Life Under Glass
Osborne’s super-sized seeds tell a scary story
By Gregory Beatty
LYNDAL OSBORNE: AB OVO
SHERWOOD VILLAGE GALLERY
UNTIL MARCH 21
When it comes to philosophical conundrums, most everyone is familiar with the chicken and egg one. Instinctively, I think, we favour the egg. Without an egg, after all, there’s no chicken. It’s as simple as that. But where did the egg come from? For it to exist, a chicken would’ve had to lay it. Wouldn’t it?
Why something like “Which came first, the apple or the seed?” never caught on as a similarly popular conundrum, I’ll never know. It presents the same dilemma. You can’t have an apple without a tree grown from seed. But for seed to exist a tree would’ve had to produce it.
I wouldn’t read too much into Lyndal Osborne’s decision to title this exhibition of seed sculptures ab ovo (Latin for “from the beginning, the origin, the egg”). I don’t think she’s aligning herself with the seed-came-first camp. Rather, she’s just emphasizing the important role seeds play in plant reproduction. They’re usually pretty tiny, so they’re easy to overlook, especially compared to the yummy and nutritious fruits and vegetables many plants yield, or the beautiful flowers and strong fibres they produce. Even just the generally robust nature of plants. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, that sort of stuff.
Osborne solved the size issue by scaling her sculptures to resemble images of seeds taken by electron microscopes. Some, oddly, look like mini-versions of the fruits and vegetables they ultimately produce. Others look like weird microscopic creatures grown monstrous. Seen magnified, the seeds have a striking diversity — each equipped with special surface adaptations to help it survive in a harsh and competitive environment. It is to marvel.
Just consider all the neat ways plants have devised to reproduce. With fruits and vegetables, the seed is typically inside the edible part. Birds and animals nosh, wander around for a bit with the seeds in their guts, then “plant” them. Not only does this distribute the seeds widely, it also supplies them a nutrient base — excrement — to assist in germination.
Then there’s plants like dandelions and poplar trees. When they go to seed, the wind disperses hundreds of tiny fluff-balls.
But as wily as plants are, they’ve been having a tough go of it lately thanks to us. We pollute, mess with the climate, sprawl out in all directions from our cities, and farm and ranch more and more land to feed our skyrocketing population (we’re scheduled to hit seven billion in July 2012, btw).
To grow cheap food we monocrop and spray harmful herbicides and pesticides everywhere. Lately, we’ve even begun to genetically modify plants to improve their fitness.
One example Osborne mentioned in her opening talk was the insertion of a gene from a fish adept at surviving in cold ocean temperatures into the DNA of corn to enhance its hardiness to frost. With its traditional southern range shrinking because of global warming, the plan is to grow corn in more northern latitudes that are occasionally prone to early frost.
Well, that’s freaky.
Osborne references this contentious, largely corporate-driven scientific practice by sculpting her seeds out of a broad assortment of organic materials — corn cobs, crab shells, pine cones, chestnuts, animal bones.
Other times, plants are bio-engineered to become herbicide resistent. Or to increase yield. Or boost nutritional content. Or to be sterile, so farmers will have to buy new seeds every year.
Arguably, not all of what’s being done is bad. Some of it is just accelerated selective breeding. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years.
But mostly it’s about profit.
The result? Bio-diversity — that marvelous variety you find in nature — is very definitely being imperilled. And maybe, so is our health. With all the tinkering that’s gone on with the fruits, vegetables and grains we eat and feed to other animals we eat, who the hell knows what long-term impact these Frankenfoods will have on us?
Fortunately, governments worldwide have been passing aggressive environmental laws to protect endangered species and ha ha hahaha, yeah, right. No, as usual, politicians and policy wonks do the least they can. So we’ve got a few token seed banks to try to preserve seed from as many wild plants as possible. At least we get some art out of it. Yippee.
While Osborne was researching ab ovo she visited the Millenium Seed Bank in London. Since opening in 2000, the bank has collected and classified over 3,000 seed varieties from 48 countries (out of an estimated 242,000 plant species thought to exist in the world). When batches of seeds arrive, Osborne said, they’re inspected visually and even x-rayed for flaws and contamination. Then they’re stored at minus 20 degrees C. Periodically, some seed is taken out and planted to replenish the bank. Basically, this is all just a mega-exercise in damage control.
By storing the seeds under small glass domes on long shelves Osborne recalls the practice of Victoria-era scientists, when science really started to flourish, storing plant and animal specimens, perhaps even the odd human fetus, in jars of formaldehyde in their labs.
In other words, these seeds have more of a museum feel to them than a bank feel, where stuff’s regularly deposited and withdrawn.
Not a lot grows in formaldehyde.
There’s a message here somewhere, I think.