Wednesday, 13 February 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Why palm trees are like cockroaches


This Saturday 16 February Robert Irwin, the acclaimed artist-turned-landscape designer for the Getty Center, will add his unmistakable flourish to the city of Los Angeles. He and a specialist in landscape design called Paul Comstock have been travelling round the USA for the last year, compiling a fabulous collection of palms. Now that collection is going to form an integral part of the space around Renzo Piano's Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at Los Angeles County Art Museum, which opens that day. 

"I first introduced plant material into my works for the simplest
reason," explains Irwin on the LACMA website. "Most of the projects I
had were radically underfunded, with no real money. And you take a
space, and you think about what you're going to do to give the thing
the proper scale, and you realize you can buy a great tree - I mean a great tree
- for, like, five thousand dollars. And to do a sculpture on the scale
of that would cost more than five thousand dollars just to put the
foundation in. So I starting realizing that in some of these situations
a tree was a spectacular solution."

An article in the LA Times
tells more about the Los Angeles Museum project. It's not just a
botanical collection, though it is broad in terms of species. The trees
will be laid out in different ways depending on the time of year, with
many planted in containers, but some really big date palms and Mexican
fans are already planted in the ground, giving the entrance a typically
LA feel. "The thing about palm trees is that they're primordial," Irwin
explains, clearly entranced. "I mean, they go, it's like Paul says,
they're like cockroaches. They've been here long before we were, and
they'll be here long after us. Think of the La Brea tar pits; this is
plant material that probably was around at that time."

The first aim of the planting is to provide a way of guiding the visitor into the building and to orientate them. (See number 28 in the 31 day countdown to BCAM's opening)
But as with Irwin's work elsewhere, the patterned palms will also get
the visitor in the right headspace for thinking about art - he has a
way of shaping the planting so that you feel it's been done
purposefully and with great thought - so you begin to think about
shapes and colours and patterns. It's like the best warm-up for looking
at contemporary art. "What you've done," says Irwin again, "is create
more than one reason to come, and therefore creating a venue for more
than one kind of aesthetic. And it's nice to spread it out so it's
really about looking."

I first saw Irwin's work at the Getty Center, and then at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York. I also loved Lawrence Weschler's idiosyncratic biography of him. I'm really looking forward to seeing the palms in the flesh! But in the meantime (you know I love this stuff) you can see the Chilean Wine Palm arriving by putting your mouse over number 4 on the BCAm countdown.

No comments: