To Juniper Harrower, an artist and ecologist, our relationship with plants is as entangled as a bed of ivy. Plant histories have long been interwoven with ours, and we often overlook their majestic beauty. Like so many aspects of our lives being reexamined through the lens of colonialism and development, Harrower wonders how that history fractures our relationship with plants.
“What is the role plants play in constructing our identities,” Harrower asked, “and how do we, in turn, influence their ways of living?”
What: Botanical Entanglements: an ecological art exhibit
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., March 12-18
Where: UC Botanical Gardens, Berkeley
Info: Free with garden admission
These are some of the big questions Harrower, a Berkeley resident, explores in “Botanical Entanglements,” a week-long ecological art exhibition at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden that opens Saturday in the historic Julia Morgan Hall. The site-specific installations are part of Harrow’s year-long residency with Benjamin Blonder’s plant ecology lab at UC Berkeley.
Blonder’s research is on plant resiliency and, in particular, the “biological transportation networks,” i.e., their vascular systems, “all those beautiful branching systems you see when you hold up a leaf to the light,” he said. The work is funded by a National Science Foundation grant that included an artist-in-residency to help interpret the science and bring it to a larger audience.
In the end, two artists were accepted from a pool of international applicants from about 10 countries: Harrower and South Side Symphony composer Marcus Norris, who will perform the premiere of a concerto inspired by the resilience of plant communities during a closing night ceremony that is already sold out.
“I was so impressed with their work I decided to choose both,” Blonder said.
Harrower’s research involves “multispecies entanglements under climate change,” according to her website, and is known for her work on how fungal networks and moths contribute to the life of a Joshua Tree, now being considered for endangered species designation. What also made Harrower stand out as a candidate is her unusual combination art-and-ecology doctorate from UC Santa Cruz. Along with her residency, which ends in May, she is working on an MFA at UC Berkeley. She began work on the exhibition in the fall of 2021.
Harrower and Blonder’s research intersects in their emphasis on the impacts of climate change on plants and communities. In the exhibition, Harrower relies on many of the techniques used in Blonder’s lab to study plants’ vascular systems.
The exhibition is made up of five displays across two rooms. All the installations focus on five local medicinal plants — Yerba mansa, Gingko Biloba, Datura metel, Vitus californica (California wild grape) and Nymphaea alba (California water lily) — Harrower chose because of our interactions with them over the centuries. The plants came from her backyard, as well as the botanical garden.
The first room contains hand-embroidered leaf tapestries that turn the scientific images of leaves into a craft, raising questions about the history of embroidery and women’s work. Harrower embroidered the edges of the scientific images in white, so they fade into the background.
“I was thinking about these acts of care, the process of embroidery. Where do we embroider and what do we embroider on?” Harrower asked.
In the same room, displayed against a window so light can filter through it is a silk web containing leaves that have been decayed and dyed using a process in Blonder’s lab that highlights their veins. The leaves are interspersed with those that contain images of local history — for example, the image of a coyote’s eye imprinted on a giant California maple leaf. The intention, said Harrower, reflects “multiple plant histories, decayed and woven together.”
Harrower’s grandest gesture appears in the second, taller room, where scaled-up images of five local plant leaves appear on 12-foot banners.
“I wanted to make the images giant and give visitors a moment to spend time with them, to stand before the majesty of millions of years of evolution,” she said.
Again, the blown-up images represent the five medicinal plants used in all the installations, but Harrower does not reveal the plant names on the banners. Naming “reflects the act of claiming and ideas about empire and colonization” since the plants have Eurocentric names. “There are problematic histories to that,” Harrower said.
Harrower also purposefully abstracted the images, leaving the edges blurred, requiring viewers to take in the images as art, a push-back against “the traditional, scientific, white male gaze.”
Also in the second room is an 8-foot tree sculpture made from a large manzanita shrub from Grass Valley that died due to the ecological combination of drought and the atmospheric river, making a statement about climate change. Instead of using real leaves from the five plants, which would have become brittle, she created leaf prints using mulberry paper dipped in beeswax. She then embedded the leaves with images from the local environment.
“This is a raven that would visit the plant often,” Harrower said. “Here is a pollinator near this Ginkgo. You can see a pile of cigarette butts here. These are all localized histories that I started the conversation with, bringing together the local histories that impact how plants grow.”
A do-it-yourself component of the exhibition involves viewing tiny slides depicting the surrounding property in the 1880s, when it had been a ranch with cleared meadows, contemplating the history of the land and its evolution.
“I am inviting you to look back at their history and gaze at these stories,” she said.