A reflection on the Owens Terrarium exhibit

Walking into the Owens Art Gallery, I was met with strange yet compelling music playing from above. The exhibit Terrarium is hosted on the second floor of the Owens, a familiar spot for many Mounties. I have witnessed this space in many forms. I remember it as The Sweetest Little Thing, the home of previous exhibits I have seen, and a classroom for two of my classes in the fall of 2020. I went into the gallery with a purpose, but what I expected was far from what I encountered.

 Before going in, I expected a cluttered room with busy pieces that reflect nature. Going up the stairs, the first thing that struck me were the dark green walls, which surprised me at first; they made the space feel closed in. I had only ever seen white walls in the gallery before. The room was dark and decorated very minimally, with three main installations: the title piece Terrarium (2020), Our Plant Neighbours (2019) and A Warden Case (2021).

When I walked into the room, I immediately saw Terrarium, a set of red sandstone slabs under spotlights. I noted that the stone had a brick-like quality to it, which made me assume it was man-made. I was puzzled by this: the focus on man-made waste rather than something natural and beautiful like I expected. Later, I learned the stones were remains of demolished Mt. A buildings, which connects the piece directly to Sackville. 

To the left of the room, there was a green ottoman facing a TV playing Our Plant Neighbours, a series of video clips taken from city streets. The clips seemed like normal, mundane scenes of city life. They were paired with quiet audio clips of things like footsteps that were not synced to the video. 

 A Warden Case was found at the back of the room. The installation consisted of four tall screens centred around a circular green ottoman. The screens played different scenes of nature, but also of manmade structures. 

 Fourth-year honours chemistry student John Lee said that the music playing from the speakers became more “dark and ominous” when clips of man-made scriptures were shown. 

 Exhibition creators Miranda Bellamy and Amanda Fauteux recorded the electrochemical signals of plants living in habitats altered by humans. The Owens website states that, “their work considers the impossibility of truly communicating with plants, while nonetheless entering their perspectives through the practice of listening.” The exhibition wishes to understand “[what] plants have to say about their lives under colonial capitalism.”

Mackenzie Chase, a fourth-year computer science student and employee at the gallery said that he found the exhibit “very calming.” He specifically enjoyed Our Plant Neighbours because of the way it invites the viewer to focus on aspects of life we do not normally focus on.

I was surprised by the exhibit, but also in awe. It challenged my notion of what a terrarium is. When I think of terrariums, I think of diverse nature, untouched by humans. In reality, a curated terrarium, regardless of what is inside, is man-made. Humans are part of nature, so our habitats (like cities and buildings) could be considered terrariums too. Terrariums are not terrariums without human interference. 

The exhibit was open from June 11, 2022 to September 25, 2022, and was curated by Emily Falvey. Visit the Owens website for more details on current, future and past exhibits.

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