Zina Swanson: Symptoms of Incompatibility

A grafted tree consists of two parts, the scion and the stock; their union constitutes the graft, and the performance of that operation is called grafting.

John Claudius Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening: Comprising the Theory and Practice of Horticulture, Floriculture, Arboriculture, and Landscape Gardening, 1820

In days gone by Zina Swanson may have been celebrated as a purveyor of the ‘useful arts’, or shunned as a heretic. Forging a path between artistic and scientific exploration, Swanson uses the gallery as a rogue laboratory to test propositions that extend well beyond the purely sculptural.

Symptoms of Incompatibility continues a lengthy investigation into the transformative and restorative potential of fragile natural materials where the most delicate and unlikely of objects are invested with new forces and energies.  Guidance is often sought in earlier cultural forms, rituals, and mythologies. The ‘useful art’ of tree grafting offered Swanson a set of techniques to mend the broken sticks that form the base material of her recent work. Yet, as forewarned in the nineteenth century gardening handbooks that guide her, the practice and ethics of grafting are dependent on establishing a successful union between like species.

There is no provision in these texts for the union of human and vegetable components or the living and dead cells that Swanson seeks in order to summon new life from her materials. For this she turns to pagan tree-worshipping rituals that celebrate the close connection between bark and skin, and the shared life-giving properties of blood and sap. Swanson may draw on the grafting techniques of the useful arts, but her ambitions to spark and support life through the union of human and vegetable parts is more closely aligned to ancient rituals and darker alchemical sciences.

This complex sculptural operation begins with a four-leaf clover grafted to a human finger, itself fused to a stick. An elaborate network of tubes, chains, and clamps unfurls from this germinal graft, mimicking the circulatory systems of both plants and humans. Traces of these operations may be found in Swanson’s well-known watercolour and ink drawings. The drawings provide an imaginative space where these propositions and mechanisms exist apart from the physical world, unencumbered by forces like gravity and graft compatibility. Swanson’s sculptures have become increasingly multifarious and bizarre as they strive to push this fantastical and disturbingly-elegant imagery off the page and into real space and three dimensions. The impossibility of fully realising these visions in three dimensional form is but one symptom of incompatibility Swanson’s practice raises, and then embraces as a generative force. This incompatibility provides another material obstacle to overcome, like grafting human and plant forms.

Far from Swanson’s first experiment, this sculpture carries some of the scars and offshoots of its predecessors. Grafting to the neck of the root with attention to bandages (2010) offers a similar if smaller circulatory system of grafted parts.[1] Its stock component is a fossil of a totara trunk, radio-carbon dated at around 1335-1442 AD. Sourced from the Geology department of the University of Canterbury where it was left behind after the completion of a thesis, the fossil was essentially abandoned by science and claimed by art. Pierced with glass droplets of life giving blood, the sculpture awaited (or at the time of writing, still awaits) the ancient totara so revered in Māori mythology to pulsate with energies, mend the broken sticks grafted to its core and transform into a new hybrid entity.

A stack of green oasis bricks brought from a floral supply store provides a rather different stock material for this sculpture. This foam compound imitates the biological structure of plant cells and provides the necessary nutrition for growth, all the while eliminating the need for wire and tape in flower arranging, key components of Swanson’s sculptural kit. Abandoning the quest to channel the ancient energies embodied in the totara fossil, Swanson here draws on the power of contemporary gardening aids (including hormone rooting powder and flower life support material) which promise to outdo nature in fostering plant growth. It’s a sales pitch Swanson wryly suggests is not that distanced from her own alchemical ambitions. While Swanson regularly looks back to old world practices and beliefs, it’s often to allude to contemporary issues and culture. Her revival of old tree grafting techniques knowingly takes place under the shadow of the continued scientific reshaping of the human body and its genetic makeup.

