Control rooms

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Thousands of desk calendars, coffee-table books and computer wallpapers herald the majesty and beauty of unbridled nature, but humans don't always like our environment wild. Golf courses, manicured gardens and even the produce we buy for our dinner tables are all regularly manipulated to bring plants under our control -- sometimes to make them more useful, other times to imbue them with a humanized sense of beauty.

That relationship is central to Bending Nature, an exhibit threaded through the Franklin Park Conservatory. One of its opening images is a photographic mural of Columbus' Deaf School Topiary Garden, which depicts artist Georges-Pierre Seurat's painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" in evergreen and iron.

"It's a wonderful, literal example of bending nature," said curator Robert Stearns. "Fifteen years into the process, it's still in process. Once [the topiary figures] take full shape, they need to be maintained and controlled."

Stearns treated the entire grounds as his exhibition space, using the biomes, courtyards and traditional galleries for the show. He deliberately chose not to insert anything new into the Pacific Island Water Garden, because it's a work of the same theme on its own, "another climate, lifted and set down here in Columbus, Ohio."

Other existing elements, like the macaws that reside in a large cage in the Tropical Rainforest, have been trained to turn cameras on the gawkers that ordinarily photograph and gab at them.

"We really want to challenge the imagination of visitors and invite them to engage with the work," Stearns said.

The conservatory's own horticultural designer Barbara Arnold is one of the 15 artists from around the world included in Bending Nature. Her whimsical trio of "Standing Room Only" pieces stand in the biomes, including "Sticky Buns" -- a wing-back chair made out of cacti with an accompanying succulent picture frame.

The courtyards are among the most transformed spaces. New York artist Dennis Oppenheim mimics nature with "Alternative Landscape Components." His trees, hedges and rocks are made up of unnatural materials, like metal branches with laundry-basket canopies.

"I was imagining an alternative to nature as we know it, one that took its clues from sculpture," Oppenheim said.

The other courtyard now has two caves -- one made of rounded stones, the other soil, flagstones and grass -- by artist Herb Parker of Charleston, South Carolina.

Parker "creates spaces that invite quiet interaction and contemplation between people," Stearns said. The geometry of the two caves, set several feet apart, creates a "whispering gallery" that allows people to speak softly to each other from one cave to the other.

In the greenhouse are several objects by another local artist, Dorothy Gill Barnes of Worthington, created in her garden by altering the natural growth patterns of tree roots and bark into sculptural forms. A case of smaller pieces includes wood that's been altered by a variety of outside forces, including silkworms, decay and animals.

The conservatory's gallery houses some of the show's more conceptual pieces, including a video record of influential conceptual landwork artist Robert Smithson's "Floating Island" project -- a manmade island that was towed around Manhattan by tugboat in 2005 -- which was executed more than 20 years after he died.

There is also a series of six drawings by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, from a collection called "Arboretum," which connects ideas using the constructs of trees. In "The Subtle and Physical Body (Male Point of View)," for example, phrases like "flirtatious," "sexy legs" and "eye contact" dangle from the branches, while "conspiratorial leanings" and "poor organizational skills" feed the root system.

On Election Day, Byrne will return to Columbus to add a permanent piece to the conservatory -- a new addition "Arboretum" that will be painted privately on the gallery wall and completed for viewing the following day.

"Bending Nature"