TransPLANT by donna davis

Guest Blogger: Louise Martin-Chew, freelance art writer and 2019 John Oxley Library Fellow

…the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.

Oscar Wilde, from ‘The Decay of Lying’, Intentions, 1891.

Truth is so often stranger than fiction, but there is a place where they blend, to meet in a highly creative place – less an untruth than an imaginative hotspot that may shift perceptions, engaging interest by igniting curiosity. In Donna Davis’s TransPLANT (seeking refuge), 2021, plants from the cloud forest, a little understood vegetative subgroup, are forced from their home environment on the tops of mountains, due to rising temperatures driven by climate change.  

This video work is displayed on a wall-sized screen in the foyer of the State Library of Queensland, drawing attention to the exhibition upstairs, Entwined: Plants and People. Nine sub-screens are used to show ‘back of house’ areas within the library. The only movement (apart from the flickering of the CCTV footage) is small plants, roots exposed and vulnerable, scurrying around the urban environment on this site, seeking a new home to replace the mountain tops that are becoming uninhabitable.  

Animated plant creatures sneak through State Library spaces in donna davis’s TransPLANT. Photograph by Stacey Larner

There is an emotional and physical urgency that accompanies their surreptitious movements around this place. Dirt and vegetation are confounded by a built environment – concrete, carparks, paved surfaces, carpeted areas lined with bookshelves, the dust-free archive. These journeys on flickering cameras record a secret mission: backgrounds are grey while the plants are shown with their green leaves, white flowers, and trailing roots that move them forward like legs. TransPLANT has a surveillance edge, humour inherent in an anthropomorphic presentation that is, in its research-driven reality, poignant and urgently sad.   

TransPLANT [seeking refuge], (animation still), donna davis, 2021, single channel digital stop-frame animation. Commissioned by State Library of Queensland. 

Davis developed this work as artist in residence on a current project which is working against time to discover and document plants that live on the tops of mountains, known as cloud forest. The Tropical Mountain Plant Science Project is led by the Australian Tropical Herbarium, James Cook University (supported by the Wet Tropics Management Authority). It is both a rescue mission, with samples and seeds harvested for preservation in botanic gardens along Australia’s east coast, and a scientific project to better understand the biodiversity of little understood ecosystems. The vulnerability of these plants is extreme. As the climate warms, they will be trapped, without any other ‘cool’ habitat available. 

The intersection of art and science is where Davis employs her skills, to take narratives of often esoteric yet crucial investigations into the visual and engage a broader audience. She sees her role as a storyteller, ‘creating works that explore the science through a creative lens; interpreting data and discussions from field and lab research into works that imagine futures, constructing new ways of “seeing” complex ecological systems and our role within them.’  This work, like many of her others, offers a gateway to the research. In the context of ‘Entwined’, it is compelling in its depiction of a natural species in a foreign and unfriendly environment, noting humanity as embedded within a system that is itself threatened.  

TransPLANT [seeking refuge], digital still, donna davis, 2021, single channel video installation featuring imagined plant-hybrid creatures: [Image: Ziera altata hybrid]. Commissioned by the State Library of Queensland to be presented as part of 'Entwined: Plants and People' at State Library of Queensland.

Creating an imaginative reality in spaces both familiar and unfamiliar to the public on the site of the State Library, Davis creates an emotional connection with plants whose worlds are otherwise unknown. Five plants are profiled in the video: they sway like walking figures, developing a sense of empathy as the imagined reality of their displacement is laid bare. Like climate change, the video is silent, without a clarion call to action; these plants innocently seek a new home, but the manmade environment is both oblivious and hostile to their plight.   

The questions Davis asks herself about these issues are elevated through this work, which explores the impact of humanity on other ecosystems and tries to dismantle the idea of hierarchies between species. It rethinks an urban landscape, populated with sentient plant species.  

TransPLANT [seeking refuge], donna davis, 2021, single channel digital stop-frame animation. Commissioned by State Library of Queensland. 

These plants are re-animated from propagated specimens, with root systems taken from Davis’s vegetable garden, and the two parts combined. There is sufficient truth in this construction for it to spark curiosity and intrigue – it engages the imagination in its fiction and stills the heart with its harsh reality. Art’s ability to subvert the actual entangles the psyche in this work: it compels attention. 

Louise Martin-Chew

Entwined: Plants and People also features Adaptation/Mutation. This work explores imagined ecological adaptations in the age of the Anthropocene; juxtaposing futurist ideas of natural evolution with human imposed organic-hybrid modifications to facilitate species survival beyond the current epoch  

Placing fungi in the role of protagonist, the work reflects on possible future ecological adaptations and interventions within the natural world to remedy human caused environmental damage.  

Adaptation/Mutation, [detail], donna davis, 2018, installation: pigment prints, timber, mounts. Moreton Bay Regional Council Art Collection.  Image courtesy of the artist.

These imagined portraits explore futurist ideas with reference to natural evolution and human imposed modifications. The works depict fictional hybrid organisms both biological (plant and fungi) and mechanical (plant and machine); reflecting on possible future adaptions and interventions within the natural world required to remedy human caused environmental damage. 

Whilst organic mutations and adaptations occur in nature, how do we feel about human interventions in and with the natural world for the purpose of our own survival? 

Adaptation/Mutation, [detail], donna davis, 2018, installation: pigment prints, timber, mounts. Moreton Bay Regional Council Art Collection.  Image courtesy of the artist.

On Saturday 13th November join exhibition curator, Joan Bruce, with special guests, artist Donna Davis and Science leader, Queensland Herbarium, Dr Gill Brown, for the final weekend of the Entwined: plants and people exhibition. Exploring the intersection of science and art through a tour and conversation this event begins at the 'TransPLANT [seeking refuge]' artwork on level 1 and continues in the Entwined exhibition in slq Gallery, level 2. This is a ticketed event, so be sure to register. The exhibition closes Sunday, November 14.  

donna davis digital story, 2021, Joshua Maguire Stills and Video, State Library of Queensland

A concise digital story of donna davis, an artist who blends art and science, building on—and diverging from—the legacy of botanical illustration. She is one of the commissioned artists for State Library's 2021 Entwined exhibition.

Acknowledgements 

TransPLANT [seeking refuge] was commissioned by State Library of Queensland. Artwork created in response to the Tropical Mountain Plant Science Project; an art/science residency with the Australian Tropical Herbarium at James Cook University, supported by the Wet Tropics Management Authority. Plant-hybrids created by digitally merging images of propagated saplings with various vegetable root images photographed by the artist. Flora featured: Leptospermum wooroonooran, Boea kinnearii, Zieria alata and Flindersia oppositifolia photographed by the artist at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG).  Special thanks to Stuart Worboys, Australian Tropical Herbarium for capturing source image of Litsea granitica at ANBG, and Hymenophyllum whitei taken in the wild.  This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. Proudly supported by the Australian Tropical Herbarium

Adaptation/Mutation was inspired by a project that explored dialogues between academic research and the creative imagination; the written work is entitled ‘Where do all the faeries live? The future of biodiversity in a rapidly changing world’, by Nigel Fechner, Lisa Chandler and Donna Davis. Published in TEXT, Special Issues Series, Number 52, October 2018, ‘Anticipatory Imaginaries’, edited by Marcus Bussey, Lisa Chandler, Gary Crew and Rachel Robertson. http://www.textjournal.com.au 

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