Upon the reopening of UTM, outdoor lightboxes illuminate the corridors between the campus buildings, greeting and awaiting the return of some students. These large-scale lightboxes open the window to Martina Pozzan’s Musa × paradisiaca L series, giving students a head start on Burning Glass, Reading Stone, the Blackwood Gallery’s upcoming lightbox program. Aiming to explore the conditions, spaces, and technologies that facilitate our physical and virtual interactions with the environment, the program will feature eight image sets during the 2020-2021 school year.
In my long-awaited return to the Erindale campus, the first lightbox image I encounter depicts an enlarged, gelatinous slice of purple matter between the CCIT and Davis Building. The fluorescent and artificially dyed virus-coloured glow, combined with the smooth, plastic-like rendering of the surface, reminds me of something inorganic and synthetic, perhaps made in a laboratory for scientific research. The caption reveals the image as a plant protein analysis conducted by the Institute of Biosciences and Bioresources in Bari, Italy. I’m relieved to confirm my hypothesis that the picture depicts a laboratory experiment, but the idea of using scientific technology, which stems from the observation of nature, to modify living beings gives me a queasy, dissonant feeling.
As I walk across the entrance of the CCIT Building, I encounter another image, this time with a mass of technicians and glass bottles. At first glance, I’m convinced that the image portrays industrial labourers in a factory setting, employed for a mass production process. But when I read the caption, they’re actually working on agricultural plant breeding, the artificial selection of human-desired characteristics in plants, as opposed to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
I didn’t know what to expect when I came across the image of a cold, oblivious room filled with ample packaged bottles, outside the Davis Building. The caption indicates the bottles are samples of rare plant species. I’m stunned by the commodification of nature and the meticulous yet indifferent attitude in the handling of these rare species. When I study the image of uprooted grass scattered on a white examining dish outside the Kaneff Centre, I can’t help but question: Do humans have the right to intervene, or even alter nature for their own profit?
Back in the 17th century Baroque period, art critics emphasized the Neoplatonic theory of art, the idea that nature is a flawed reflection of absolute truth and that artists must correct and improve upon raw nature to achieve beauty. In today’s world, biotechnology enterprises use modern scientific advancement to alter the biological basis of living entities according to the aesthetic preferences of consumers. Likewise, botanical gardens and collectors treat the accumulation of plant species as a symbol of wealth and prestige. These trends unmask the unresolved ethical dilemma on the right of humans to manipulate the natural world for commercial purposes and capitalist interests. As UTM students gradually repopulate the campus, they’re invited to ponder this issue and share their perspectives on the alliance, and eternal conflict, between humans and nature.