Giovanni Aloi

The history of science and western art are intimately entwined—a keen determination to visually assess similarities and differences pervades both. This approach has nurtured a deep archival tendency—a wish to order, catalog, and hierarchize that over the past five centuries has constructed a limited conception of what we call nature. What we see and the lenses through which we see make a substantial difference to what we can say. As such, the mimesis that characterizes the western tradition of natural history illustration can only capture a partial picture—often a superficial one. That very way of seeing has simultaneously enriched and impoverished our relationship with the rest of the natural world. Thanks to the beautiful botanical illustrations made by many talented artists who collaborated with scientists and researchers we have now access to an enormous archive of information on animals and plants. And yet, this information often times excludes the ecologic and anthropological knowledge-networks that have made plants so important to cultural traditions and environmental ecologies. 

The history of scientific visuality in the west is deeply entrenched in practices that by essence are extractionist and isolating: objectifying aesthetic strategies born of masculine and colonialist mindsets. Devising new aesthetic modalities to represent the non-human, and plants especially, constitutes a valuable opportunity to rethink agency and beauty in order to reposition ourselves in the world not as detached and objective observers but as active participants enmeshed in deep and indispensable kinship. It is in this context that the experimental aesthetics deployed in Microcosms help us to see beyond the objectifying tropes of early natural history and still-life painting. The result is a visually outstanding insight into a deeper realm—a dimension of interconnectedness in which science and the spiritual no longer are mutually exclusive. The images of sacred plants of the Americas comprised in Microcosms thus effectively bridge historical, technological, scientific, and artistic fields of research to lay the foundations of new aesthetic approaches in which different cultural heritages can synergically enhance each other. The result is a fuller, richer, and more complex optic—a humble repositioning of the human gaze pervaded by a kind of awe and wonder that western science had for too long sidelined. 

Dr. Giovanni Aloi, School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Founder and Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. Author of Why Look at Plants?: The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art.

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