Between May 29 and June 12, community members came together for roughly 1,800 volunteer hours, stringing together 520,000 dried and fresh flowers, plants, and other natural materials for Rebecca Louise Law’s Community installation at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA). Law, a renowned British installation artist, and a number of volunteers engineered thousands of regionally native plants and flowers—a total of roughly 10,000 flora collected from the Toledo area—for the installation currently featured in the museum’s Canaday Gallery. This intentional and very physical embodiment of community—local volunteers gathering together to then gather together local plants—reflects the intention of the exhibition: bringing a community together into the common, physical experience of the relationship between humans and nature.
But what does “community” mean in the modern world? I was excited when I first heard about the exhibit’s concept. In the days leading up to my visit, my Instagram feed was flooded with pictures of locals tapping into their creativity, posing between the leis of dried flowers and beneath their canopies. As someone with a comparatively minimal social media presence, I came to think that all the previews of what appeared to be an “insta-worthy” experience according to my peers would take away from my own experience. I expected nothing less than dozens of teenagers walking through the exhibit with the lens of their iPhone cameras in replacement of their sense of sight. I actually started to dislike the installation, despite the fact that I hadn’t even seen it, or experienced it, in person.
After paying the entrance fee—it’s free for members; $10 for adults; $7 for college students, military personnel, and seniors; $5 for youth between five and 17; and free for kids under four and everyone on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.—and walking into Law’s floral wonderland, I understood why the exhibit blew up online. This exhibit is insta-worthy indeed, and is also one of the most immersive installations the museum has yet to host.
My initial reaction to Community was overwhelming for a few reasons. One not so pleasant reason is because the aggressive smell of dying plants caught me off guard. Once I got past that, however, I was struck by the beauty of the flowers, pine cones, leaves, and other materials which were strung from the ceiling; the thousands of flora were strung together with a delicate copper wire to form the hanging garlands, exploring the interactions of movement, texture, and color.
The garlands envelop visitors’ bodies and make for a deeply engaging experience, all while upholding a “hands-off” policy. The artist and volunteers clearly had a strategy for their placements of the various materials, but the installation neither appeared nor felt in any way calculated. A small portion of the display was intended to resemble a gradient of monochromatic shades, while the rest was more sporadically populated. The textures of the different plants complemented one another and its presentation, while meticulously curated and considered, seemed effortlessly natural and organic.
While the TMA is very clearly attempting to adapt to the times by presenting engaging media and reaching out of the building into the public realm (all of which are needed, relevant, and powerful means of vitalizing our town), there remain experiences that ought to be experienced—without trailers, previews, or appropriation. A spatial and thoroughly immersive experience means just that: an experience. Like a photograph of a Michelin-starred meal can never replace the real dining experience itself, social media and photographic representation of Community is underselling the exhibition, whetting our appetites with flat-tasting fast food.
Like any art, photography has its specific requirements and particular challenges for its viewing experience, and so too does Law’s exhibition require its own pace for the viewer to embody. Most film directors would faint at the thought that their carefully made film may be viewed (at best) on a 2.8’’x5.7” iPhone screen. How, then, can the flattened parameter of the mobile camera for social media ever capture the exhibition hall with its height, its width, its bare-bone walls, the piece’s abundant materiality so purposely, painstakingly and overwhelmingly singled out, and the sense of the visitor’s motion and time in the space? To do so successfully would require its own artistic endeavor, and one which would require a basic appreciation of the particular challenges and successes of this spatial exhibit.
It would be accurate to say Community is deceptively simple. The truth is, behind the aestheticism of the piece there is a deeply-rooted meaning which speaks to the togetherness of our unique region within the global community. Being in Toledo, a corner that often feels cut off from the wider conversation, this is a particularly poignant gesture. The piece encompasses decades of collection, chemical processing, and sheer labor over twenty exhibitions that have been worldwide—in the UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Japan, and Australia. The “community” to which the artist refers actually points to much more than our local area to include the hands, soil, and cultures from outside of our city. Even as it brings the hyperlocal into focus, it also brings the rest of the world in to join us in the exhibition. In one fell swoop, Law’s piece spotlights Toledo’s original landscape and also uplifts our role within a greater sense of place.
Now imagine if the exhibition had been phone-free. The only clue to the garden encased within the marble interior would be the window pane of the entrance. Like a secret garden, perhaps the urge to commodify the piece would feel petty and selfies inconsequential. In contrast, can we ponder what a labor of love it took to stitch each flower together? And if we are to challenge ourselves, what other things can we draw out from the exhibition besides its pretty appearance? Despite all this backdrop, if the visitor is really listening, Rebecca Louise Law’s work does carry a quiet yet powerful message about a global community, beauty, fragility, and what we share in common as stewards in the world.
What at first irked me is now an exhibit I highly appreciate. Although the heavy instagram coverage of Community might serve as a bridge to demographics who might not visit TMA otherwise, once the visitor arrives he/she would receive much more than was advertised. A part of me wondered if the power of instagram was useful for this very purpose. Was it not a good thing for the piece to have a wider exposure, however it took to get it? At least the Instagram-hooked teenagers, in their quest to avoid the summer heat wave, have an opportunity to take advantage of an interactive experience in their own community. If a photo-op was what got them there, so be it. Yet if the only purpose was to take aesthetic and photogenic selfies, then I would think twice. For me, Community was a fulfilling sensory experience and what I would consider the best use of the Canaday Gallery to date, one that requires more than a quick stroll with phone in hand to do the piece justice. 🌸