Monday, July 11, 2016

Choosing Your Own Adventure at De Hortus

Since its establishment in 1638, Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus garden has taken on many roles. It was initially a medicinal herb garden, later becoming a collection of “exotic” ornamental specimens meant to highlight the Dutch East India Company’s international power. It then became a center for genetic research under the leadership of botanist Hugo de Vries. Today it is also an educational resource, a nature preserve, an art gallery, and a destination for Amsterdam residents and tourists. De Hortus’s simultaneous identities, rather than being overwhelming, shift and reveal themselves in response to the unique perspectives of visitors— an effect which is compounded by the temporary photography exhibition on display throughout the garden.

De Hortus’s multiplicity of identities is quickly made immediately evident by the pamphlets available to visitors. There are three different themed brochures with maps built around evolution, trees, and the garden’s “crown jewels.” The ticket office recommends the third map, which provides brief notes on 14 of the garden’s highlights, including the butterfly house, the 17th century medicinal herb garden, the rare cycad collection, and the humid tri-climate greenhouse. It offers a general overview of the garden for a curious but uninformed tourist— the recommended routes for visiting geneticists, botanists, and historians have different focal points and at times go off in entirely different directions.

Canopy of De Hortus's Tri-Climate Greenhouse
The existence of all these paths and routes is particularly impressive given the garden’s surprisingly small size. Tucked away in a small plot of land in the center of Amsterdam, De Hortus is given the illusion of grand acreage through densely packed branching trails which meander between paved paths. The foliage is dense enough that although there are plenty of guests, the thick array of plants shields visitors from other groups and the bustle of the city immediately surrounding them.

While the crown jewels map pinpoints notable locations or plants throughout De Hortus, it offers no prescribed route through the garden. This leaves visitors to choose the path they take through the garden according to what catches their eye. Discovering these paths and choosing one’s own route through the garden is the creation of a personalized experience of the space. One patron may stick to the paved walkways shown on the maps, while another may be inclined to try out every trail for fear of missing out on an interesting tree or narrow tunnel of bamboo. Each choice itself is tiny: climb up to the tri-climate greenhouse’s rainforest canopy or explore the ground first? Take the path along the water or the one that weaves through the conifers? Circle back and do both? Each answer on its own has only a small impact on the overall experience, but the buildup of answers to these small questions creates a path and perspective unique to the visitor.

Victoria Lily
Two visitors on the same day and at the same time may have two entirely different experiences of the gardens and may not even cross paths. Based on small scale changes in the weather and large-scale changes in the seasons, the pair’s experiences may vary even more widely. The Victoria Lily is one of the garden’s listed crown jewels, a water plant with enormous lily pads that grows only during the summer. Its flowers, one of which I was lucky to see, only bloom for two days each. The changeability of the garden’s environment with the passage of time (whether that interval is seconds or centuries) paired with its labyrinthine layout ensures that every visit results in a different experience. Individual interests in the arts, sciences, or humanities and even particular fascination with water features or endangered species are allowed to manifest themselves in the details noticed and paths taken. Even though De Hortus is centuries old and often busy, experiencing it is an unexpectedly personal activity.

Through September 19, the winning works of the International Garden Photographer of the Year contest are also on display in the garden. These photos are installed on huge outdoor plastic signs according to category and prize but otherwise seem to be scattered throughout the space randomly. It is easy to forget that the exhibition is set up in the space, only to be reminded again when stumbling upon another board of photographs.
The presentations of the photographs around the garden perhaps diminished the power of the individual works. All the images were set against a maroon background which clashed with and distracted from many of the photos themselves. The shiny veneer of the plastic was an unflattering result of the weatherproofing of the boards; it caught glare easily, speckling the images with unintended highlights and reflections. These choices presented the images less as standalone artworks (or a gallery or collection of artworks) and more as secondary, supplementary pieces to the garden itself.

Detail of Woodhouse's original photograph (above)
and its display panel in De Hortus (below)
While the images may not have been so overshadowed if they had been displayed in a gallery space, the dispersion of the photography boards around De Hortus was nevertheless successful in that it drew attention to the ideas of personalization and perspective. Matthew Woodhouse’s photograph Three is a striking black and white photograph which captures three tiny silhouettes walking through a tunnel of enormous, leaning beech trees. The photograph is moody and captivating, with layers of trees fading from black to gray to white as they disappear in the foggy distance. It isn’t well-served well by the blotchy outdoor lighting and maroon background, but its position, right under a large flowering tree which seems to almost spring out from it, creates a serendipitous continuity where the shadowy two-dimensional tree trunk becomes a brightly-lit three-dimensional one. Other photos’ placements similarly seem to echo their immediate surroundings. A photograph of a veterans’ memorial building reflected in a pool of water is situated in front of the garden’s seed house, placing the buildings in parallel with each other and drawing attention to the interplay of manmade and natural forms.

De Hortus aims to present a collection of plants that is at least semi-encyclopedic in scope, with entire gardens or buildings dedicated to particular geographic regions or species of plant, which parallels the international scope of the photos on display. De Hortus’s size does not compare to that of many of the parks depicted in the winning photographs, yet the garden’s sprawling variety saves it from paling in comparison to the photographs’ more dramatic international locales. Rather, each photo on display presents its individual photographer’s perspective in a single moment. Placing these two-dimensional photographs in a three-dimensional garden challenges visitors to be active participants and viewers of the space, seeking out and acknowledging their own frames and perspectives. It does not present a canonical perspective on how to view the garden, since none of the photos were taken in the garden itself.  Rather, it forces visitors to think about how they take in the space around them and how they choose to capture the enormous, ever-changing garden as they pass through it. 

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