Grafting the Grape: Behind the Artwork

Grafting The Grape: American Grapevine Rootstock in Missouri and the World is currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, which is open for visitors Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30am-4:30pm. The exhibition content is available online through the Garden YouTube channel and the Museum Twitter account and Instagram account. Please check the Museum site for updates and future online events.

An important element of the Grafting The Grape exhibition is the contemporary multimedia artworks produced by three artists who were specially commissioned to create their artistic interpretations of this material, both historic and scientific, on grapevines, grafting, wine, and the Missouri Botanical Garden. All of the artists received information from Dr. Allison Miller and her NSF-funded project Vitis Underground that investigates the relationship between scion grapevines and rootstock in viticulture. Using their perspective and exploring many media, these talented artists interpreted this scientific content, exploring this contemporary research as well as what these grapevines may grow and change into in the future. Enjoy the PDF publication for the exhibition designed by Michael Powell here.

Behind the scenes when working with artists

When Museum Curator Nezka Pfeifer decided to plan on this special exhibition featuring the historic and current narrative about grapes, wine, and grafting for the Sachs Museum, she knew she wanted to work with artists that were renowned for their work with plants, but also for their skill in using contemporary digital media. She had a couple of artists in mind, and was very excited when she reached out to all of them that they were immediately interested in the unique narrative presented as part of the Grafting The Grape exhibition. She originally did so in 2018, planning for the exhibition to go on view in 2020. However, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic changed up the timeline for the exhibition, giving the artists much more time to explore the scientific and historic content with the exhibition being pushed back to opening in 2021, timing it perfectly during Missouri’s bicentennial celebration of its statehood.

When Dr. Allison Miller joined the exhibition project, she was glad to share as much of the Vitis Underground research as was available with the artists, as part of the collaboration for the exhibition. Her team collected many samples of leaf and berry tissue as part of the project, in which the first phase included assessing how the ‘Chambourcin’ grape grows both ungrafted (“own-rooted”) and grafted on three different rootstocks. Dr. Miller also arranged for the 3D scans of the Vitis rootstocks to be shared, and thanks to the work of Keith Duncan, these visual images highlighted the species key to the project. Keith Duncan is the manager of the X-ray imaging facility and research scientist in Chris Topp’s lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The first artist she contacted was also connected to Dr. Allison Miller, and Nezka knew that Dr. Miller was interested in working with her on a project. Dornith Doherty is a renowned international artist who has been investigating and exploring plants and seeds in her work for several projects that were tied to climate change, crop diversity, and the future of agriculture. Dornith Doherty was delighted with the opportunity to work with Dr. Miller and her team, but she was also intrigued by the intersection of the grapevines, the Grape phylloxera insect, and the rootstock grafting innovation. She developed three parts to her Circuition (Roundabout) installation for the Grafting The Grape exhibition, that included images, and two short films. Her series of images features highly magnified scanning electron microscope images of phylloxera galls. Printed on metal panels, these lustrous sepia toned photographs make reference to the mid-19th century, a time when photography was invented and the phylloxera blight occurred. Roundabout (Circuition) is inspired by this story of human/environmental entanglement, cycles and exchange. A two-channel video projection explores the visual poetics of the bond between wild and domestic/root and scion. One video, a stop motion animation created from hundreds of digitally collaged frames of wild and domesticated grapevines, cycles through flourishing, decay and regeneration of stems and leaves. On the opposite wall, the second video presents a digital composite of three CT scans of the unseen details of diverse indigenous American grapevine roots.

Next, Nezka Pfeifer reached out to artist Lorraine Walsh to see if she would be interested in collaborating on the exhibition subject matter. The two of them had worked together on an exhibition several years prior, when they were both working at other institutions, when Nezka was curating an exhibition on skateboarding art and culture, and she was pointed to Lorraine’s digital and sound visualization works tying together skateboarding sounds and data visualization. After that project, Nezka knew that Lorraine more often worked with the natural and plant world, and hoped that there would be another opportunity to work together. Lorraine Walsh was very interested in working together, and brought in another artist Lei Han, with whom she’d been collaborating on many projects, to work together on a number of pieces for the Grafting The Grape exhibition.

Together, Lei Han and Lorraine Walsh focused their work for Grafting the Grape on environmental shifts as seen through the seemingly disparate practices of ancient horticultural grafting techniques and contemporaneous machine learning (a subset of artificial intelligence). The two methods share a paradoxical trait: grafting propagates and machine learning backpropagates. And this symbiotic biological approach in grafting is uncannily mirrored with algorithmic machine learning processes. Their art focuses on the native grapevine species Missouri Vitis aestivalis (also known as the Norton grape) and the process of this mediation in order to bring a fruitful awareness of the significant effect climatic change has on life. Lei and Lorraine had the time to create multiple artworks as part of the series for the exhibition. The minimalist sculpture, The In-Between, is inspired by grafting, which is a horticultural technique defined as the natural or deliberate fusion of plant parts; in this process, the upper part of the combined plant—the scion—is connected to the lower part called the rootstock. With laser-engraved Plexiglas panels suspended within a wooden framework, the sculpture references a traditional grapevine trellis, which observes the time-honored tradition of cultivating grapes to be trained for upright or semi-upright growth habits.

Lei and Lorraine also created three short films, two series of digital images from the short films, and one set of drawings for the exhibition. They took the opportunity to explore new technologies for their work in Grafting The Grape. Specifically, they investigated the idea of grafting using machine learning (ML) through models trained with StyleGAN2—a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) effective at generating synthetic images from massive image databases. Both A Degree Warmer and Cycles are short films that address climactic change in animation, and Homage to Arthur Clarke Pillsbury honors a unique historical event that took place at the Garden’s Museum in the 1920, previously explored on this blog.

It is the unique relationship that these artists have with science in their work that makes their artworks extremely integral to interdisciplinary exhibitions that I am curating at the Sachs Museum. Filmmaker Orlando Thompson has created a special behind-the-scenes short film interviewing all of these key contributors to the exhibition; please take a look and enjoy all of the online and virtual records of the exhibition. And if you’re here in St. Louis, the exhibition is on view to March 31, 2022!

Nezka Pfeifer
Museum Curator, Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum

Grateful thanks to the sponsors of the exhibition: The Thomas A. Kooyumjian Family Foundation; Tony & Cindy Kooyumjian; National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program 1546869; and the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Corporate Council, with gifts from: Neil Adams; Commerce Bank; Christi Dixon; C. Eric Lobser; Linda Lockwood; Protiviti; Regions Bank; Chris Schmidt; Julia Steininger; UMB Bank; UHY Advisors; Steve Wang

Especial thanks to the contributors to the exhibition:

Artists Dornith Doherty, Lei Han, and Lorraine Walsh; Allison Miller, Saint Louis University and Danforth Plant Science Center; National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program 1546869; Keith Duncan, manager of the X-ray imaging facility and research scientist in Chris Topp’s lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; Laura L. Klein, Head Curator, Director of Herbal Research, LeafWorks Inc.; Alex Roach, Director, Modified atmospheres, Australia; and Michael J. Leonardelli, exhibition researcher

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