The Botanical Mind brought together work by over 60 visionary, surrealist, modern, outsider, indigenous Amazonian and contemporary artists to reveal the ongoing significance of the vegetal kingdom to human life, consciousness and spirituality.
Spanning more than 500 years and including historical and ethnographic artefacts, textiles and manuscripts, it looked both backwards and forwards, engaging with various cultures and wisdom-traditions to reappraise the importance of plants to life on this planet.
Many of the works in the show revealed an encoded, vegetal intelligence inherent in plant forms – patterns that can be thought of as blueprints for the natural world. These same designs relate to an ancient metaphysics found across civilisations and through time – characterised by the connected principles of the micro- and macro-cosmos, sacred and fractal geometries, as well as the psychoactive visions induced by mind-manifesting (entheogenic) plant medicines.
The Cosmic Tree is a symbol that appears in numerous religions and mythologies, representing a pathway between worlds that is often also marked by the form of the serpent. The mandala is another universally arising motif that connects us to the universe through the image of a plant. Common to Indian, Japanese, Persian, Mesoamerican and European religions, mandalas are amongst the oldest spiritual symbols and act as aids to meditation, enabling transformative states of consciousness through the focus of the mind. Plants not only symbolise this cosmic axis and transformative potential, they embody it at the core of their being – performing a kind of everyday alchemy, transforming light from the sun into a limitless diversity of shapes, colours, forms and patterns.
Many indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest have co-existed harmoniously with their environments for thousands of years; through an alliance with the forest itself and a way of life that is grounded in ancestral wisdom traditions and practical knowledge. They have developed a system of sacred geometries imbued with cosmological significance, derived in part from their visions and experience with powerful plant medicines, in particular, Ayahuasca. These kené (designs) are painted directly onto their bodies or reproduced as textiles or beadwork and the exhibition includes artefacts from the Shipibo-Conibo and the Huni Kuin peoples. Artists from the Yawanawá community, who live in Amazonian Brazil, were due to come to London to create an installation in the galleries specially for the show, and share their traditional music. Sadly, due to the coronavirus pandemic, they were unable to travel.
In the mid-twentieth century many western artists and writers began to explore eastern philosophy and mysticism, and to experiment with psychoactive, placing these ideas and experiences at the centre of the counter-cultural movement that swept across America and Europe. Nowadays, contemporary artists are re-engaging with both sacred and secular aspects of plant-thinking and being, finding in the plant kingdom new models for thinking about life and consciousness, as well as increasingly diverse ethical, social, scientific and aesthetic approaches to a more-than-human world. The Botanical Mind offered a glimpse into the boundless mystery, richness and cultural and spiritual significance of the vegetal kingdom and in doing so it invited us to reflect on our own relationship with plants – what they can teach us about ourselves, and how we might share our world with them.
A 232-page fully illustrated publication is available here with essays by the curators and contributions from leading thinkers in the fields of alchemy; art history; plant ontology; Gaian ecology; anthropology; and ethnobotany. You can also discover more at botanicalmind.online, a programme of podcasts, films, music, images, writing and commissions by artists and thinkers expanding on many of the ideas and issues rooted in the exhibition.