Whimsy and Provocation

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits
 "SOL Grotto" light tubes from Solyndra in art exhibit

Detail of light tubes from “SOL Grotto”

We interrupt the regularly scheduled garden photography lesson to bring you some breaking news.  While I was writing this lesson in The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, controversy erupted.

Provocation in the world of gardens and art !  National scandal in “hip, pretentious art” at the Berkeley Botanical Garden where an on-site art exhibit using recycled glass tubes became an example of “phony intellectualism”.

The idea of whimsy and provocation in Good Garden Photography (the title of this first chapter where this is to be lesson 5) is one way to bring meaning into your story.  When you take a picture you are communicating, and this lesson is meant as an exercise to explore your garden photography looking for some fun.

So I went to the Botanic Garden looking for some fun photos to illustrate my point.  To make good photos you really need an excuse, not just an opportunity.  Being in a garden with your camera is an opportunity, but having something to say will give your photo some meaning.

Gardens are important.  They have meaning.  If you are a garden photographer at any level, you are communicating.  Always think about why you are taking the picture and what you are trying to say.  It will make a much better picture.

At this moment there is no better place to find provocation and whimsy in a garden than the University Botanical Gardens at University of California, Berkeley where Natural Discourse has been installed.

Natural Discourse is a collaboration between the Garden and a group of extraordinary artists, researchers, architects, and writers to help us think about gardens in new ways.  The exhibit, curated by Shirley Watts and Mary Anne Friel, will run until January 20, 2013 and invites us to think about gardens.

I went looking for whimsy and found it written into some of the plant labels for the exhibit at UCBG.

Can’t read the plant tag?

“Arbor Ex Fossus !” the label created by poet Hazel White, refers to the Dawn Redwood tree being an ancient, prehistoric plant.  There are 25 special labels in the Garden for Natural Discourse.  Looking for these special tags is a fantastic way to explore the garden – hunting and learning.

I also knew I wanted to photograph “SOL Grotto” the now news-worthy installation by architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello who “seek to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of ecological thinking”.

 light tubes SOL Grotto exhibit

light tubes SOL Grotto exhibit

Their use of light tubes, salvaged from the bankrupt solar power company Solyndra, have been placed inside a small grotto in a very carefull artful arrangement.  The grotto is constructed in the garden next to a waterfall, so not only is light brought into the grotto by the shimmering efficient tubes, but the cool air and sound of water fill the cave.

A fantastic provocative idea about how we experience a garden without actually seeing it.  What a fabulous subject for photographers who deal with almost the exact opposite experience.  We communicate by seeing, with light yes, but by seeing it differently – much differently; and never with sound or smell.

I made a video to show the visual experience and stupidly (accidentally) turned off my sound recording for the waterfall.  I will update this post after I go back to the garden but working on today’s deadline, this is what it looks like to be in that grotto.

So where is the controversy  ?

It turns out a national news organization, seeking provocation, and knowing the controversy surrounding the US government and taxpayer loss of money in the Solyndra bankruptcy decided this art exhibit was a very costly taxpayer funded boondoggle.  The reporter even (facetiously) suggested taxpayers should go smash it up as an act of performance art.


You can imagine the uproar now; and the Garden is getting a big uptick in attendance.  Natural Discourse is now a national event !  The nerve of those reporters !

Of course the reporter and the talking heads who have an airy round table giggle fest about the report, have never seen SOL Grotto or understand its part in Natural Discourse.  How could it be called it “boring” !  Surely they  care little about what it means in regards to any “phony intellectualism” of gardens or “hip pretentious art”, they simply want an excuse to raise a muck raking political point.

But for me, I was looking for provocation for my photo lesson and this landed in my lap.

For those who want to continue with The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, lesson 1.5 Whimsy and Provocation, stay tuned for the e-book and think about these two photos:

grow melt project

Grow – Melt Project from The Late Show Gardens


A Place to Dream

To be continued…

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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6 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Judy August 24, 2012, 10:06 pm

Thank you, Saxon, I enjoyed this story….

