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Uncultivated: Questioning How We See Nature

February 14, 2013—“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quotation encapsulates what artist Lynn Cazabon achieves in her exhibition, Lynn Cazabon: Uncultivated.

Uncultivated is an ongoing public art project of georeferenced photographs that capture plant life in urban environments. Cazabon started the project in 2008 and has installed versions in Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Baltimore. “The tiny landscapes of Uncultivated are not grand dramatic vistas,” she explained. “Instead, they are humble pockets of wildness within the cultivated world of the city.”

The exhibition is co-sponsored by the university’s Center for the Environment, which provides a forum to discuss environmental issues. Uncultivated is currently on view in Regents Hall and the Spagnuolo Gallery through April 14, 2013. Regents Hall features six large-scale photographs of locations around campus. Her work in the Spagnuolo Gallery features framed prints from multiple Uncultivated sites.

Each of Cazabon’s photographs includes a QR (quick response) code. Viewers scan the code with a smartphone to connect to the project’s website. Each photograph’s webpage identifies the exact location and plants within the image. “I wanted to contextualize my photographs as much as possible in the context from which they were torn,” she said. Horticulturalist Christa Partain follows Cazabon as she works in order to identify the plants in each photograph. On each webpage, Partain and Cazabon include the plant’s history, origin, ecological function, and various names.

Phytolacca Americana, a plant Cazabon found at Georgetown, is commonly known as pokeweed and was once called poke salad, in reference to its medicinal uses. The ink from pokeweed berries was used to write the first copy of the Declaration of Independence.

These plants, according to Cazabon, can illuminate the natural and political history of the United States. Her work also documents humankind’s effect on nature and nature’s persistence to thrive.

“The public displays are designed to deepen the awareness of the surroundings of the viewer by displaying photographs taken in close proximity,” she said. The photographs installed in Regents Hall echo another of Cazabon’s motivations: marrying art and science to heighten awareness of nature.

She encourages viewers to ask questions. Which plants are beautiful? Which plants are natural? Which plants are cultivated? “The value system that we place upon plants and all nature is a human construct,” she said. The privileges we give to certain plants and not others are evident in her work.

“I think a lot of urban dwellers get this idea that nature is not in the city. It’s in the country or in a park,” she continued. “There’s a lot of neglect and people think, ‘This is not real nature. I don’t need to care for it. I can throw my cigarettes here.’”

Her work brings viewers down to the plant’s perspective. This low vantage point illustrates “the drama of their struggle to survive” in an urban environment.

After choosing a particular location, Cazabon works quickly, noting that the urban landscape can change from week to week. But she also hopes that people recognize how our landscapes are transforming from year to year due to climate change. “In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the climate shift. I’ve seen things change,” she said.

Cazabon believes that the general public must see the changes in order to understand them. “If you don’t see things change, you’re not very motivated to change,” she continued.

With her project, Cazabon shows viewers the plants and landscapes that they ignore every day. “These changes are occurring below the threshold of most people’s attention. Uncultivated is a small attempt to reflect on these changes and raise awareness.”

—Elizabeth Wilson

Related Information

Lynn Cazabon: Uncultivated is on view in Regents Hall and the Spagnuolo Gallery in Walsh 101 through April 14, 2013. For more information, visit the gallery’s website.