Pertaining to Things Natural

2012-6-16

The Chelsea Physic Garden hosts a sculpture exhibition loosely based around the 17th century definition of 'physic'.

Having been founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries of London, the Chelsea Phsyic Garden is the second oldest botanical garden in Britain. Originally for the training of the Society's young apprentices, the garden's role today is much less clear. Is it a place of historical interest, or ongoing research? Does it aspire, as Hans Sloane did, to the principles of rational scientific inquiry? Or has it succumbed to the postmodern homeopathic trend, as the tour guide repeatedly referring to a bed of plants as "cancer cures" would seem to indicate?

This uncertainty of purpose is matched by the exhibition of sculptures currently on display throughout the garden. The description of Pertaining to Things Natural... contains the usual curatorial hogwash about using the exhibition "as an opportunity to add to the environmental debate, offering fresh ideas to maintain the momentum of change." None of the sculptures come close to achieving this extravagant goal with the exception of one: Implant by Owen Bullett shows a giant, alien seed pod dropped in the middle of a small lawn. Like many of the sculptures, Implant looks profoundly out-of-place in a botanical garden, but in this instance it really reinforces the concept of the work.

Even if they don't help make the environmental debate (whatever that may be) more intelligible, the other works on display are varied but reasonably strong overall. Some of them made good use of their setting in the botanical garden. For example, James Capper's Ripper Teeth, which were on display at Bold Tendencies in Peckham last year, are nicely rusted from being out of doors, and look quite happy resting in a bed of clovers.

Another nice use of the garden environment is Judith Dean's Floe, which basically consists of a bunch of sponges floating in an absurd rock pool. The pool itself actually a Grade II listed structure, and contains volcanic rock, giant clam shells and a bit of the Tower of London, with some carnivorous plants growing in the centre. One visitor remarked that he "could have done without that," referring to the sponges, as though the whole thing wasn't completely grotesque. A success then.

Despite having only a vague idea of what they are trying to achieve, both the garden and the exhibition are worth seeing together. Hopefully they will step it up a bit more. Speaking of which, whoever is currently in charge of mismanaging the café should be flogged. I''m not sure what punishment was meted out for cafés that ran out of milk back in 1673, but they should bring it back for this person.

Pertaining to Things Natural... is on at the Chelsea Physic Garden until the 31st of October. Admission is £9 and they have slightly odd opening times.


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