Meg Webster has been putting gardens in galleries for years. Her new exhibition opens with Solar Grow Room (all works 2016): four raised beds of plants and moss are bathed in pink light from overhead fixtures. The room’s walls are covered in reflective metal sheeting. It’s not a pleasant environment for people, even though it appears to be conducive to plants. Natural life here is dependent on—and thrives in—an engineered environment. Webster’s literal garden may offer a metaphor for our current era, when “nature no longer exists apart from humanity,” to quote the tagline from law professor Jedediah Purdy’s recent book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.
Arranged in a second gallery, Webster’s other works are more like Minimal sculptures. Their relationship to the Anthropocene, or to politics, is indirect. Stick Structure is a spiraling enclosure built from branches. Volume for Lying Flat is a bed of moss about the size of a mattress, and Mother Mound Salt is a rounded half-sphere comprising nine thousand pounds of salt crystals. It’s easy to imagine encountering these stylized arrangements of natural and living materials outdoors. They point to long cultural traditions of aesthetic cultivation that predate the technology operating in the grow room, and extend beyond Land art and Minimalism. References to the English picturesque or the French decorative garden or the Japanese Zen garden may sound overly quaint, but Webster’s project suggests that such historical touchstones can and should be revived as part of a cultural response to contemporary environmental crisis. —William S. Smith
Pictured: Meg Webster: Solar Grow Room, 2016, four raised wooden planters with moss, grass, flowers and other vegetation, off-grid solar powered electrical system, grow lights, mylar covered walls, each planter 42 by 50 by 50 inches. © Meg Webster. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo Steven Probert.