing one that overwhelms you with its density, stuns you with its verticality and its countless shades of green. Only the indigenous communities who inhabit the jungle have the necessary knowledge to integrate with it, to know how to make the most of the information of each of its resources, without conquering or dominating it, understanding its immensity and fullness.
The work Nymphaea salvaje “floats” like the Victoria Regia’s leaf, between the understanding of nature based on the classification model of Imperial Europe (the botanical expeditions, their collector’s gardens and taxonomy) and the bottomless and indomitable richness of the Amazonian jungle that can only be apprehended by the indigenous communities who have known how to extract knowledge from its territory. This installation uses gestures to combine several kinds of knowledge. Sometimes it favors the Uitoto, for whom the installation’s flowers are purifying entities of the world’s negative energy: the Victoria Regia that floats on the water and purifies it; the Dionaea Muscipula, which is a carnivore plant, and the Góngora orchid that grows on the trees’ bark with an aerial root, are plants that purify the air; the Passiflora and the Warczewiczella Marginata purify the soil.
Using other gestures, the installation disagrees with the exploitation of natural resources that has been made in the name of progress. Many of the exportation goods from America to Europe during the 17th century were the vegetable pigments that came from insects, plants and tree bark form the tropical rain forest. From the Victoria Regia’s roots you can get an intense black that the indigenous people use to dye their hair, however the artist prefers to leave the porcelain white in a gesture that highlights even more the lush shades of green and nature’s colors.
González takes about 4 to 6 months designing and testing the ways of assembling and baking the flowers in order to make each of the prototypes and pieces. Then she cuts the petals, the pistils, the stamens, and the stems and, between three persons, quickly puts each flower together in the oven before it loses its shape. Nymphaea salvaje suggests connections, a knowledge blend; it calls upon harmony, a collective work, the same as working with porcelain.
The composition Plantarum that goes with the installation, like in a story, like a legend that has been orally transmitted, seems to summarize the history of how the jungle landscape was domesticated. The audio, which starts with sounds of nature, insects and birds, slowly involves a human whistle that attempts to imitate the birds’ song and finally, transforms into a piano melody. Even if the composition seems to be harmonic, it expresses the tension between white man and nature, between what is wild and the landscape as a cultural construction; it narrates with the notes of the European civilization, the violence that hides behind the landscape’s beauty.
As if it were a sweet melody, Nymphaea salvaje lulls us to sleep while it reminds us that a landscape is a “forest of symbols”, like Baudelaire stated. At the same time, it shows us that in nature there are only symbols, which like in language are open to infinite interpretations. The meaning is given by the way you use a sign, that way you liberate nature and the possibility of a fertile, inclusive, strange, free and abundant world opens in our horizon.