Author: Christine Schott, PhD

In 1933, a British freighter ship successfully transports a small selection of English native grasses and ferns to the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, and returns to England with a sample of Australian plant species that survive the three month journey half way around the globe. The history of plant transport up to this point had been one of failed naval architectural and botanic experiments: gardens on islands such as St. Helena half way between Asia and Europe that served as fuel stops for tropical plants. Ship models that included ambitious “plant cabins”, or special recovery gardens in England to save the plants that made it across half alive. Nathaniel Ward's 1930 invention of the Wardian Case, a simple wood or iron and glass structure made this transfer possible and economical, spurring a boom in the global exchange of botanicals in Britain’s colonial economy. The Wardian case proved that plant transport only required minimal technological intervention. A construction that is practical and light enough to travel around the globe, and that in turn facilitates the transport of fragile materials, the Wardian case becomes the sculptural template and vantage point for the structural register of Small Decors (2014).

As installation, Small Decors integrates its materials into a circumscribed space, remaining aware that this space has to be a temporary and movable one. The perfunctory, temporary quality of the piece in turn encourages a different type of movement through the exhibition space. The visitor lingers, spends time. and moves through the space exploratively, helping the temporal and spatial radius of the exhibition space expand. In Victorian England, The Wardian case becomes one prototype invention for the protection of living organic materials. Similar architectural projects such as greenhouses and wintergardens supply more visible evidence for the era’s preoccupation with housing exotic plants in interior garden spaces. Small Decors references this subset of landscape and garden architecture of the period, and draws on the design of Glasgow’s landmark structure, the Kibble Palace. Its history reveals a structure that is no more fixed than that of Corkery’s temporary installation.

Originally named ‘The Kibble Crystal Art Palace’ and built on the estate of John Kibble, the glasshouse was later donated to the city of Glasgow. This transposition to the new site of the Glasgow Botanic Gardens required the dismantling of the glass structure and sent its component parts on a journey by barge from Loch Long to the city of Glasgow. Its design serves as blue-print for the aesthetic vocabulary of Small Decors. The paneled glass dome roof of the Kibble palace becomes visual cue for the production of a space that needs to be both solid and structurally open to sustain its fragile contents. Wintergarden structures permit plant species to thrive in non-hospitable climate conditions. The structure must therefore erect airtight boundaries to fend off an inhospitable exterior. Yet those boundaries are made of glass. The wrought iron frame appears weightless as structural support for a delicate assemblage of window cells that allow sunlight to enter.

Even though palaces like the Kibble Palace are much larger and built of more enduring materials such as iron and steel, in this installation the Wardian case and the large dome roof greenhouse structure retain their structural and material relatedness. The ceiling work in Small Decors quotes from the Wardian cases basic and unassuming plywood frame. The palace’s sky-light window pattern is taped onto the ceiling with masking tape, echoing the plywood's color and thin yet sculpturally raised texture. Emphasizing the perfunctory, yet elaborately crafted qualities of these structures helps Corkery make visible what these buildings strive to accomplish as aesthetic fabrications. Their interiors fend off not only an external space, but also work to counteract the course of time. As architectures they both freeze the progression of seasons in their warm and tropical interior, and become climates. Spaces in which controlled changes in humidity, sun exposure and temperature facilitate a different kind of movement: plant growth. The interior becomes a habitat, a special area in which certain climate conditions allow for a specific set of vegetation and species diversity to take hold. But it also becomes a place outside time, its qualities as a place with certain controlled features help the garden to defeat decay.

As Karsten Harries maintains, architecture in itself is already a defense against the “the terror of time”, its goal is not only to domesticate space but to make space endure. David Harvey makes a larger argument regarding the work on space to counteract the fast pace and temporal experience of modernity. As much as architecture, and here by extension the installation, are perceived as spatial works, they are deeply invested in impacting the progression of time. Yet the cyclical logic of the seasons is not simply interrupted in the wintergarden. The plants in these conditions thrive, which means that they grow, develop, germinate and change. Time is still progressing, but according to a different pace. The speed with which these plants have been transported on a ship across the globe, a speed that is unsettling and accelerated, slows down to plant-scale in these interiors.

