Why do seeds matter? Five artists respond to global efforts to save plants from extinction.
Dornith Doherty, Sant Khalsa, Chrystel Lebas, Heidi Morstang, and Liz Orton
From Scottish shorelines to Arctic seed vaults, five contemporary artists explore global efforts to safeguard vital plant species from extinction. Plant diversity is rapidly declining, and faces threats from global warming, pollution and war. Yet without seeds and their potential for food and medicine, we cannot sustain ourselves. Featuring photography, moving image and sculpture, Seedscapes reveals how international artists, biologists and ecologists are responding to these challenges.
Dornith Doherty has worked with renowned biologists at some of the most comprehensive seed banks in the world. Her series Archiving Eden reveals repositories ranging from an antique wood-panelled herbarium in St Petersburg to a hi-tech biogenics lab in Brazilia. In a companion series using scientific imaging systems including x-rays, Doherty has created ethereal composites of seeds in ‘suspended animation’. As well as works on paper, she produces beguiling lenticular images that change when seen from different angles, the seeds appearing to magically flicker into life as the viewer approaches.
Almost thirty years ago, artist and eco-activist Sant Khalsa planted over a thousand ponderosa pine seedlings to help re-forest Holcomb Valley in the Southern California mountains that was clear-cut by settlers during the 1860’s gold rush. Growing Air documents her ongoing relationship with this evolving forest, in photographs and video. The series Trees and Seedlings combines lengths of poplar wood with high contrast images of trees in the aftermath of forest fires. These intriguing and fragile objects lean against the wall like planks of wood in a lumber yard. As light moves through the transparent photographs, images are projected on the surrounding surface.
Working with the Natural History Museum, Chrystel Lebas has followed in the footsteps of early 20th century botanist E.J. Salisbury to photograph natural habitats almost a hundred years later. The resulting series, Field Studies: Walking through Landscapes and Archives, places Lebas’s large-scale colour photographs alongside prints of Salisbury’s original glass plates. A companion series of photograms depicts ‘London Rocket’, a plant which became abundant after the Great Fire of London in 1666, but by the 1940s had virtually disappeared. Lebas’s photograms of a lone specimen found near her studio in South London elevate the simple weed to an object of beauty.
Heidi Morstang’s film takes the viewer on a mesmerising journey to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Norwegian Archipelago. Located deep inside an Arctic mountain in the permafrost, this purpose-built facility—the largest secure seed storage in the world—
safeguards one third of the world’s food crop seeds. A new series of electron micrographs, exhibited for the first time, explores the interiors of seeds from the ‘arctic oasis’ of Ringhorndalen in Svalbard. The images evoke other-wordly landscapes rich in complexity.
Liz Orton gained special access to photograph the bundles of specimens in the Herbarium at Kew, which are collected and donated from across the globe. Orton’s ‘cross-sections’ reveal plant stems, seeds and leaves peeping out from rudimentary packaging materials, such as local newspapers from the country of origin. The title, Splitters and Lumpers, refers to the subjective processes of classification used by taxonomists aiming to build a complete scientific picture of plant life on our planet. A new artwork, made especially for Seedscapes, features images of mounted specimens from the Herbarium at Kew. Presented as a hand-made concertina book, Herbarium of Extinction evokes the beauty and fragility of the archive, rarely seen by non-specialists.
Professor Liz Wells is one of the UK’s foremost photography scholars, specialising in landscape and the environment. She has curated numerous exhibitions, including Light Touch (Baltimore Washington International Airport, 2014); Futureland Now – John Kippin, Chris Wainwright (Laing Gallery, Newcastle, 2012), Sense of Place, European Landscape Photography (BOZAR, Brussels, 2012); and Landscapes of Exploration, British Art from Antarctica (touring the UK 2012–2015).
She is the author of Land Matters, Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (2011), and has written numerous essays on photography and environment. She acts as series editor for Photography, Place, Environment, Bloomsbury Academic. She is Professor in Photographic Culture at University of Plymouth, and formerly convened the research group Land/Water and the Visual Arts. In 2017, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from University of Gothenburg, Sweden.