Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Artist in Residence 2011 - Helen Earl


From 9 February to 22 March 2012, the work of 2011 Artist in Residence, Helen Earl will be on show at the Red Box Gallery within the National Herbarium of NSW.

Cultivate examines the notion of cultivation in relation to the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. Cultivate reflects on the meaning of cultivation in the sense of the physical tending of the garden, the promotion of plant growth and the fostering of scientific, cultural, environmental and historical knowledge. The work undertaken for this residency has been a response to exploring the connections that exist between people and plants in the oldest botanical garden in Australia.  

Helen-Earl-Exhibition   >> Download exhibition brochure

Catalogue Essay

(by Clare Bond, 2012)

The word cultivate is an apt metaphor for artwork that responds to the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. It suggests the encouragement of growth; gardens; agriculture, but also references education, and learning.

The Garden staff cultivate specimen plants from around the world, while providing a place of peace and beauty for the public in the middle of Sydney’s Central Business District. Coexisting with the Garden is the National Herbarium of NSW, whose purpose is scientific research. It contains an international collection of over 1 million plant specimens. As such it clearly articulates a sense of cultivation, of growing and learning. But these are not the only meanings of the world cultivate. To cultivate also has social connotations, suggesting deepening understanding.

In this exhibition, Helen Earl examines all of these associations. As the 2011 Artist in Residence, her work forms a poetic response to the place. The resulting sculptural pieces are exquisitely beautiful: delicate flowers, plants and objects observed, reproduced in clay and artfully arranged. Underpinning that beauty, however, is a sound conceptual base, emerging from research and deep thinking about the Gardens and the Herbarium.

Earl’s practice is experiential: it emerges from her lived bodily experience of a particular environment, walking through it, looking, smelling, hearing and touching. At the same time it is conceptual, developing out of contemplation of what she observes while there, and the research it sparks.

Her Of Silence and Slow Time, for example, was inspired by participating in one of the volunteer-guided tours of the Garden. While walking past the Ginko biloba (or Maidenhair Tree), the guide mentioned that the leaves remind many people of butterflies. Further research revealed the tree’s prehistoric origins, and its original global distribution. While it is a popular garden plant, the only remaining wild stands of the trees exist in China.

These thoughts were galvanised when Earl found an antique bamboo rake. Its shape echoed that of the Ginko’s leaves. Bamboo is readily associated with China. Rakes are widely used in cultivating the Garden, but also have associations with Zen practice. When gardening (and raking) one becomes immersed in the repetition of the act, and time is suspended. 

The rake hangs on the wall, intertwined with clay Ginko leaves and butterflies. A few leaves are at rest on the floor beneath, as if they had just fluttered there. These invite the viewer to metaphorically pick up the rake, and complete the act, thereby evoking bodily memories.

This work is representative of the considered evolution of Earl’s work during her residency at the Gardens, and the inherent layering of meaning and association in it. It encapsulates ideas about cultivation, the collection of plants, and the preservation of species. At the same time it speaks of physical encounters: through walking and working in the Garden.

Of Silence and Slow Time, along with the other works in the exhibition, thus poetically evokes the work of the Garden and Herbarium in every sense: cultivation, research, preservation, as well as providing a place of respite and beauty in the heart of the city.





Photo: Greg Piper

Spring Walk dustpan

Flower installation at Boronia Park Public School
Installation at Boronia Park Public School. Detail of installation at Boronia Park Public School
Detail of installation at Boronia Park Public School.