Corkery doesn’t grow live plants in her installation. The plants that she grows are reproductions, such as the ferns on her silkscreen prints. The print’s seriality becomes another temporal marker of her piece, yet the seriality of her print work remains tightly bound to the spatial logic of the installation. Her silkscreen panels are stacked like building materials, which adds a sculptural weight to the room, and renders them visible as objects. Yet stacking these prints compromises their status as unicum, which underscores the prints’ inherent qualities as replicates.

Elizabeth Corkery’s work has explored the role that artifice and aesthetics play in landscape design and its afterlife in other artistic media, especially cinema, in her previous works, Nowhere is there a Garden (2013) and Garden Non-Happening (2014). Gardens such as the Gardens at Versailles command a large three-dimensional space that is designed to conceal its work of mimicry. It creates the illusion of a natural exterior, while also creating an interior space, a place that contains, masters, and seizes power over its organic materials. Even though these outdoor gardens are spatial constructions, and not meant to be perceived as flat reproductions, its plant elements achieve a certain sculptural quality that allow visitors to experience the space as aesthetic object, one that as spatially open it is, can never be fully penetrated but must be contemplated as surface. In her installations Corkery pursues these surface qualities in media that in more obvious ways function as reproductions: cinema and print. These media help Corkery to challenge the dominance of spatial registers in landscape design, and draw them into a formal structure that foregrounds temporal progression.

The sculptural possibilities of landscape design also elicit experiments with scale. Small Decors establishes a connection between the proliferation of wintergarden structures in 19th century Britain, and the popular Victorian craft activity of miniature toy theaters, made from cardboard paper and assembled at home with the help of instruction manuals. These miniatures also are open interiors, collapsing the boundaries between private domestic space and theatrical stage visible to a public. Corkery depicts illustrations of the toy stage curtains in small gouache paintings on paper. The curtain is not yet raised on these scenes and there is an impacted quality to the composition. Their frames provide the same kind of structural support and minimally restricted space that the plants in the arboretum thrive in. The toy theaters gesture towards a wider narrative and temporal space as well, a place where dramatic action will unfold in a tightly circumscribed place. But just as Small Decors leaves out the plant contents of the Wardian cases, these stages do not exhibit dramatic action. Corkery chooses to show the bare bones of a wintergarden interior, it’s walls contain no glass and become open to their exterior. In the case of Small Decors this is the exhibition space, which strives to remain permeable. Like the Wardian Case, Small Decors transports more than plants and contents, and transports habitats. Even though such shipments are long-distance projects, their ultimate goal is to safeguard the plants’ slow-motion growth. This requires a deceleration of time, which in the installation becomes a deceleration of movement through space. The space retains a structural openness, and quite differently from a greenhouse like the Kibble Palace, breaks up the pathway and flowerbed set-up, and encourages a less constricted, explorative movement through its space.

The elements of the installation, and the installation itself, remain perfunctory, ready to be disassembled. The effect is that the visitor's movement through the space, both in temporal and spatial terms, decentralizes and decelerates. The visitor lingers, spends time, and roams. This is what a wintergarden such as the Kibble Palace encourages as well, but Small Decors reattunes the balance between control and permeability, and by that makes visible the temporary nature of her installation.

Just as the toy theaters are models built from fragile materials but containing a much more expansive space, both as imaginary and as reproduction, Small Decors as installation strives to maintain a spatial openness and perfunctory character, so that it can sustain its life contents.

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Harries, Karsten. “Building and the Terror of Time.” Perspecta 19 (1982).
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity : an Enquiry Into the Origins of Cultural
Change. Oxford, UK: B. Blackwell, 1989.