Tel Aviv exhibit examines plants as complex, worthy beings

An intriguing new exhibition titled “PLAN(e)T,” which marries scientific research with art to unravel the beauty, sophistication, cultural significance and human exploitation of plants, opened last week at Tel Aviv’s Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery.

“We tend to view plants as objects: in the room there is a table, a chair, and a potted plant; outside there is a building, a bench, and a tree,” co-curators Tamar Mayer and gallery director Sefy Hendler say in their curatorial notes. “Even though we know that plants are developing beings, we mostly place them closer to the world of objects than the world of living things… Plants, flowers, and trees make up the backdrop for our lives and serve us as consumer products, primarily as food.”

But in the face of climate change, the divide and lack of any real relationship between humanity and nature is no longer appropriate, they say.

“Plants Think, Think Plants,” the subtitle of the exhibition, encapsulates what is a clarion call to consider plants in a more complex, open-minded way; to appreciate that plants are highly “intelligent” — although in ways that differ from animals, particularly humans — and to question the low rung to which humans consign plants in the hierarchy of living things.

An exploration of this divide begins as soon as one enters the gallery (located just to the left of the main university entrance on Chaim Levanon Street, close to the junction with Einstein Street).

The space has been transformed into a colorful but sinister ‘Promised Land’ by floor-to-ceiling wallpaper and curtains designed by American duo David Burns and Austin Young.

Their project, Fallen Fruit, began 15 years ago with the mapping of fruit trees in public spaces in their home city, Los Angeles. It has since evolved into photographic portraits, experimental documentary videos and installations displayed at prestigious venues throughout much of the US and the world.

Invited to exhibit in Tel Aviv, Burns and Young visited three times to conduct research, meet with a range of academics and explore the contents of the university’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

The result is a collage of photographs of common Israeli plants and (stuffed) endangered or extinct birds of prey against a dark, brooding background. The only mammal to appear in the work is an eyeless leopard. Human intervention is merely hinted at via ribbons or catalog labels attached to some of the subjects.

David Burns, left, and Austin Young pose in front of their site-specific work, Promised Land, at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, January 7, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

As part of Fallen Fruit, Burns and Young mapped fruit trees in several Tel Aviv neighborhoods — navigation maps are available at the gallery. Activities such as planting, foraging walks and children’s activities are planned to further complement the show.

Also contributing is Dr. Yasmine Meroz, a Tel Aviv University physicist probing the mechanical ways in which plants learn about their environment, adapt, remember and even make decisions in order to survive. Her laboratory forms part of GrowBot, a four year, European Union-funded project in which nine scientists from different disciplines in five countries are studying climbing plants in the hope of developing robots that can ‘grow’ and reach places that conventional walking robots cannot.

Tropism — the movement of a plant in response to an external stimulus — is explored in an art installation inspired by Tel Aviv University scientific research, at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, January 7, 2020 .(Sue Surkes/Times of Israel).

For “PLAN(e)T,” Meroz cooperated with artist Liat Segal on an installation of stem-like objects which move in response to light, using mechanisms and sensors that are based on what Meroz has found in the plant world. In a process called tropism, real plants respond to external stimuli by moving, but at a pace slower than humans are able to discern, which is partly why people tend to see them as objects rather than living things. For the exhibition, this movement has been sped up.

Artist Liat Segal, left, and physicist Yasmine Meroz, who joined forces for an exhibit about plant tropism at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, January 7, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The stems are clothed in carbon fiber. One of the building blocks of life, carbon has also become popular in high tech, aerospace and other fields of advanced technology because of its strength and light weight. This nature-high tech duality is a cornerstone of the growing field of biomimicry. In it, designers adopt sustainable strategies from nature which, through evolution, has spent millions of years testing solutions to complex problems.

The most abstract exhibition, “Weeping Stones” by contemporary French artist Stéphane Thidet, features five large stones quarried from Israel’s central Sharon plain suspended above powdered clay from the Judean Hills. The stones drip water onto the clay, changing its composition. Thidet completed a similar work last year in for a French chateau.

Pollen grains, as seen under the microscope, in a video at the PLAN(e)T exhibition, Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, January 7, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The exhibition’s “Hub” includes what is literally a Living Room, comprising benches of recycled wood set among voluptuous pot plants, courtesy of the ONYA collective. The collective brings architects, designers, permaculture experts and other green-thumbed enthusiasts together to create urban nature projects, particularly in and around Tel Aviv’s new bus station.

Also at the Hub is a series of drawings entitled “Maps” by artist and tiller of the land, Noam Rabinovich, and a video of pollen grains as seen through a microscope, by artist and landscape architect Relli De Vries.

The Hub is also set to include a real microscope through which visitors can view the amazing and varied designs of pollen grains with their own eyes, alongside materials and interactive tools that examine attitudes toward botanical environments.

The theme of pollen links to one of two additional projects that are still at the preparatory stage.

From springtime on, the gallery’s sculpture garden will present a reconstruction of King Herod’s royal garden in Caesarea, on Israel’s northern coast, planned by De Vries and based on the research of Dr. Dafna Langgut, head of the university’s Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments at the Institute of Archaeology. In March, the garden will be planted with nursery-bought specimens, based on ancient pollen identified by Dr. Langgut.

De Vries’s other work for the exhibition is a stone statue of the roots of Amaryllis Belladonna, a popular flowering bulb, shown constrained within a container.

Weeping Stones by French artist Stéphane Thidet at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)

March 12 will see the first in a series of performances of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Matan Amsalem, against the backdrop of a living green wall, and performed by the university’s theater department.

As well as showcasing theater, the exhibition programming will involve academics from the university’s environmental studies, law, economics, philosophy, archaeology and architecture departments.

The ONYA Collective’s growing Living Room at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)

Exhibition opening times: Sunday to Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Entrance is free of charge.

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