To some of us herbaria, taxonomy, nomenclature and specimens are all rather romantic. To others they are living symbols of our colonial past and neo-colonial present. Where the role of botanical expeditions in exploiting, through acquisition and inventory, the world’s most valuable species, contributed to the monolithic global economic inequities that are impossible to shift today.
In response to this history, artist Alberto Baraya from Bogatá, Colombia, has built (and continues to grow) his own alternative herbarium; intently travelling the world to find and ‘collect’ specimens to preserve. There is, however, one key difference to the usual botanical practice of pressing plants to sheets of paper – none of them are real. The Herbarium of Artificial Plants (‘Herbario de plantas artificiales 2001–ongoing’) is made up of fake plants that are taken from public places such as waiting rooms, other peoples homes or hotels around the world. Once in his possession, he mounts, describes and classifies them for his artwork. Baraya describes his actions as stealing as opposed to the botanists language of collecting, thus reenacting the ethical mess of past expeditions. In his own words he says: ‘By picking up some plastic flowers on the street, I behave like the scientists that Western education expects us to become. By changing the goals of this simple task I resist this “destiny”’.
Fake plants are not often viewed as aesthetic triumphs, but in this context, they make a powerful post-colonial statement.