Thanks for stopping by Judy. – Saxon

The Intercontinental Gardener August 25, 2012, 7:43 am

I moved from the US just a couple of weeks ago, and reading your post, just can’t believe the “phonyness” (excuse the spelling) of the political & the media scene there.

So sorry. Such a great country, such a sad development of things. Why couldn’t you all join your forces to make things work for everyone again, together…

I don’t think it is just the American media that likes to provoke its readership, and since a free press is fundamental to democracy we must allow one side to provoke the other and the pendulum swings back, each side thinking the other looks foolish. Despite the seemingly hyberbolic nature of politics in the current media sensationalism, it has actually always been so. Muckracking and yellow journalism is not new. It is just in today’s culture we spend too much time listening to what the media says. We must learn to turn away and actually create our own news, do things ourselves. – Saxon

Donna August 25, 2012, 10:59 am

Well it is hard to comment on this story without the political overtones and the fact that it was designed by two architects. I have seen a similar type of architectural application and installation before, although not in this garden context. I wish I could remember where. And to note, A Place to Dream has its twin in the Buffalo Botanical Gardens down to the dresser with open drawers. The mosaic stone rug is a bit more decorative than the gravel rug in Buffalo. From a photography op, the exhibits at Berkley are wonderful, just not sure about the depth of the art. Since architects design with very cerebral meaning, I would find it odd that this becoming controversial never crossed their minds. It would have been my first thought and I would have seen the potential of the publicity, good or bad. I am glad you were there when the controversy broke out. It really is a topic worth exploring and photographing to tell the story. I hope you are their when the sledgehammers show up. Now what an image all that shattered glass would make in an outdoor, late day landscape.

I disagree. I am stunned that this became a political issue. The architects certainly designed to be provocative, after all that is the intention of the Natural Discourse event. But controversial as a political issue ? I suspect they were expecting to be lauded for finding an artful way to recycle those extraordinary glass tubes – 24 million of which were being broken up.

I wish you could be here to experience the art in context. Photography is a sad medium to communicate the depth of meaning we find in gardens. I think I can speak with the voice of authority and experience in this. The “SLO Grotto” is an astoundingly sensual way to communicate what gardens mean. It is a cerebral concept – but implemented as an actual masterpiece of live art that must be experienced. – Saxon

Ron Sullivan August 25, 2012, 11:49 am

Isn’t this whole thing a hoot? Your shots of the Sol Grotto are (no surprise) way better than mine, but mine got onto the Huffington Post.

Well done Ron. The great thing about this is it will bring people into the garden to see ALL the new ways the Natural Discourse event invites us to experience gardens. Sadly there is no way to appreciate it outside of actually going there. – Saxon

Peter E Johnsen August 25, 2012, 1:00 pm

I like it too.

Jean Marsh August 29, 2012, 9:25 am

The reporter uses these words : “Hip, pretentious art” to describe this installation. Well; what do you expect – it was FOX news reporting. I doubt they would have anything positive to say about an event located in Berkeley.
I was raised by artists ( Mom’s a painter, Dad was a jazz musician). I am a landscape designer and musician. What many folks do not “get” is that the Art Spirit is essential to creative thinking and problem solving. Our brains are hardwired for it. Einstein was an musician for Pete’s Sake! The current public educational system in this country disregards this fundamental truth, and our children and society in general will pay the price. We by nature are creative, all of us as a species. To stifle that is just unhealthy. How could it not be?
I don’t always understand everyone’s art, but I am careful to simply observe and withhold judgment, knowing there is always something there that speaks about the artists vision. Even if I don’t see it right away. And that vision, the individual expression of the artist, has value – whether I personally care for it or not.
And of course your photos are beautiful…

Thank you Jean . . . and your comments about art ? Amen – Saxon

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