Collecting nature is a centuries-old practice, which allowed us to not only get to know the world, but which also forms the basis of present concepts of Collection and Museum.
Horti Sicci is the Latin name for dried herbariums originating at the beginning of the 16th century. These personal collections of plants and flowers, serving as botanical catalogues and archives, more broadly fulfilled a scientific purpose. Collections were compiled from homelands and landscapes of adjacent countries, and when these territories were exploited, one would leave for other territories driven by curiosity for more exotic specimens. The “conquistadores” of the time were collectors of both experiences and things. The collections formed over time from colonizing expeditions and looted materials were perceived to have scientific value, in addition to visually representing countries and cultures that were inaccessible to the masses.
Today, new media and new communication technologies have supplanted that antiquated process of gathering information. Anyone can obtain a complete picture of a faraway place, population, plant, or animal simply by searching the infinite online archives of the Internet. Creating a physical collection thus seems obsolete and a superfluous expenditure of energy considering the information available in real time. Despite this contradiction, the artist Alberto Baraya has conducted more than ten years of meticulous research on the flora and fauna of various countries he has visited.
Herbarium de plantas artificiales (The Herbarium of Artificial Plants) is the title of an ongoing series, which consists of a large number of encyclopedic tables. Big wooden boards with flowers and plants under glass are stylishly arranged, described, dissected, and catalogued as if newly discovered. As we approach the work, we recognize that the components are all in fact familiar, yet the flora seems revealed in a new light. Soon after we realize that we are not looking at a collection of true naturalism; it is all artificial—fake plants, plastic flowers, waxed fruits, paper leaves….Most of these “contemporary species” were collected in restaurants hotels, on the street, and other public places that the artist traversed during his travels and excursions.
Alberto Baraya’s work is more than a re-enactment of the practice of collecting and classifying species. He investigates the history of European expeditions to the Americas in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and deconstructs the figure of the traveler and the scientist to form a critique of globalization. The artist journeys into private and public spheres and takes home “memories” to be scrupulously classified. All items are accompanied by photographs and texts that describe, often ironically, their origin, where they have been tampered with, to whom they belonged, what they were used for, and so on. By creating this false taxonomy of fauna and flora, Baraya disrupts the concept of object/meaning and reverses the idea of an encyclopedia: It is not about creating knowledge through the collection of things, but about sharing knowledge through stories built around artificially produced objects. The magic that lives in these collections comes from the evocation of nostalgia, imagination, and personal memories with which the audience can identify. At a time when nature is being more and more trodden upon, Baraya reveals the profound relationship that man has with it and nature’s fundamental role in political and social structures.
Another work in which nature plays a central role and becomes a carrier of cultural meaning is Proyecto de árbol caucho. The artist covered a rubber tree entirely with latex and then, once dried-out, he tore off this second skin and exposed it in a different place. Here, Baraya plays again with man’s often brutal actions on nature. His approach could be considered autobiographical, as the artist comes from a country where its tropical nature is an element of identity. By enveloping the tree in latex, he brings back the “blood of the tree” and “helps the tree to make a copy of itself” (cit.). In the context of an art exhibition, the copy of the tree holds a double meaning: It is a work of art and a performative act. The tree, once alive, is now dead; once a symbol of an ecosystem, is now a tragedy of human behavior.