It might be because I just started paying attention, but it seems to me that terrariums are on the rise. These delicate glass globes filled with tiny gardens are like nature sent to earth from space. As we become more aware of our impact on the environment, it’s almost as through we have taken a liking to terrariums because they are a living art of the natural environment, literally protected in a globe of glass. They are a habitat that connect urban living people with the grandiose beauty of nature, while also speaking to our want to own and control it.
New York-based Paula Hayes is a landscape designer and creator of living art. Using blown-glass, silicone or cast acrylic as casings, she creates delicate terrariums that make the viewer feel as though they are the universe, gazing down at the delicate earth.
Her work is currently on display at the Wexner Centre for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. I caught up with her on the phone to talk about her work.
Art Threat: Your work walks a line between art and care, which is particularly emphasized by your Agreement for a Living Artwork. Can you talk about how that came to be, and the importance of your work being considered as artwork rather than just a pretty plant display?
Paula Hayes: The heart of the work lies in actual, literal, physically engaged devotion and care. That can indeed be pretty when done with careful craft and enthusiasm and can be displayed as such as a living testimony to that devotion. In many ways I feel I am an educator regarding mortality and tolerance of having to go on and continue to nurture when things are not pretty and require time and patience to heal a situation or to find the terms by which the living other is happy or yes even pretty or best, beautiful.
I am working toward connecting the act of care with art in a very literal way: and also working to connect the joy of caring for life with what is considered beautiful to what is beyond valuable to what is essential to a humane society.
I believe in a humane use of technology and want to reveal our inventiveness simultaneous to the non invented (by human) world: to have transparency regarding our desires and responsibilities in the natural world.
How many pieces are in the exhibition at Wexner?
There were 100 of the micro terrarium’s, which can be held in your hand. They’re on a topography of recycled rubber. And then there are 8 table top sized ones, which have been growing for up to 7 years, and then one of the pieces from MOMA which is called Egg, which is floor to ceiling, and a large terrarium which is on a pedestal, which is called Iceburg Pedestal, and two crystal terrariums. So 112 terrariums in total, in various situations. They all have their own sculptural lighting which I designed as well.
The topographical piece, of 100 micro terrariums, was made especially for the Wexner. That was made with these beautiful lazer cut shades over each of the lamps. It’s also an intense arranging of both spaces inside and out. A lot of lights all at once.
A lot of them are in blown glass, do you blow it or work with artists?
I draw the glass and work with several different glass blowers. I give the specifics about openings and where they should be. Sometimes really cool things can happen. Within glass there are a lot of variables that can happen within sessions. Some of them have lenses within them. The egg is a combination of acrylic and hand-blown glass. It comes off as serene and contemplative, but in terms of studio production it’s really a frenzy. It’s like walking over a tightrope. It’s funny how it comes out like “ahhh, it’s serene in here!” . The show is quite monochromatic in a way — greys and greens and whites — but on the other end is like… blood, sweat, and tears.
What other elements have you added into the Wexner exhibition?
At the Wexner is a sound piece, that my husband created. I collaborate with him, he’s a composer and animator. It’s digitally produced manipulated sounds of field recordings of birds and piano string and harp string. It has a lot of bass in it as well.
Are you currently working on other exhibitions?
Yeah, I have a show opening in Lever House on November 3, and it’s a massive installation of a giant cast acrylic saltwater aquarium and planting, and a wall piece, which is planted as well. So it’s highly vegetated, desert, tropical, rainforest planting, and saltwater reef. It’s quite complex in terms of fabrication, and it starts in a couple of weeks!
The piece at Lever House is going to be extremely spectral, because its saltwater reefs, it’s incredible, the coral and the starfish. It’s so beautiful, and all of the tropical foliage is very colourful. The groundcover has created a kind of island, so the whole thing will be very bright and colourful as the season changes in New York to cold and grey, it should be quite a shock of life in there.
In planning out the pieces, what are your considerations and what stories are you trying to tell with them? Why did you choose to do a tropical piece, a salt water piece, and a desert piece?
I chose the variety of challenges regarding various ecosystems in the exhibition. The transparency of care and caretakers is an important, essential part of the work. The life support of the aquarium is revealed: not hidden from view. An umbilical cord, of sorts, connects the sensually shaped 200 gallon vessel with its full spectrum light source hanging over it to its life support station in an island of plantings which are planted in planters of my design which are soft and flexible which I designed for green roofs.
Is your exhibition for Lever House one of the largest that you’ve done?
It’s probably one of the largest exhibitions that I’ve done because of the complexity. The pieces are quite large, the aquarium is one singular cast acrylic organic form and it’s about six feet tall by six feet wide, a gorgeous bulbous shape.
See Paula’s work at the Wexner Centre for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio until December 30, 2011, or catch it at Lever House in New York City starting November 3, 2011.
Paula’s first artist monograph is due out in April with Monacelli Press.