Do weeds get a bad rap? A group of artists, scientists, and designers believe wild plants should be revered rather than scorned and to prove the point, they’ve taken over a previously neglected London nature preserve to celebrate Black Mustard, Common Nettle, Feverwort, and other untamed species.
Taking its name from a 17th-century term for botany, the Phytology project features a mural by the remarkable Portuguese street artist known as Vhils. Producer Michael Smythe, co-founder of British arts incubator Nomad, sees a clear connection between Vhils’s hyper-urban graphics and Phytology’s promotion of derelict space.
“Weeds are basically a plant growing in the wrong place, just as graffiti is an artwork or method of communication that exists outside conventional institutions,” says Smythe. “Both are somewhat uncontrollable and persistent, and both offer a certain amount of complexity. To my eyes there’s a direct relationship between street art and weeds, between wild plants, graffiti, urban environments, communication, and culture,”
Much of Vhils’s public art draws its power from the forces of erosion. Instead of adding paint, Vhils, aka Alexandre Farto, often strips away layers of urban detritus to arrive at portraits of ordinary civilians. “Most of my work deals with over-development, social fragmentation, and the consequences of leaving nature behind in our quest for progress,” Vhils says. “The portraits carved into city walls are one way of humanizing these grey spaces. My art is based on the idea of letting time and nature do their work once I’ve finished my contribution.”
For his untitled Phytology mural, Vhils, who started chipping away at cork, rubber, styrofoam, and brick seven years ago, marked an ancient church wall with molecular diagrams. “People can grow wild plants and produce their own plant-based remedies and teas in this nature preserve,” he says. “I wanted to depict molecular structures related to medicinal plants and blended that with the illnesses they fight.”
Influenced by earlier eco-art projects including Mel Chin’s Revival Field, Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks intervention and Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield, A Confrontation, Phytology runs through September 14. The project includes workshops conducted by novelist Nick Hornby’s Ministry of Stories and billboards featuring Talya Baldwin‘s botanical drawings of dandelion, marshmallow, sweet woodruff, and 29 other species of wild plants. Smythe says he looks forward to seeing how the ancient site evolves. “Phytology explores how a piece of public art or a patch of disturbed ground smothered in dandelions can become interesting over time.”