Elaborate hand-blown glass vessels are a feature of Swanson’s practice. She’s previously constructed a Homunculus wand, the symbol of the Alchemist’s ultimate desire to artificially generate life. The network of glass tubes and bulbs here serve a similar life-giving function. It allows for the translocation of water and mineral nutrition essential to a successful graft around the component parts of the sculpture. As with her use of gardening resurrection kits, Swanson craftily eliminates some of the risks encountered in earlier installations. A similar glass vascular system has previously been used in an attempt to resurrect a dead tree lying prone on the gallery floor.[2] Extending to a funnel outside the gallery window, this intricate glass structure sought to collect and transport life-giving water. The rain and promised resurrection never arrived. This time Swanson takes a more practical than mystical approach, flooding the vascular system with water from the office tap.

The blood and body parts subsequently introduced as an animating force in these rogue experiments are often Swanson’s own. Bloody casts of the artist’s fingers serve as a grisly symbol of the creative process and that Dr Frankenstein-like act of giving one’s own life force to your creations that has such a strong lineage in alchemical traditions. This sculpture harks back to an earlier drawing depicting a stinging nettle grafted onto Swanson’s own disembodied finger. Grafting herself to a plant symbolising punishment furthers this uneasy relationship played out in Swanson’s practice between artist and work, and in turn artist and audience. Both bonds are also seemingly subject to symptoms of incompatibility.

Swanson’s ongoing harvesting, use, and nurturing of a range of natural materials locates her practice somewhere alongside the bloated category of contemporary environmental or eco-art. Yet there is none of the back-to-earth wholesomeness and reverence often found in practices like arbour sculpture or landworks that present a ‘living’ natural art. Swanson channels and manipulates natural transformative processes to mine a much darker satirical terrain. This sculpture, and much of her art, is propositionally poised somewhere between life and death, nature and culture, ancient ritual and experimental science. Botanical illustration appears to offer one point of reference, especially manifest in Swanson’s drawings and her broader understanding of the material and symbolic qualities of specific plants and flowers.  Yet this is a practice less attuned to polite Victorian illustrations of a bountiful nature than to the gathering and documentation of plant specimens during periods of exploration, where new species were killed, pressed, and preserved in the name of science and in preparation for facing the unknown. Dead and living plants co-exist in this sculpture. Like Swanson’s drawings, many of these plants are pinned down as specimens between sheets of glass.

Just as some of these plants are drowned in tanks of water, Swanson’s installations are often weighed down with a sense of their own futility. The title of this sculpture signals a knowingness that its grafts between human and vegetable components may well not hold, and that the generation of new life may remain just out of reach. As with the earlier tree, this sculpture might have to be lugged out of the gallery space as dead weight at the end of the exhibition cycle. The title of an earlier installation The risk of it all falling apart (2009) offers another potentially dangerous outcome.[3] Sudden collapse is one of the symptoms of an incompatible tree graft. It is also a risk with sprawling multifarious sculptures made from fragile materials, even those presumably carrying a four leaf clover for protective purposes. In courting such risks and futilities Swanson sets up another potential incompatibility—between alchemy’s incessant testing of material and physical boundaries, and the needs and expectations of art politely situated within a gallery context. Exploring symptoms of graft incompatibility allows Swanson to pose larger questions about the role and function of art and the artist in contemporary culture.

Futility breeds possibility. In the end the dangers posed by the sculpture actually sparking into action and nurturing new life far outweighs any risks brought by these symptoms of incompatibility. Swanson’s art has an uncanny ability to skirt rational thought and persuasively encourage belief. But what would this successful grafting operation mean for Swanson, her practice, and art? The history of alchemy is littered with the dangers of successfully carrying out transgressive practices. She’s undoubtedly aware of the cautionary tale of Arnald of Villanova. The thirteenth century Catalan physician smashed an alchemical flask holding a successfully gestating Homunculus for fear he had committed a mortal sin.[4]

Published in Zina Swanson: Symptoms of Incompatibility, Christchurch: SoFA Gallery, 2010.

[1] Exhibited as part of the group exhibition Ready to Roll, City Gallery Wellington, 29 May – 12 September 2010

[2] Dead Tree, Christchurch: High Street Project, 2004

[3] The risk of it all falling apart, Christchurch: The Physics Room, 2009

[4] William R Newman, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the quest to perfect nature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p.194