Ebony G. Patterson’s immersive exhibition in the formal gardens, conservatory, and library of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) troubles the accepted narrative of such institutions. With vast collections of living plants gathered from around the globe, spaces like NYBG, which was founded in 1891, invite the public to experience nature as beautiful and edifying. Yet the colonialist roots of the modern botanical garden and its role in the dissemination of species, some of them invasive, around the world are often overlooked, superseded by a scientific mission of research, education, and display, as well as a focus on conservation and environmentalism. In “…things come to thrive…in the shedding…in the molting…” (on view through October 22, 2023), Patterson uses the botanical garden as a metaphorical point of entry and entanglement, focusing on transitional states—from growth to decay to renewal, entwining post-colonial critique with an ever-changing natural world.
The show begins outside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, where hundreds of life-size sculpted vultures covered with glitter congregate along pathways and root among bushes, plants, and flowers. These large birds of prey gather together as if socializing or conspiring; like invaders, they poke, pluck, and plunge into lush, colorful rambles of plantings, rupturing the repose of these carefully cultivated spaces. Even as they perform their part in the environment’s regenerative cycle by consuming and recycling dead matter, these enterprising scavengers remind us that violence and ugliness were essential components of the colonial endeavor.
In the conservatory, discretely placed sculptures disrupt the palm court with evidence of exploitation and concealed secrets, revealing the hidden histories that lie just beneath the botanical garden’s scientific reserve. Near the entrance, a large white peacock cast from glass and Hydro-Stone stands molting on a platform above palms, ferns, and exotic species. As it sheds its feathers, this large bird, associated with royalty and power in the colonial era, appears oblivious to the pairs of upturned feet cast in opaque white glass that emerge from the plants below. Elsewhere, a glass spinal column lies in the underbrush, while another pair of legs floats in a reflecting pool beneath a tangle of green foliage and flowering plants.
This deathly aura continues in a nearby garden bed, where cast-glass stems and leaves of extinct medicinal plants appear to grow among the living plants. Fragile and ghostly, Patterson’s glass sculptures disturb the gaze with a wary meditation on nature’s simultaneous ability to reveal and conceal exploitation and violence while also healing and recuperating.
On a large curving wall in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library rotunda, overlapping tapestry swatches printed with colorful flowers and lush vegetation evoke a verdant paradise, a tropical artifice destabilized by the inclusion of glass casts of extinct plants and spinal columns sculpted in Hydrocal and covered with gold leaf. The other side of the wall presents a darker scenario, as 1,000 red lace gloves filled with cast-glass thistles and metal leaves tumble down like a waterfall, their bloody color inspiring anxiety and fear. In another room, a three-channel video projection of a couple in a primordial forest performing acts of love and care returns to the inspiration of the Edenic garden, but Patterson’s collages offer another perspective. Combining cut and torn botanical illustrations, photographs of flowers, plants, and human arms with plastic bugs, snakes, and insects, these mixed-media works suggest funeral wreaths or vanitas still-lifes that reflect on the cycles of nature and the inherited legacies of our post-colonial world.