Matt Christy, Arts Papers, July/August 2012
The French artist, Mathilde Roussel's show Anatomia Botanica (March 24–May 13, 2012) at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art is an installation of sculptures and drawings that makes explicit the biological and anatomical relationship between plant life and the human body. Echology, 2012, is a series of large, clear, glass jars on pedestals with text etched into each one. A jar of bark is labeled "SKIN". A jar full of pollen is labeled "SPERM". A jar containing sap is labeled "BLOOD", and sticks represent bones. For Roussel this anthropomorphic view of nature is justified by an abundance of literal, linguistic, and metaphoric similarities.
In Lives of Grass, 2012, two bodies sculpted out of dirt and wire mesh seem to float in the gallery in dramatic gestures and are covered in green wheatgrass. Although most of their features are lost in the grass, the fingers are carefully crafted, long and thin. Their bodies are contorted as if they are falling or flying in ecstasy or in pain.
In Fertile Landscape, 2012, Roussel put a series of white ceramic pods on the floor in the corner of the gallery with thin, green wheatgrass growing out of narrow holes in the tops of the pods. Their round shape subtly suggests breasts but their handmade loppiness made them look also like white onions.
To bridge the gap between her audience and nature, Roussel recalls the old identification of nature as nurturing and feminine. To engage an audience severely alienated from their place in the natural world requires a certain mystification: the literal refashioning of plant bodies into shape of human bodies. An attempt at sympathetic magic, Anatomia Botanica recalls the ancient idea of earth as mother. But it is worth remembering that the conflation of nature with the feminine was also used by those in power to justify the exploitation of the land. Carolyn Merchant in her book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution describes how with the rise of mechanistic rationality and industrialized production came the view of feminine nature as wild, fecund, chaotic, and in need of control. The goal was no longer to take nature as an interrelated, organic whole but to redesign nature in the ostensibly rational image of man.
It is perhaps Carbon, 2011 – seven large cut-paper forms that droop on the wall – that best navigates the reenchantment between natural forms and human bodies. Black graphite covers both sides of the paper creating shiny, almost metallic surfaces. Roussel has cut the paper into thin-ribbed strips that creates delicate fern like forms. Some are as large as human bodies and protude from the wall, calling to mind a series of dual associations: the way human skin droops and folds or the way leaves curl, the lined stacking of muscle tissue or the repetitive layering of palm fronds. The title of the piece may refer to the shared elemental underpinning of all living things or perhaps to the etymological Latin root word of carbon, carbo, which means coal. The works are like relics or delicate fossils, burnt and blackened. These somber, ambiguous forms locate this interconnected relationship between human and plant in a shared bleak reminder that our future is bound to the fates and extinctions of nature.
Over the span of the show, what started as idyllic, controlled growth began to age, grow and die. The grass became long and shaggy, and the materials in the jars began to rot. Roussel reminded me how wordless nature simply does things, while human culture obsessively symbolizes it, lending its gendered and all-too-human interpretation.