With the 2016 Adelaide Biennial exhibition Watching Glass Grow showing at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Tony Kanellos looks back at the curious shared history of plants and glass.
Growing “things” under glass has been part of the Adelaide Botanic Garden’s history since its inception. Some of the Botanic Garden’s first exotic plants arrived in transportable glass boxes – Wardian cases – the only way plants could survive the long difficult journey. Once the plants were located in their garden beds, the Wardian cases were placed along the main walk and used for specimens that required protection. The story of glass in the Adelaide Botanic Garden spans three centuries and is told through the Palm House (19th Century), Bicentennial Conservatory (20th Century) and Amazon Waterlily Pavilion (21st Century). And now, Tom Moore tells us an important story with glass, in glass and through glass. The link between glass and botanic gardens takes us to the same time and place – Renaissance Italy. The first Botanic Gardens were those of Pisa, Padua and Florence. Padua is the oldest botanic garden (on its original site) established in 1545 by the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The story begins in Veneto… During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the glassmakers of Venice, discovered that plant ash (primarily that of the coastal plant species Salsoa and Salicornia) produced the clearest glass. Clear, transparent glass was so desirable that the Venetian authorities outlawed the use of any other plants in glassmaking. Fittingly these species are now referred to as glassworts. This inconspicuous advance in glassmaking had huge ramifications on science and technology. Based on the quality of Venetian glass Galileo insisted on Murano glassmakers creating and grinding the lens of his telescope. On August 25, 1609 Galileo showcased his invention to the Venetian senate in the Plaza San Marco. Galileo looked at the stars and a scientific revolution was born. A much smaller lens, in the form of reading glasses, had earlier drastically changed the world and its appetite for books and learning – with the associated surge of literacy it’s of no surprise that the Renaissance was born in Italy. Similarly another manifestation of this clear glass was the Venetian perfection of the “looking glass” or mirror. While mirrors of sorts have been in use since ancient times they became so common that one wonders of the impact on the collective psychology of identity – from that of community to that of individuality. During the 19th Century Joseph Paxton, inspired by the architecture of the giant Amazon waterlily, created the magnificent Crystal Palace – home of the 1851 Great Exhibition. The massive glasshouse (well over 500 metres in length) was erected in Hyde Park, London and at the close of the exhibition was dismantled and re-erected in Sydenham, South London. This building is the precursor to the glass and steel architecture of our modern cities. Between 1887 and 1936 Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (father and son) spent nearly half a century producing the most detailed and accurate glass models of plants and flowers for Harvard University’s Botanical Museum. The Blaschka’s produced more than four thousand models and the Harvard Glass Flowers are now famous. It is less known that the Blaschka’s original business was the manufacture of glass eyes and their first foray into natural history was not flowers but models of marine invertebrates. In more recent times glass is used in fibre optics and has had a huge impact on current communication technology. It is not high tech satellites but fibre optic cables laying on the ocean floor that deliver most of our internet data. In this digital age, Moore’s methods are something of an anachronism paying homage to Venetian and Ancient Roman Glassblowing traditions, he says. “Many of these techniques were taught only recently outside of Venice by Muranese Maestros who believe that the only way the processes will survive and grow is if they are shared.” While Moore has developed some innovative variations, he is now part of an ancient lineage that represents a history of innovation. The Santos Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Garden is the perfect place to examine the plant world through the artist’s lens. While Galileo looked outward at the world and the stars, we started looking inward at ourselves – the results speak for themselves. Tom Moore looks at and creates another world, one that ignores scientific classification and taxonomy. His world is at once playful, humorous and enjoyable but also alarming and prophetic of the radical human change to this planet. “Human activity is making life impossible for many species and may well lead to conditions that are inhospitable for ourselves, however … it will go on turning and creatures will continue to evolve.” Moore’s world is a place of evolutionary chaos – what might the world be like once the people are gone – a nonsensical plant-animal-machine population which is beautiful and fun but on further contemplation may incite bleaker thoughts. What do these freaky illogical creatures eat? Do they eat each other? When we look at Tom Moore’s work, the title of this exhibition watching glass grow also seems absurd. It is only Moore and his assistants (and other glass blowers) who witness anything close to resembling growth during the process of making and creating his creatures. With watching glass grow, Moore looks at the world, creates an alternate civilisation of plant-animal-machines that tells us a story that is both cautionary and optimistic. People have damaged the planet. Nature has the answers. When we question what we see in watching glass grow, we don’t need our eyes checked – Tom Moore has 20/20 vision. Tony Kanellos, Cultural Collections Manager & Curator of the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden watching glass grow by Tom Moore Exhibiting until Sunday, May 15 as part of the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden, North Terrace environment.sa.gov.au Photos: Grant Hancock, Jake Dean