The Garfield Park Conservatory, a 1908 Jens Jensen designed landscape maintained by the Chicago Park District, is currently exhibiting The Persistence of the Unsorted, an installation by the inaugural artist in residence, Claire Pentecost. Upon entering the Palm House, initial steps divulge ascending volume and light beyond the edge of the antechamber’s low ceiling. A cable-suspended, pale, plank canoe crowded with creatures interrupts this ascension. It’s framed by hugging palms, glazed arcing girders above, and a shallow reflecting pool below. The creatures are corporeal assemblages, some more humanlike than others but all bearing a familiar expressiveness in their countenances and comportment. There are succulent dreadlocks, a tuber face, gesticulating digits, snouts, beaks, horns, and trunks. A dutiful bison-person overlooks its peers from the stern, its bridal gown and ropey hair merging into each other as they brim over the gunwales. The image is triumphant with its pride of place and crystal palace illumination, yet there is also an endearing camp in the fashioning of the creatures.
Something is awry though. The bison-person with its lateral bovine eyes simultaneously looks at us monocularly, off starboard, and binocularly ahead to the palm canopy. It seems vigilant and stoic. All of the other creatures are hunching over the sides and gazing downward. While their posture is consistent, their affect is variegated. Supplication, mourning, intrigue, and doubt variously inflect their queries of the water below.
What compels their attention on the reflecting pool? These sailors are unmoored, doubly. Adrift and not even cutting water with their keel. The canoe’s proximate separation from the pool signals a metaphysical rift portraying the beings up there as immaterial, or dematerialized? Associations come to mind and scrutiny as to whether or not they fit. Is this an Odyssean voyage? Stygian crossing? The old buffalo woman inhabiting Nanapush? Uncle Boonmee’s forest spirit family? Familiar narratives and characters obliquely accrete, but none regulate the entire tableau. Without specifying, the sculpture invokes myriad dualist representations of spirit travelers that are paradoxically quite earthly. The artist’s statement elaborates on this impression.
A wide range of cultures in history and the present day believe in what the Romans called genii loci, spirits that rule and protect a given place, beings that embody the character or atmosphere of a place. But what happens when a place is radically disturbed by reckless development, human conflict, and other environmental damage? Does its spirit become a kind of refugee?
This text accentuates that the genii are vested in human products, various textiles and garments and three outfits that are a bit more pointed. Two wear burlap coffee sacks and another dons oil resistant bibs, the uniform of environmental clean-ups. In this way, their bodies comprise their respective places and the material practices forcing their global diaspora—a reminder that material practices don’t affect “the environment.” They are environmental.
Three additional genii hang more discreetly from girder-purlin joints on the threshold of the Fern Room. They too peer down at us and also at Lorado Taft’s 1913 marble sculpture, Pastoral, figuring a woman gingerly flower-crowning a bouquet-laden man stooping to feed the bunnies about their feet. The collision of Arcadian nostalgia and climate change melancholy is emphatic. If only this comparison were cultivated more to engage their putative oppositions and perverse intimacies, like instituting another foil with the Chihuly lily pads in the Aroid House, such a gesture could more keenly stitch a diachronic vantage of twentieth-century environmental imaginaries and their consumption. Every garden institution needs a Chihuly. More presently, electromagnetic waves complete their journey from the exosphere cresting on the glass with the plentiful pricks of Instagram pins. Memes massage snapshot compositions instilling fantasies of shaping our domestic conservatories with houseplants, an odd category including droves of tropical and desert plants solely by the denominating dint of endurance in Goldilocks interiors. This verdant desire proliferates ecologically tenuous nurseries, deforestation, global shipping networks, and indoor climate acclimation warehouses that train plants to love their new homes. All of this meanwhile reviving old colonial metropole-antipode economies in a neoliberal order.
So what to make of their presence here, the genii loci? The statement proffers,
The plants here constitute a collection of far-flung places. Seeking the familiar signs of their origins, perhaps orphaned spirits are attracted to the living representatives of their homes, the plants. We wonder if a conservatory can receive wandering place-spirits severed from their homes.
Seeking an uncanny terra from terror. The proposition is a kind of reciprocal justice for the conservatory’s beautiful horror. Many conservatories linger as the repositories of imperialism’s aesthetic surplus gathered from global extractive sojourns, though they are not reducible to this. There is also a parallel intimation of reception and empathy for people, sometimes called immigrants, thrown adrift by imperialist legacies and neoliberal hegemony. This laudable yearning to provide a home for the genii and their metonymic companions can also be fraught. Is this reciprocity justice: environmental, human, or otherwise? Or further, do the reciprocal assumptions of justice occasionally mislead us in administering our social obligations to one another? A glass house can stifle and maintain the objectification that brought the plants here. If we are ethically bound to embrace those in the world with which we are ineluctably folded, is hosting refugees in a reliquary an embrace or integration into a sweltering house? This is poignantly apparent in the tectonic poetics of bailing wire binding the genii to the girders.
On this note of objectification,
… every plant in the conservatory has been sorted, classified and named by botanists throughout the last 300 years … The Linnaean system is still used today to help us understand and remember plant species within their families. However, we are told that there are countless inhabitants of the forest, the desert, the wetlands, that have never been classified, some of whom will be extinct before we have a chance to discover them. And what of those beings that resist being sorted, that do not fit into any of our categories?
The statement sketches the vexing nature of taxonomy. It aids in recognition and understanding while it also willfully carves inextricabilities into fragments. More troubling still, life must accede to categorical recognition just to gain the opportunity to persuade humans not to extinguish it. The genii frustrate classification both in that they are heterogeneous place composites, not conventional organisms, and the immateriality they represent confounds the monism of orthodox materialism. So they provoke apophatic learning or taxonomy strictly inverted, stating instead what things are not. Consequently, the genii instantiate more ecological paradigms with the historical reach of innumerable cultural precedents. Does this admirable attitude bear lurking positivism? The species, Genius loci, reveals but what does it also obscure? This question is imperative while considering taxonomies. It shifts the taxonomic scale and unit from organism to place. While underscoring symbiotic continuity, it risks oversimplifying the porosity of spatiotemporal place boundaries. Alternative taxonomies alone don’t reflexively contend with the contradiction classification presents in its mutual elucidation and obfuscation of information. One objectification is supplanted for another.
The genii’s bodies and location append with semantic syntax, articulating a foil with the order and legacy of the Garfield Park Conservatory and landscapes like it. The Persistence of the Unsorted calibrates closer looking between the plants and urges inter-being recognition and collectivity. Its suggestions for enacting this empathy, however, are tenuous.