Photolanguage: Herbarium Vol. II Dark Season Fieldwork, 2011

By Daniel Barnes : For Where Art You, 16 February 2011

Photolanguage, a collaboration between Nigel Green and Robin Wilson, follow their 2008 lecture, Dark Season Botany, with a second instalment on related themes. The exhibition, Herbarium Vol. II Dark Season Fieldwork, derives from fieldtrips to Calais, Copenhagen, Malmo and the Isle of Thanet. It gathers botanic specimens and uses varied photographic techniques to explore the transient qualities of plant life. The exhibition was supplemented by a talk by the artists on 4 February, which was as incisive as the works themselves. Tucked away in the Garden Museum, one of London’s lesser-known gems, this fascinating work and these devoted artists are deserving of wider critical attention.

The notion of transience is essential to these works in two ways. Firstly, there is the transience of the natural world itself, subject to processes of change through growth, decay and even human intervention. This is illustrated, for example, in a set of images of plants that have been set alight so that thin lines of grey smoke rise into the atmosphere, and a companion piece of the charred specimens themselves. Secondly, then, there is the attempt to capture this transience in the act of photographing, archiving and annotating the specimens. The result is a fragmentary series of snapshots of botanicals that are momentarily arrested in order to celebrate the beauty of transience.

In virtue of this emphasis on transience, the process here is as important as the product. Photolanguage describe their process of going out into the field as a ‘foray’, which links the temporally-bound nature of the process of making the work to the spatial location in which it takes place. During the foray, which carries lovely connotations of whimsy and adventure, they engage with the local people, drawing on their knowledge of the botany and resources for processing and printing photographs on site. This imbues the works with the distinct flavours of the places they represent.

The particular techniques used by Photolanguage create a unique aesthetic. Stereoscopic images enhance a sense of detail that allows the viewer to carefully scrutinise the phenomena and subtle swatches of colour meticulously imposed on the image give lightness and differentiation to sequences of mysterious black and white images. The archiving practice consists of antiquarian display boxes, clear plastic bags stapled to the wall, annotations typed with an old-fashioned typewriter on brown packaging paper and descriptions of specimens written in an entirely fictional archiving terminology. This makes the works appear as if collected long ago and lovingly hoarded, exemplifying the care, attention and passion with which the archivist approaches their task. There is an aesthetic of nostalgia: although everything here, from the samples themselves to the use of modern photographic techniques, is contemporary, the way it is presented as antiquated and preserved makes it look like a thing from a lost past.

This collection of work explores the relation between man and nature by highlighting the fact of transience in the natural world and interrogating the methods by which man attempts to stabilise and categorise it. The primary delight of these works is the artists’ great affection for the objects themselves: the careful attention to detail in the light, colour and paper of the photographs, and the meticulous archiving that cherishes each specimen as a unique and interesting thing in itself. It is abundantly worth seeing this exhibition for the surprising way in which botany is transposed from a science to an art with immense subtlety of expression, detail in presentation, and profound respect for the materials of the both art and the natural world.

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