Beneath the appealing landscapes of plants and flowers afforded by Europe’s most celebrated botanical gardens lies a story of rigorous classification and organisation: an 18th Century project that still makes its presence felt today. As Michel Foucault showed in The Order of Things, in an effort to categorise and catalogue the entire natural world, the study of plants and flowers became something of a pilot project, a turning point in a humanist history that sought to approach the natural world by imposing a taxonomic and objective structure upon it. Every plant was drawn, classified, named and grouped according to its visual characteristics: placed in small boxes and glass cases.
Alison Turnbull’s paintings from 2005 at ArtSway conflate these two duelling aspects to botany and the appreciation of plants and flowers, in works that are both visually appealing, and structurally meticulous. Turnbull visited botanical gardens in five European cities, unearthing the forms of structure and coding by which these gardens are organised.
Building on The Family Beds (2005), a book in which Turnbull divides plants and colours into separate sections of a book at a time in which plants are being reclassified according to their genetic structure, Classification (2005) is a painting of a garden plan in which these plant families, transposed into neat little boxes, speak in a code of family and inheritance. Alison Turnbull digs beneath this code, unearthing a history of botanical taxonomy and pleasure that is grounded in specific locations, histories and persons. In Ornamentation (2005), for example, Turnbull re-paints a section of wallpaper from the house of Carl Linneaus, the most ambitious founding ‘father’ of plant classification. Turnbull paints the wallpaper in a way that renders it misaligned, drawing attention to the imperfections that are so often found in natural species, that tend to be obscured and perfected by norms and standardisations produced by both decorative reproductions, and by scientific statistics.
For Site (2005), the artist visited and researched the Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight, uncovering the plans of 19th Century hospital that originally occupied the site. The architectural organisation of people into sick-wards and institutions is here visually conflated with the layout of the botanic garden, as Turnbull paints one plan onto the other. In this painting we are reminded that the taxonomic project for plants was soon reflected in medicine, as symptoms, organs and diseases were classified with the same encyclopaedic strategy. Botanical dissections are mirrored by the dissections and operations performed in 19th Century hospitals on the human body, and indeed, Site itself is a visual and theoretical dissection of this botanical garden.
The theme of 18th century scientific classification in contemporary art and theory is resurfacing at this time due to the renewed taxonomic project presented by genetic classification. Turnbull’s most recent work, Pattern Recognition (2005), with its digital or genetic aesthetic, invites us to see patterns, but in the context of the rest of the exhibition reminds us not to repeat previous mistakes, enforcing living creatures to inhabit fixed boxes and glass cases.