The Nightmare of Nathaniel Ward
Catalogue Essay for Ara Dolatian, Five Walls, Melbourne, 2017
Progress and Passivity by Ara Dolatian is an exhibition comprised of sculptural terrariums with alien biomorphic forms that speak of mobile places. These objects contain local plants within deformed spheres (unlike spherical terrariums, these are warped and twisted) that are supported by long thin legs. Even though they are fully functional and capable of sustaining plant life for the length of the exhibition, they evoke unnamable shapes – wicked entities that exist somewhere in between a camouflaged insect, a floating island, and a corrupted household object. These uncanny effects are exacerbated in some of the pieces with the use of a misting system and seemingly polluted water, both of which create a worrisome atmosphere by conjuring the otherworldly and the impure. However, Dolatian’s sculptures are also beautiful, as they are shaped by glossy surfaces, a careful execution and uplifting materials (I dare you not to feel good while staring at plants on timber).
When the sculptures are looked at from below, one also notices that the outline of the timber that supports the containers are reminiscent of the geographical delineation of nations, cities or suburbs. With this gesture, Ara Dolatian concretes a fantastical scene, in which the biomorphs appear to be on the verge of departure, seemingly ready to disappear from our gaze and carry their micro-worlds somewhere else. In fact, this act of containing and transporting is intrinsic to the history of terrariums.
The terrarium as we know it was first devised by an amateur botanist from London in the 19th century: Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. Originally known as the “Wardian Case”, Ward manufactured these containers in response to the pollution that was killing his plants (his house was surrounded by factories). His “discovery” (a nauseating word that evokes the repulsive archetype of an illustrious-white-man enlightening the world with his uncontrollable genius) took place by accident when he sealed an unsuspecting moth with moist soil in a jar and later noticed sprouts growing inside the container. He observed that the moisture condensed on the glass and then returned to the soil, maintaining a continual state of humidity that allowed the vegetation to survive without watering.
This allowed Ward to grow plants in his polluted urban environment, but more broadly, it also solved a colonial issue: how to transport plants during long voyages at sea. In 1833, he successfully shipped British plants to Sydney, and received Australian plants in return. The most interesting aspect of this story being that this is probably how invasive species and noxious weeds landed in your latte-sipping suburb.
Ara Dolatian’s Progress and Passivity captures the utopian sentiment but also the pessimism associated with this process of colonial exchange. With the idea of progress having quickly decayed into a perverse ideal that has justified environmental destruction, imperial expansion and human exploitation, it seems appropriate to articulate this notion with forms that are equal parts familiar and unhomely. The terrarium catches this sense of passivity, as it is a decorative item that brought fragments of Britain to the home of many Australians at the cost of irreversible environmental damage. Dolatian registers this deterioration of the colonial dream by building terrariums that seem to have mutated into strange shapes during a nightmarish turn.
Hershey, David R. “Doctor Ward's Accidental Terrarium.” The American Biology Teacher, vol. 58, no. 5, 1996, pp. 276–281