SOL Grotto, by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, in the Botanical Garden’s Natural Discourse exhibition. Photo: Hannah Long

The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, nestled in Strawberry Canyon, seems one of the few parts of Berkeley where political agendas can safely be set aside. But the politics-free zone of the garden was disturbed on Tuesday when right-wing bloggers, Fox News and the House Energy and Commerce Committee confected a story out of one of the artworks in the current Natural Discourse exhibition (which Berkeleyside will review later today).

SOL Grotto, by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, uses 1,368 glass tubes salvaged from Solyndra, the Fremont-based solar cell manufacturer that went bankrupt last year, despite a $527 million loan from the federal government. SOL Grotto is, in the artists’ words, “a spartan retreat that is a space of solitude.”

The right-wing attacks focused on the use of materials from Solyndra to create an artwork, leading the House committee, for example, to claim that SOL Grotto had become the world’s most expensive work of art. Greg Gutfeld on Fox News — a Cal grad — sputtered with rage at the art: “Our loss is someone else’s hip, pretentious art.” He suggested someone should take a sledgehammer to the work and call it performance art, before adding, “I’m kidding, of course that would be wrong.”

“We were totally taken by surprise,” said Paul Licht, Director of the Botanical Garden. “We weren’t making any political statements. It’s an attempt to create news.”

According to the Mercury News, the tubes used in SOL Grotto are a small fraction of 8 million glass tubes now owned by JIT Transportation, a San Jose firm that had a contract to transport and store the tubes.

“Not everyone likes every work in this exhibition,” said Licht, “but I’ve met no one who doesn’t like this work. It’s a fascinating use of materials.”

Licht said he hopes the flap over SOL Grotto will bring some attention to the Botanical Garden, which he described as “the leading collection in the country”: “I’ve been told that no publicity is bad publicity.”

The Natural Discourse exhibit will run through January 20, 2013 at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. For more information, and a full list of artists and pieces, see the exhibition’s website.

Would you like to get a recap of the day’s Berkeley news in your inbox at the end of your day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free email Daily Briefing.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...