Creating Sustainable Living Plant Sculptures

The environment has always been both key and lock in all of my work. From 1983 to 1996, I engaged in a series of photo-based environmental projects: the Last Rivers Song on a river flooded for hydro development; Secrets of the Forgotten Tapu, a headland being destroyed by mining; Codes of Survival on the Subantarctic Islands; Evidence from the Religion of Technology, and; Aporian Emulsions. During this time, the work shifted from taking photographs with a camera to exploring photosensitive processes and camera-less images.

Then in 1996, my interests as a passionate gardener and photo-based artist collided when I made the connection that plants are actually a form of photography (“photography” from the Greek means “light drawing”). Both photography and plants use the magical, mysterious ingredient that is light – the essential force that drives life on the planet.

“Expanding dimension cube,” Camberwell Grammar School, May 2011. Tillandsia plants, stainless steel, steel.

The largest photosensitive emulsion we know is actually our planet Earth. I draw inspiration from, and I am endlessly fascinated with, the fact that the earth rotates in space and orbits around the sun at the precise distance needed for the sun’s radiation to effect the elegant process of photosynthesis through the myriad of plants that have evolved and grow on the planet (the Goldilocks region). The Earth is a three-dimensional living photograph. The atmosphere and biosphere are key factors that mediate the harshness of radiation bombarding the Earth and nurture life on the planet we depend upon – the current atmosphere was created over some 100 millions years by plants. This process is an amazing thing we should revere and protect.

Imagine the Earth as a basketball, wrapped in the thinnest paper you could find. The thickness of this delicate paper is equivalent to the atmosphere, and the depth of the paper’s texture is thicker than the tallest trees, even thicker than the tallest high-rise buildings!

“Nature Reclaims the Helix,” recycled bicycle wheels, stainless cups, steel, Tillandsia plants – a single rotating element based on the DNA Helix.

Image sequences from NASA show how vegetation grows, dies back, changes color with the seasons – how the “photographic image” that is our planet alters. Increasingly, human intervention plays a larger role in transforming the image of the globe we inhabit. Imagine foliated land as a photo sensor (like in a digital camera) that responds to light speeding past the planet. Plants continually use this energy source to perform a complex series of functions that mediate the climate and atmosphere in a positive manner for thousands of species, including humans.

So, in 1996 I began using the leaves of Bromeliad plants as a living photosensitive emulsion to grow images into. This work evolved into a series of installations of plants in galleries and other spaces which can be seen in Working with Plants.

Many of the plants I was utilizing in the installations were xerophytic Tillandsias, commonly known as air plants. These amazing plants have evolved many of the systems we are now developing to mitigate CO2 emissions. Like a battery, they store energy from the sun during the day and release it during darkness to uptake CO2. They grow in what is called a CAM cycle. The advantage of this is that very little water is transpired, which means the plants are highly resilient to hot dry periods. And of course, they clean the atmosphere when most other plants are inactive. They also have highly efficient trichome cells on the leaf surface that can uptake water into the plant without the need for roots and soil.

Installation at Les Erdi Plaza, Northbank, February 2013, with Melbourne’s tallest building Eureka tower in the background. Supported as a temporary art installation by the City of Melbourne, through the Arts Grants Program.

Studying, growing, and experimenting with these plants has allowed me to create truly sustainable living plant sculptures. In 2013, I completed a project for Melbourne City Arts Grants, Airborne, where eight Tillandsia sculptures were suspended in the central city for thirteen months. The Tillandsia plants on these living works were simply left to the elements of a hot dry summer and a Melbourne winter. By living in what I termed Alpha Space, the works took a step beyond the vertical garden and could rotate with the breeze. To install the works, I was helped by structural engineer Stu Jones and environmental scientist Grant Harris, both of whom have remained great supporters of my work.

After Airborne, we were intrigued to learn how these plants could be integrated into the built environment and we negotiated installing experimental plants on top of Eureka Tower at level 92. The experiment caused a media storm and we were invited to write papers for the Tall Building and Urban Habitat Council and the Green Building Council, comparing the Tillandsia installations to current vertical garden models. It is complex but in short, while many vertical gardens might look green, when a cradle-to-grave study takes in all factors, they can actually create more CO2 than they capture. Because maintenance commitments and costs can be crippling, over 90% of decommissioned vertical gardens meet this fate due to costs.

“Pulse,” rotating air plant sculpture in Alpha Space, 1300 x 1300 x 1300, 2014.

The installation of Tillandsia plants on Eureka evolved into a much larger on-going project, Tillandsia SWARM, where mesh cells containing air plants have been installed on a range of other sites. The plants on Eureka have now been installed for over four years with no auxiliary watering system or maintenance. Rather than simply commenting of environmental issues, the work contributes to CO2 mitigation in an active manner.

It is somewhat similar to the social sculpture project 7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration. A work of land art by German artist Joseph Beuys, it was first publicly presented in 1982 at the documenta 7.

Tillandsia SWARM has grown into a mapped network of Tillandsia installations throughout Melbourne, Hobart, and three locations in France. We also have plants on the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and TarraWarra Museum of Art, as well as Monash Gallery of Art (MGA) and Montsalvat 

Location: Eureka Tower. Site: 1, latitude: – 37.821545 S, longitude: 144.964477 E. Aspect: Open, exposed to all elements, direct sun all day. Level: 92 (295 m). This is the tallest building in the world with plants growing at this height. Installation date: June 17, 2014. Public Visibility: No. Private access only.

It is mind-boggling to think that so far this century, there have been more art objects created than during all of recorded history, and storage of these precious objects for artists and galleries is becoming problematic. In many cases, the need for stable temperature and humidity requires high energy and often consequential CO2 emissions. Working with living plants has allowed me to engage in a sustainable practice where the works, both in situ and storage, capture CO2. They are simply hung up from trees and left to the elements. Then, over time, they grow to a point where I can harvest the plants from one sculpture to create a new work.

These plants are slow growing, and I hand-pollinate hundreds every year, capturing the wind-blown seeds before germinating them. It takes from 12-25 years to grow a mature plant. Many seedlings are hybrids, which has fed into another art project, but that is another story.

(Top image: Pulse, rotating air plant sculpture in Alpha Space, 1300 x 1300 x 1300, 2014.)

For previous articles related to plants, check out:

The (Im)possibility of Plants in Exhibitions by Yasmine Ostendorf
Plants, Place, and Environmental Stewardship by Jimmy Fike
Red Cabbages Sounding the Alarm by Yasmine Ostendorf

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Lloyd Godman is an ecological artist whose current work explores practical ways to integrate plants into urban infrastructure in a truly sustainable manner. He established and was head of the photo section at the Dunedin Art School, New Zealand for twenty years before moving to Melbourne, where he taught at RMIT for nine years. He is Vice President of the Baldessin Press, where he lives with his partner. Lloyd holds an MFA from RMIT University Melbourne (1999). Perhaps this from John Power, Editor of Facility Management Magazine best sums up his work.  “Lloyd Godman is one of a new breed of environmental artists whose work is directly influencing “green” building design… Godman’s installations are the result of a unique blend of botanical science, environmental awareness and artistic expression. All three elements are intrinsic to the practical realization of his polymathic vision.”

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