Off the Metro-North line in the Bronx, shimmering vultures hunch between mid-fall ivy blooms and low-lying wildflowers, and opaque glass body parts emerge from the densely vegetated rainforest inside the New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) conservatory. The exhibition, titled …things come to thrive…in the shedding…in the molting…, is the culmination of artist Ebony G. Patterson’s years-long residency and has now been extended through October 22.
Patterson’s show expands across the sprawling grounds, but it starts in NYBG’s library.
A video titled “The Observation: The Bush Cockerel Project, A Fictitious Historical Narrative” (2012) plays across three screens in a dark room on the library’s ground floor. The film, staged in a lush, almost neon-green forest, depicts two adults caring for a young child. It invites reflection on the exoticization of tropical places: How do Americans perceive the people who call these locations home, and what does it mean to purchase a $35 ticket and walk through them as they have been reconstructed in New York?
A selection of specimens from NYBG’s herbarium can be found on the library’s fourth floor. The display cases exhibit extinct plants, dried and accompanied by historical facts and contextualizing information (we are, after all, in the midst of a human-made mass extinction). Wall text explains that Patterson was inspired by these lost species, something that becomes exceedingly evident later on.
An open-air staircase winds up two more flights, where Patterson’s large-scale, immersive installation “…fester…” overtakes the library’s topmost rotunda room with a planetarium-style ceiling that floods the dimly lit room with sunlight, even on a late fall afternoon. Wallpaper decorated with floral designs on a deep navy blue backdrop covers the space, echoing a central sculpture that is a thick tangle of brightly colored tapestries punctured with white blown-glass glass flowers and gilded bones.
But the opposite side of the shimmering work reveals a haunting stack of red latex gloves, stacked into an undulating shape that looks like it would move like a viscous drop of blood. It’s perforated by black plants with thick stems.
Patterson returns to lighter subject matter in the adjacent room. Her series of sculptural paper collages comprises dozens of images of different plant species, climbing over one another and concealing tiny paper bugs. A glass case exhibits historic botanical books.
The show continues in NYBG’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, where visitors enter via a pathway flanked with carpets of ivy-like plants and flowers. The vulture figures crouching in the ramble — as Patterson explains on a ground-level panel — consistently perform “acts of care” as they remove dead animals from their habitats, a necessary ecological function.
The path leads to the conservatory steps, where a doorway opens into a humid forest that hides more vultures underneath layered canopies. Inside the conservatory, speakers play the birds’ guttural feeding noises and hissing as translucent white sculptures of the extinct flora Patterson observed back in the library crop up from the soil like ghosts.
NYGB President and CEO Jennifer Bernstein told Hyperallergic that extending the show into the fall would “allow for the landscape to evolve in different ways,” emphasizing that the show focuses on ideas of “cycles of growth, decay, and regeneration.” Early photographs of the exhibition show the artist’s sculptures on full view amidst nascent plant beds.
Patterson’s most bone-chilling installation is a pair of legs that emerge from underneath a stone fountain into a shallow pool, dyed blood red. The glimpse of the legs, which belong to an invisible body amidst a built-up and luxurious space, highlights Patterson’s longstanding focus on colonialism and slavery.
Two women were sitting on the ledge snapping photographs of the display; one of them, an artist named Ma-ayan who preferred to use only her first name, said she had come to NYBG just to see the show.
“In her own way, [Patterson] is preserving what is now extinct,” Ma-ayan said, going on to remark on the exhibition’s other grisly elements — bones and legs emerging from the dirt.
Back in the first room, a dinosaur-size spinal cord, a giant pelvic bone, and a pair of legs cropped up from the moist dirt underneath the plants that had grown around them. A security guard said most people walked through the show and didn’t see them at all.
Perhaps that was the point. The meticulously cultivated conservatory is a sanctuary of peace and quiet amidst the chaos of New York City. Patterson makes it impossible to forget the colonialist history that predates the luxury of a stroll through a rainforest in the middle of the Bronx.