Intriguing Art and Botany “Two-For-One” at The Botanical Garden
There is an intriguing double attraction at the Botanical Garden of Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science. Modern sculptures are engaged in a witty and profound dialogue with a centennial collection of global plant life. Photo: “The Story of the Gesture” by Jakub Matušek. Credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.
Brno, 4 Aug. (BD) – The sculptures are created by the University of Technology’s fine art department, and are on display until the end of September. Most of the sculptures are positioned outdoors in the garden, which is open to the public free of charge. For CZK 100 visitors can also access the garden greenhouses, where a few more indoor sculptures are located.
The greenhouses are filled with a vibrant plant tapestry of colour, textures, unexpected surprises and some humour. For example there is the richly patterned, oriental carpet texture and sneaky bristles of the insect-eating Sarracenia purpurea or Purple Pitcher Plant, beauty and danger in the same specimen.
I enjoyed the delicate colours and Dr Seuss-like cartoon shapes of the carnivorous Slender Pitcher Plants, leaning back with their poised open lids just waiting to trap an unsuspecting insect.
There is also humour in the inclusion of small dinosaur models aptly positioned under the ancient plant family of ferns, in a miniature Jurassic Park. On a hot day, and in the even hotter greenhouse temperatures, this distortion of scale creates a comic hallucinatory sensation. We, and not the dinosaurs, are the giants here.
The cooler outside air is refreshing, but the viewing of the sculptures and their carefully chosen settings in the garden is as intensely engaging. This art/botany dialogue supercharges the eyes and brain.
Kojenec (Suckling Baby)
For example, why did Jakub Matušek create Kojenec (Suckling baby), positioned partly in a plant bed under trees, and partly on the paved pathway? It is a prone, wooden, carved figure painted red, with a computer motherboard clutched between its hands, a strange juxtaposition. What conclusion should we draw? This suckling baby does not seem to be thriving; the wood is cracking and the baby is dehydrated. What kind of a mother is this? What is the relationship between the inanimate wooden sculpture, and the living trees in the background?
Matušek’s other work, The Story of the Gesture, is easier to understand as it explores the different gestures we make with our hands. The content involves communication, embraces and relationships. Visually it’s fun to untangle which arm is reaching out to which arm.
Zafara or Angel
A friend and I visited the garden on the very first day of the exhibition, and by lucky timing we were able to speak to another sculptor, Tomáš Zdvořáček, and find out about two of his own intriguing works.
His first sculpture is called Zafara or Angel. This is a 3D-printed realistic, human-sized form, a black angel with impressive wings, who interestingly wears headphones. What? Why?
The sculptor explained that the angel wears headphones because angels are not always sombre, but also joyful. “They also celebrate and enjoy music very much.”
The Angel is cleverly positioned on a platform on top of a small slope, to suggest a celestial perspective. He looks down over a pond which features another of Zdvořáček’s works, called Nuclear Abbey.
This second piece, which we saw Zdvořáček busy re-positioning in the pond, was moulded by hand. It looks like an island with a labyrinthian, twisting design of collapsing and devastated fragments of classical architecture.
He told us he was inspired by thoughts of “what would happen in the case of a third World War, and this time a nuclear war.” He wondered which remnants of civilization would remain. Who would be the custodians preserving them? Zdvořáček decided that as in the case of the Dark Ages, “it would probably be monks in some monastery or abbey, and that’s why the name of the work is ‘Nuclear Abbey’”.
He adjusted the placement of his work to be partially submerged in the pond, reinforcing the idea of it as a small surviving island of civilization, albeit badly battered and damaged.
The metal sculpture Monáda, by Petr Mucha, has an organic, twisting and curving vertical form. It invites comparison with natural forms, as it is positioned in clever proximity to a row of trees. The eye enjoys the similarities, while appreciating the rusting metal nature of the sculpture. The silhouette of the work changes as you walk around it. The name perhaps refers to the totem-like character of the piece, or the idea that it is a kind of icon, or god. Or is a reference to a basic botanical organism? Maybe all of the above?
Here Mucha’s sculpture makes you think of nature. Conversely, when minutes later you come across one bending tree trunk curving into the upright trunk of another, and then arabesquing back out again, you think – sculpture. There is an art/nature conversation in progress, and some wonderful intersecting and hybridisation going on.
Tomáš Medek’s work Paprika 2 is created in a shockingly bright, artificial red plastic. Here the material, colour, and hi-tech geometric design lines initially seem very different to the familiar curving shape of a paprika. However, when you look beyond the surface patterning, your eye finds and traces the broad organic contours of this piece, and the interesting inclusion of the usually invisible seed shape inside the paprika. By placing Paprika 2 on the deep green lawn, it has some of the visual richness of the greenhouse Sarracenia purpurea.
Salton Sea Fishes
Emma Štěpánová’s Salton Sea Fishes is a reference to a terrible ecological disaster in California, where as a result of bad farming practices, water sources were both polluted and drained. Fish died, as well as the birds that fed on them, and toxic lake dust caused health problems for humans.
Štěpánová’s piece looks like a thin, bleached, skeletal fossilized creature, and is aptly positioned in the cacti greenhouse among desert plants. The flimsy look of it ironically emphasises the weighty subject matter.
Affordable Al Fresco Snacks
After all the visual and mental stimulation, we looked for a coffee shop on the premises, and had another serendipitous meeting.
A passing garden employee explained that we could buy snacks from a neighbouring potraviny or pastry stall, and bring them back into the garden. We had an affordable al fresco snack of juice and apple strudel on benches under shady old trees.
After lunch the same garden employee saw my friend and I taking photos of each other, and offered to take some photos of the two of us together. We also asked her many questions. Why were the conifer cones being removed under the trees, instead of remaining as mulch?
She explained that the Botanical Garden has plant species from all over the planet, growing in close proximity to each other. Sometimes garden staff need to remove some organic material to prevent certain species from becoming too invasive.
The conifer cones are also used to make festive decorations for the Feast of All Souls and Christmas day.
Outdoor Garden Curator Anna Novotná
We admired the decomposable wooden garden bed borders, and she told us the garden does its utmost to use organic methods. However, occasionally they are forced to use chemical deterrents to get rid of resilient pests. Only when we then asked her what her job was, did she mention that she is the curator of the outdoor garden area, Anna Novotná, who had taken the time to talk to us, and take photos, even though it was the opening day of the sculpture exhibition. Impressive.
Botany and Bathrooms
Before leaving the gardens, we went to the bathrooms. It was delightful to see that the passion for botany is even evident here. The bathroom tiles are interspersed with lovely plant illustrations, complete with both Czech and Latin titles.
Here be people wild about botany. And art.
The Botanical Garden of the Masaryk University Faculty of Science is located at Kotlářská 267/2, tram stop Konečného náměstí.