Plants at the heart of exhibition design

Animator in action in front of the green wall of the Garden of Oddness exhibition.
Credit: Espace pour la vie/Mathieu Rivard
Animator in action in front of the green wall of the Garden of Oddness exhibition.
  • Animator in action in front of the green wall of the Garden of Oddness exhibition.
  • Assembly of vegetated boxes in a greenhouse.
  • Building the wall.
  • Continuation of the wall construction.
  • Insertion of the vegetated caissons.
  • Scenic painting of the wall and assembly.
  • The green wall is installed and the exhibition is finalized, it only remains to wait for the visitors.
Plants at the heart of exhibition design

Attracting the eye to counteract “plant blindness”

If you show a picture of a koala in a eucalyptus tree to a large part of the population and ask them the question “What do you see?,” most people’s answer will be “a koala!,” or at best, “a koala in a tree!” Very few people will instinctively mention the plant. That’s what some botanists back in the 1990s called “plant blindness.” Since they’re immobile or similar in color, plants are not much of a focus for the human eye, which has evolved to detect motion, something more threatening.

At the Jardin botanique, through our exhibitions and our stagings, we want to reverse or change that paradigm by attempting to surprise, to enchant and to pique curiosity so that this blindness to plants itself becomes a discovery. The major themes of the beautiful, the ugly, the strange, the surprising, the extremely rare, the intoxicating or even the smelly serve as vehicles for any number of productions. When unusual plants are involved and we put our star insectivores up front, the last thing visitors are likely to do is close their eyes to plants!

What a tremendous privilege it is to work with living beings. At the Jardin we benefit from the plant elite and the very finest horticultural specialists – an invitation to take concepts and staging ideas even further. We have access to a certain diversity, allowing us even more in the way of eccentricities.

A waltz with the horticultural team

It’s impossible to model, assemble or stage plants the same way it’s done with other materials, inert objects or artifacts. Patience, versatility, humility and creativity are your allies when living things are an integral part of the story or else the central focus. We’ve experienced our share of suspenseful moments and had to pull off creative gymnastic feats, sometimes leading to replacement plans just before an exhibit inauguration. Especially when certain plants we’d planned on featuring in the exhibition are coming from overseas and get stuck at customs or don’t survive the shocks caused by transportation.

Exhibitions involving work with plants require a specific methodology. Our exhibits take shape little by little. To mount them, we have to consider spaces in light of discussions with the horticulture teams; to analyze lists of potential star plants; to visit production greenhouses and walk the terrain. At the very outset of our projects we have to select plants and often imagine the effects they make on the basis of photographs and figure out their positioning on day one of the exhibit. The raw ideas for themes grow more refined thanks to hand-in-hand work with the Jardin’s horticultural staff.

The plant in a starring role

Vertical walls; oversized, inclined, curved, wavelike or conical structures; circular bases, hemispheres – all that and more has been mounted over the years for our indoor and outdoor exhibits. I’ve had to create several systems tailored to the plant being exhibited. You don’t present a giant pineapple surrounded by a moss carpet, and a wall hosting succulents, in the same way!

Where plants are concerned, so is watering or irrigation. All exhibition material that is fragile or sensitive to moisture must therefore be avoided. Moreover, when we work with potted plants, our installations have to be designed in such a way that the pot goes unnoticed, as well as the watering devices. We’re very far removed from the classical type of exhibition hall – and I couldn’t be happier!

An infinity of plant palettes

Our work is aimed at the plants always being masters of the house and an integral part of the world in which the concept has developed. The staging showcases the living thing; it’s complementary, and supports the center of attention. As artistic designer, I have to determine when, where and how to intervene to spotlight our stars. Plants are sometimes part of an unusual architecture, sometimes the starting point of an immersive world where the subject is exhibited on a pedestal such as a jewel or a valuable artefact.

The plant world is so rich! It’s almost inexhaustible in terms of the range of themes and ideas and offers an incredible palette of textures, colors and patterns. From one exhibit to the next there are so many options, which allows us to create a host of different atmospheres.

The next time you get the chance to be at the heart of a live-collections exhibition or staging, I invite you to focus your attention on your state of mind, and when you leave the site, to simply take note of the way your eye settles on the nature around you.

Don't miss the exhibition Garden of Oddness
from February 22 to April 30 at the Jardin botanique.

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