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The Vacuum Issue 2 spacer Issue 2
Bold Artifice - Artificial Plants
by Stephen Hull
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Most of us will be familiar with those illustrations produced by architects to give an impression of how a development will look when completed. Usually executed in pen and ink and then filled in with washes of colour, these images always seem to include two things besides actual architecture. Whether depicting a shiny new shopping mall or an industrial complex, these illustrations are always peopled by rather uniform matchstick men, women and children. You can tell a lot about these little figures just from the way they are dressed and even from their posture. They appear business-like and forward thinking and yet they have managed to temper this productive ethos with a sense of a more organic relationship to life, symbolised by the rows of ornamental trees or raised shrubberies which punctuate these gleaming pavilions.
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The majority of us remain incapable of realising such heights of existential adjustment. The practice of incorporating greenery in urban environments derives more from the belief that people are reassured by the presence of a bit of foliage. Primitive instincts are not easily cast off, and should the monkey feel a little overwhelmed by the mountains of concrete threatening to engulf him it's obviously good to know there's a bit of bush to crouch in close at hand.
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Alternatively, it may in fact be some repressed sense of environmental guilt which causes the architect to try and put back some of that which he is otherwise frantically paving over. Such a piecemeal environmental ethos would not however account for the twist given to this practice through the substitution of artificial plants for real plants. The difficulty with the whole enterprise of plant fabrication is its apparent absurdity. It seems reasonable to assume that any situation which demanded the presence of some plant life would do so on the basis of a perceived need for the qualities of living plants. Thus to proffer a substitute which patently lacks so many of the constituents of the article in question, by virtue of (a) not being a plant and (b) not being alive, seems only to guarantee disappointment.
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Whilst the idea that one could have purely architectural motives for Installing artificial plants is a plausible one, we would want to be certain that we were not attributing this motive to what had in fact been nothing more than a cost cutting exercise. The burden of proof would, in this particular instance, fall squarely on the artefact itself, and whilst I'm no expert in the field of plant fabrication I reckoned I should nevertheless be able to distinguish the walnut veneer of artisanship from the quick-fix laminate of the cost-cutter.
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To this end I proceeded to Belfast's Odyssey Complex where, I had been informed, there were some artificial trees available for scrutiny. Entering the foyer I was met with the sight of some tree-shaped objects planted in huge stainless steel containers. The first thing which caught my eye was the trunk, which to all intents and purposes appeared to be real, some mistake surely, or had my sources misled me? Any doubt regarding the trunk's authenticity was cast aside when I noticed a point where a side shoot had been sawn off and someone had attempted to disguise the fact by painting over the exposed wood in a colour roughly matching that of the bark.
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As it transpired, the trunk was the only authentic part of the tree, as closer scrutiny of the foliage revealed that it consisted of plastic twigs each sporting a clump of nylon leaves. Little holes had then been drilled all around the upper part of the trunk into which these plastic twigs had then been inserted. All in all a rather slipshod production I thought. In the notes accompanying the poem Sailing to Byzantium W. B. Yeats recalls having read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was 'a Tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang'. Somewhat disappointing then to arrive in the 21st century with only a butchered bit of tree and some plastic twigs for your trouble. Such trees are for people who need to pay lip-service to the notion of environmental sensitivity without incurring the costs associated with real plant life. So far as the question of artifice is concerned, the trees at the Odyssey Complex clearly represent something of a missed opportunity - more of 'a tattered coat upon a stick' than 'such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make', you might say.
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Bold Artifice - Artificial Plants
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