The Terrarium Project

Collaboration with Crystal Mowry, Panya Clarke Espinal, Andrew Hunter, Rebecca Duclos and David K. Ross, Gail Singer, and Eric Roesler.

This exhibition featured several unusual terrariums presented as living artifacts collected by a fictional scientist (Mary Manis) and eventually donated to a fictional institution (The Manchester Letherium). Collaborators representing the arts and horticulture created the origins of the orphaned objects and individuals connected to each terrarium. The project meshed an aesthetic of factual authority, as seen in museums and institutions, with fiction or wonder – much like a story teller may trade fidelity for an enhanced presentation. 

A photograph of people at a 1919 picnic, found among the donated items, acts as a connecting point for the characters in the exhibition. The audio narrative of Mary Manis guides the audience’s experience of her collection as presented by the museum. Several curious narratives emerge: A child’s obsessive collecting of glass triggered by degenerative blindness. A herbalist who experiments on a collection of live plants, seeds and dried specimans of psychotropic plants. A developer who met a suspicious demise and an eccentric collection of ceramic squirrel planters. An oddly matched pair of scientists experience an outbreak of moss.


The Terrarium Project Provenance (Denton Fredrickson):

“Dr. Calvin Rex Fraser (40), Professor of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan, and Mr. Hans Liefeld (44), Instructor of Mathematics and Band Leader at the Lutheran Academy of Melville, Saskatchewan, were involved in a decade-long series of experiments concerning the relationship of proportion to that of sound and its resultant effect on plant growth. In 1919 Dr. Fraser, suffering from what he called “the annoyance of basic and uninteresting weekend tasks”, had started to stray from his family home in order to enhance his collection of drawings of vascular plants.

It was during one of these weekend excursions, a few miles off from the railway running North-West from Melville, that the two happened to become aquainted. Mr. Leifeld, out for a meandering Sunday afternoon stroll, was in the middle of a debate with his subaudible voice — over a matter of correct intonation — when he was mentionably blinded by a piercing reflection of sun cast across the prairie and through his right pupil. Throwing his leathery hand over his face, Hans took a moment to contemplate Goethe’s relationship to God as he watched the slow changing of colours taking place within his head. Nearly fully recovered, Hans began stumbling towards the site of the light’s ricochet.

As Dr. Fraser recalls, “I had left hastily that morning on account of a disagreeable need to apply butter to the top of my cooked bread. Thus, the packing of my drawing machine, based on the intricate woodcuts of Albrecht Durer, was, to put it lightly, done in a rush. When Mr. Leifeld came across me I was angrily fumbling to put the machine together for the purpose of properly laying down the proportions of the most remarkable of plants, the Ludwigia. But the glass had cracked, and an integral bolt had fallen beyond my view. So, you can imagine my surprise, and severe irritation, when this zig-zagging yahoo cycloped by a hand over his eye — I thought him drunk at the time — crosses from afar into my fragile situation to tell me, ‘Sir, you are making use of that remarkable contraption in the most incorrect of manners.’ And now, looking back, I can’t believe that I didn’t listen to reason when he went on to expound the true purpose of Durer’s machine as a measurement of the intervals of musical pitch.”

During one of their more remarkable experiments, Leifeld and Fraser had inadvertently picked up a radio signal broadcast from a passing CN train. The commotion of the unexpected signal had caused not only an incongruity of scientific evidence in the journal of Mr. Leifeld, but also a drastic reaction in the elbows of Dr. Fraser. His arms fluttering back and forth uncontrollably, Dr. Fraser rushed out of their weekend laboratory towards the nearest water well in an attempt to quell the electrical surges he was suffering. According to one of Mr. Leifeld’s journal entries dated some years later, “It is this irrational reaction that brought the first instance of outside spores into our before then highly stable and controlled testing environment.” A few weeks after the passing radio signal event, the entire lab was covered in moss.

The purpose of Dr. Fraser and Mr. Leifeld travelling to Montreal sometime in the 1920’s was two-fold. Having not the faintest interest towards radio until the passing signal event, their brief and misguided research led them to believe that the signal must have originated from Marconi’s XWA radio broadcasts from Montreal. There, they believed at the time, resided both the reason for the uncalculated growth of moss currently overtaking their precious experiments, and a cure for Dr. Fraser’s unyielding physical ailment.”

produced in 2007

external link to documentation of entire Terrarium Project  (care of Panya Clark Espinal)

back to collaborations