"The creators of today’s cities know that biological additions to our built environment help us citizens grow and develop, too."
Is something distinctly tropical germinating, just in time for the summer? If you’ve posted, commented on or liked an artfully placed succulent houseplant on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed this. It’s there in Kenzo’s new collection of tropical bamboo and tiger prints garments, created as part of an unlikely collaboration with Britney Spears; it’s in Justin Bieber’s Coachella outfit, a Hawaiian-print shirt with matching shorts. You can see it on the walls of the new Gucci Art Lab, a new futuristic centre of industrial craftsmanship in northern Italy, the walls of which are illustrated with exotic plants and animals. Hollywood’s on board; consider Leonardo DiCaprio’s new resort in Belize, where, by staying on the private island, guests help restore its fragile ecosystem; or think of this summer’s blockbuster Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, with its glossy CGI fronds, archaic megafauna and “life finds a way” philosophy.
But you don’t need to don a pith helmet and safari suit to take it all in. You just need to get along to NOW Gallery on Greenwich Peninsula. A new Eden will flourish here, from the end of July until the beginning of September.
There’s flowing water and soft sculptures of colourful printed fabric. The show is called Indirect Sunlight and it’s the work of Glasgow-based artists Laura Aldridge and James Rigler.
“There’s water, and there’s soil, and planting. You pass through these arches and different layers of fabric – some will be printed, some will just be sort of pure colour, some might be painted or dyed,” says Aldridge. “And then right at the back of the space will be the fountain, which you’ll be able to hear. And when you get closer there’ll be a kind of coolness from it.”
For both of them, the show is letting them stretch out a little more naturally, giving them a chance to break away from their usual style and habits. Aldridge first moved to the distinctly untropical climes of Scotland from London in 2004 to study for her Master of Fine Arts. Rigler, by contrast, is from balmy rural Devon; he studied first in Brighton and then at London’s Royal Academy before a combined offer of studio space and a part-time job with David Shrigley lured him north of the border.
Together, they’ve put together a simple, sunny show that celebrates both Greenwich Peninsula’s history and its geography. The nearby Docklands, with its spice wharves and banana-ripening warehouses, has long been linked to the tropics. Greenwich Peninsula, meanwhile, surrounded by 1.6 miles of river provides a crucial natural break on big-city life.
Yet the show, and the other plant-loving trends of the summer, tie into a deeper, broader human drive. There’s a growing body of psychological studies that suggest even limited interaction with the natural environment makes people more relaxed, productive and sociable. Recent research carried out by the universities of Oxford and Hong Kong cross-referenced high-resolution aerial photographs of 10 cities in England, Scotland and Wales with accompanying mental-health data, to conclude that, yes, being near greenery really does serve as a simple, psychological panacea.
The creators of today’s cities know that biological additions to our built environment help us citizens grow and develop, too. Consider Amazon’s plant-rich, new biome headquarters in Seattle, or the fantastically successful High Line in New York, an old elevated railway line that has since become the world’s most famous linear park. Even Manhattan’s hot new hotel and co-working space The Assemblage is filled with succulents and other indoor plants.
Aldridge and Rigler have themselves noticed the benefits of working together on this leafy project. “For me, one of the joys of working together is that you get to see up close how other people actually work, the materials they work with, the process they work with,” says Rigler.
As they prepare to install their new piece, both artists are aware that much of its success will depend on another tricky, biological factor out of their control – how the public engage with it, immerse themselves in the work and shape it with their own involvement.
“The Peninsula is this space that’s been decontaminated and now is being reimagined and reinhabited and kind of brought back to life,” says Rigler. “The area itself is at the moment still quite a hard landscape – the idea of bringing in something that was a bit softer and more, I suppose, primitive in a sensory way, putting your hands in the earth … it felt like a nice opportunity to try and do both sides of the garden, the literal and metaphorical. See how those things fit together. Because it’s as much about posing questions, for us to find out – it’s kind of an experiment.”
The results may well prove just how Indirect Sunlight fits into a wider, tropical, highly fertile side of both urban living and contemporary culture.
Indirect Sunlight by Laura Aldridge & James Rigler is at NOW Gallery, Greenwich Peninsula from 12 July to 23 September. Free entry. nowgallery.co.uk