Living sculpture – Neukom Vivarium

I’ve talked before (here, here and here) about my love of sculpture. For me, sculptures, especially those found outside, are about this great mix of art and nature. Sometimes the sculptures are made of natural materials, sometimes they’re enhanced by an amazing backdrop or sometimes they enhance the nature around them by encouraging you to look at it in a new light. You can never fully keep nature out, you see it start to grow on or around outdoor art. And anything robust enough to stand the Great Outdoors is usually amenable to climbing, sitting or general human interaction.

So the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle was first on my list of tourist destinations (after the chocolate factory, of course). The Sculpture Park is set pretty much in town, in a landscaped area between main roads and the sea. On a Saturday morning it was clearly a mix of a practical (runners, dog walkers, cyclists and a slightly bizarre fashion photo shoot) and tourist location, what a perfect use of space.

I’d wandered round the park a couple of times and was just about to leave when I saw the sign for a vivarium. Still determined to leave I stopped via the shop for the obligatory postcard, and there it was again, “Field guide to the wildlife of Mark Dion’s Seattle Vivarium”. Buying the booklet mainly for the beautiful botanical drawings I headed off to find this installation.

The Seattle Art Museum, who manage the sculpture park, describe the ‘Neukom Vivarium’ as a “hybrid work of sculpture, architecture, environmental education and horticulture that connects art and science” (you can read their description here. In practical terms the vivarium is centred around a 60 foot long tree ( a ‘nurse log’) that fell naturally in a nearby forest and is now housed in a purpose-built greenhouse. In a forest ecosystem the death of a tree provides a home and energy source for many more life forms; as insects, fungi, lichens and other organisms all start to inhabit the fallen tree. At first the tree will provide shelter for insects, some of which will tunnel their way into the trunk, and support for small plants and lichens. As life grows on and in the tree this speeds up the decay process, mobilising nutrients for larger plants. The branches and hollows in the tree trap material falling or blown in from elsewhere, which then rot down and create rich organic matter to support this thriving new ecosystem. This tree lay on the forest floor for sometime before its transfer to the greenhouse, and so had naturally become seeded with the beginnings of this mini ecosystem, all of which can now be viewed within the greenhouse. The odd pruning aside the system is left to run as nature intended. Temperatures are controlled but natural, so seasonal cycles occur, and ‘rainfall’ is applied as needed. The greenhouse provides both a scientific experience (field guides and magnifying glasses are provided to help identify plants and insects) as well as an artistic one (several artists provided beautiful botanical drawings of species found within the nurse log, which have been transferred to blue and white tiles covering the walls of the vivarium).

One of the visions of the artist, Mark Dion, was for people to visit the log over time, perhaps popping in yearly or bringing their children to see the log they once saw ten years before, noticing the changes with time. Speaking to the volunteer on duty in the greenhouse it seems this wish has become a reality, with some locals popping in monthly and commenting on changes, both large and small.

I’m sure some people will ask “is this art?” but I agree with Dion in the video below (and here) – does it matter? It’s attractive, informative and engaging. It’s everything I like about the thin line between science and art. And one of the best things I’ve seen in a gallery, ever.

Another favourite from the Sculpture Park, this walkway was covered by translucent pictures of a cloudy Seattle sky. It allowed views of the surroundings through the art, with the picture modifying the surroundings and the surroundings modifying the picture depending on the light or where you stood.


(Seattle Cloud Cover, Teresita Fernández 2006)

And as I walked back into Seattle I stumbled upon these steps leading to a small garden with the photosynthetic equation inlaid as part of a mosaic.

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2 thoughts on “Living sculpture – Neukom Vivarium

  1. Pingback: Art shorts :: Gardens of Alcatraz | Pipettes & Paintbrushes

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