Rooted Beings at Wellcome Collection

In March 2022, Wellcome Collection opens Rooted Beings, a major new exhibition reimagining our relationship with plants and fungi. 
 
West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, Wellcome Collection, and the De La Warr Pavilion are currently working with interdisciplinary designers RESOLVE on a major new commission, ‘Re-wilding: Coast, Countryside, City’. Making use of the rich resources and histories at each partner site, RESOLVE are investigating humanity’s entangled relationship with the vegetal world, inviting new perspectives on environmentalism and re/wilding, long-term thinking, and practical solutions to living equitably with others and with nature. By researching new and ancient approaches to land use while on residency at West Dean College, they will use this knowledge and build collaborations with young people in Bexhill and London to create a new commission for inclusion in Wellcome Collection’s Rooted Beings exhibition in March 2022, and a solo exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion in May 2022. You can read more about RESOLVE and the new commission in our blog post here
 

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About the exhibition

As the current environmental crisis exposes the vital yet fragile connections between human and planetary health, this exhibition will present plants as so much more than simply a resource for human consumption, tools or even decoration. Through new artist commissions as well as botanical specimens and historic works, it will explore what we can learn from plant behaviour as we rethink the significance of these ancient, complex, and sensitive beings. Rooted Beings will encourage us to rethink the way we see plants and embrace wildness in our lives, landscapes and hearts. 

The theme of colonial violence and indigenous knowledges takes as a starting point, the botanical specimens and information brought to Europe from Latin America in the 18th and 19th centuries during the scientific expeditions and housed in the archives of Wellcome Collection and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This period saw an unprecedented moment of global expansion in knowledge, trade and industrialisation, which happened at the expense of indigenous cultures being erased and ecosystems destroyed. Both artists’ works demand a move beyond this instrumental approach to the living world, instead reasserting the role of plants in nurturing our ecosystems and our imagination. 
 
Patricia Domínguez’s new commission Matrix Vegetal, produced in collaboration with Delfina Foundation, will bring together experimental research on ethnobotany (the study of how people from particular areas or cultures use indigenous plants), healing practices, and the commercialisation of wellbeing. The installation will feature five futuristic totems displaying botanical reproductions from Wellcome collection and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, honouring the narratives of violence and healing embodied by the displayed material. 
 
Joseca, a Yanomami artist from the Amazon rainforest, produces detailed drawings that combine images of shamanic plant spirits, summoned to restore health and fight off disease, with scenes from daily life in the forest. Joseca’s drawings from the collection of the Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Paris) illustrate the significance of trees as central to the ecosystem that supports human and non-human life. 
 
Simultaneously, installations by Eduardo Navarro, Gözde Ilki, Ingela Ihrman, explore the theme of symbiosis and what can be learnt from plant behaviour and our complex interdependence with the vegetal world. Eduardo Navarro’s commission The Photosynthetics comprises a series of drawings on biodegradable paper envelopes containing the seeds of London plane trees that, after the exhibition closes, will be returned to the soil activating the seeds within. In collaboration with philosopher Michael Marder, Navarro has produced a series of instructions showing how to experience the exhibition as a plant, inviting us to embark on a journey towards vegetal enlightenment. 
 
Meanwhile Gözde Ilkin will present  As the roots spoke, the cracks deepened, a series of hand–sewn textiles expanding her interest in plant intelligence and interspecies symbiosis creating visions that transcend human, animal and plant categories; and Ingela Ihrman’s A Great Seaweed Day, inspired by the artist’s love of swimming in the sea will propose a deep connection between the ecosystems of the oceans and the human bodies. The seaweed sculptures suggest links between her intestinal flora and marine flora. Ihrman will also present The Passion Flower, a costume activated by the artist in a performance where the audience pollinated the plant by drinking ‘ nectar’ from the flower, an act of intimacy and attraction. 
 
Some key historical object highlights include: a 19th Century textile depicting Jambūdvīpa, the central continent of the middle world in Jain cosmology; illustrations from John Ernest Weavers’ The Ecological Relations of Roots; and an Egyptian papyrus from 400AD thought to be the earliest fragment in existence of an illustrated herbal for medical purposes. 
 
Finally, the theme of wilding encourages us to break down the artificial wall between nature and culture to ‘rewild’ our land and our minds through new commissions by Sop and RESOLVE Collective
 
Artist Sop returns to Wellcome Collection to present The Den 3, a new installation where Sop narrates the process of constructing a secret den in the wood near their house in London, as they were shielding during the Covid-19 pandemic. It reveals how their relationship with the woods chimes with their experience of illness, finding solace in the longevity of nature set against our relatively fleeting human lives. 

Resolve Collective at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation. Photo by Chris Ison

In collaboration with Wellcome Collection Youth Programme, De La Warr Pavilion and West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, RESOLVE Collective will present a new commission which will take the form of action-research programme inviting young people to think through ideas around stewardship, racialised privilege, and colonial histories in the UK countryside. 
 
Exhibition curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz said: 
Rooted Beings proposes a space to meditate on our relationship with the natural world and its impact on ecosystems, our liveliness and our health. The exhibition is essentially an entanglement of collections and artists projects that invite us to embark on a meditative reflection on plant life and what we can learn from it: to be rooted, attentive, flexible and caring – to attain vegetal wisdom.” 
 
Rooted Beings is presented at Wellcome Collection from 24 March to 29 August 2022. It is curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz with Emily Sargent, and it is a collaboration between Wellcome Collection and La Casa Encendida, Madrid. Commission partners: Delfina Foundation, De La Warr Pavilion, West Dean College of Arts and Conservation. 
The exhibition is accompanied by ‘This Book is a Plant: How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World’, published by Wellcome Collection and Profile Books.