Natural Discourse: Artists, Architects, Scientists & Poets in the Garden

The entrance of the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon above the university campus.

The entrance of the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon above the university campus.

The University of California Berkeley’s Botanical Garden was founded in 1890 and has a mission statement not unlike that of our own CA+E: “To develop and maintain a diverse living collection of plants to support teaching and worldwide research in plant biology, further the conservation of plant diversity, and promote public understanding and appreciation of plants and the natural environment.” The garden is a living archive and library that holds more than 13,000 specimen s from around the world, uniquely situated by region within 34 acres.

As part of its ever-increasing outreach efforts, the garden has initiated an art program curated by artists Mary Anne Friel and Shirley Watts, which kicked off earlier this month with a symposium, “Natural Discourse: Culture and Ecology.” As Chris Carmichael, the Associate Director of Collections and Horticulture, put it: “Gardens are a confluence of people, plants, and site.” Add the term art and you have the idea for the new program. In addition to Friel and Watts, the participating artists are Todd Gilens, Nadia Hironaka, Andrew Kudless, Denise Newman, Deborah O’Grady, Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello, Matt Suib, Hazel White, Gail Wight and Nami Yamamoto.

Nami Yamamoto in her Philadelphia studio lacing a fog catcher. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.

Nami Yamamoto in her Philadelphia studio lacing a fog catcher. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.

Among the projects that caught my attention were the fog catchers being laced by Philadelphia-based artist Name Yamamoto. Created out of waxed red string, the artist laces images onto grids that are then stretched out in the redwood grove of the garden. She explained the current image to me as being based on a legend told her as a child about the wizard Sennin, who lives forever and is sustained only by the fog that penetrates the mountains where he resides each evening. The story res onated with Yamimoto, who saw the California Redwoods as likewise being immortals deriving water from the Pacific fogs rolling over Berkeley.

Like the architectural structures of the Fog Garden designed by Rodrigo Perez de Arcy of Santiage that we exhibited this last fall in the Museum, Yamimoto’s work is both an artwork and a functional fog catcher. While they are a visual device to bring new visitors to the garden, as well as slow down your attention in the grove, the lace of string helps water the trees, thus lowering their irrigation needs from the garden’s limited supplies.

Stretching the fog catcher in the redwood grove at the UC Botanical Garden. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.

Stretching the fog catcher in the redwood grove at the UC Botanical Garden. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.

The Spine of the Earth

Lita Albuquerque, Spine of the Earth, 1980. The original ephemeral installation at El Mirage Dry Lake Bed in the Mojave Desert. Photo: Lita Albuquerque © Lita Albuquerque Studio, 1980

Lita Albuquerque, Spine of the Earth, 1980. The original ephemeral installation at El Mirage Dry Lake Bed in the Mojave Desert. Photo: Lita Albuquerque © Lita Albuquerque Studio, 1980

In October of last year an unprecedented six-month project opened across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 – 1980 is a collaborative series of exhibitions and performances that for the first time create a coherent narrative for the birth of the Los Angeles art scene. Organized and funded in large part by the Getty Research Institute and Getty Trust, respectively, the enormous festival include the work of 1300 artists in 68 museum exhibitions and 70 gallery shows. It covers everything from Pop Art to modernist architectur e, the rise of installation and multi-media art, Chicano and African-American art movements, and artists’ collectives such as the Woman’s Building.

A unique segment of “PST” was the 11-day festival of performance and public art that had artists recreating, reinterpreting, and re-envisioning seminal events from the past as well as creating new works. Artists such as Eleanor Antin, Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Robert Wilhite, and James Turrell installed and performed work. Among them was Lita Albuquerque, who made what amounted to the second part of an earthwork first done in 1980 on the El Mirage Dry Lake bed in the Mojave north of Los Angeles. Spine of the Earth was an ephemeral land art drawing created by Lita and executed with the help of art students from Long Beach State University. The work was executed as a choreographed performance piece in red, yellow, and black pigment, a design that connected heaven earth through geometrical forms oriented to celestial events. More than 600 feet in diameter, the work could be seen in its entirety only from the air, a physical circumstance that reinforced the connection of sky to ground. The central figure of the work was a red spiral, a traditional form used worldwide in rock art, as well as by artists such as Robert Smithson.

For the new work, Albuquerque assembled more than 300 people in red jumpsuits atop the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, which stands in between the Los Angeles International Airport and Culver City. Spine of the Earth 2011 commenced movement when a skydiver jumped from 3,000 feet above the site and plummeted downward, trailing a plume of red smoke, and landing on a hilltop target. Her landing in the middle of the spiral initiated its unspooling, which proceeded down the steep stone steps connecting the top of the hills to the plain below.

Once again the work could only be perceived in totality from above, which is where photographer Michael Light and I were circling in a helicopter anywhere from 1000-1500 feet above the performance. The red human spiral was last used by Albuquerque in the Antarctic for her Stellar Axis project, the records from which reside in the CA+E Archive Collections. Both projects will be included in the book that we’re publishing about Albuquerque’s work that we’ll be publishing with Skira Rizzoli in 2014.

Lita Albuquerque, The Spine of the Earth, 2012. Photograph by Michael Light

Lita Albuquerque, The Spine of the Earth, 2012. Photograph by Michael Light