‘Gardens Are Philosophy Made Concrete’

The Kampong, former home of plant adventurer David Fairchild, is a riotous jungle of palms and other tropical plants.
The Kampong, former home of plant adventurer David Fairchild, is a riotous jungle of palms and other tropical plants. Alastair Gordon

Karl Ove Knausgraard, the chain-smoking, angst-ridden Norwegian author, recently announced that “the physical world is gone,” and he has a point. So much has been lost to Google and flat-screened placelessness that we can hardly estimate the damage to our personal geographies. Knausgraard himself fought oblivion by writing a 3,600-page novel that recreated his own physical world in Proustian, sometimes crushing detail.

Mark Dion, artist, has conjured up his own incantations for the physical through a lifetime of rummaging, collecting, cataloguing, exploring, traveling and digging through dead people’s attics and archives. He assembles, arranges and exploits that same materiality to reach a kind of equilibrium in which of all periods of history (including the future) converge and press down on a self-conscious present.

Dion’s approach to the corporeal is now on display at the Kampong, the Coconut Grove botanical garden that was once home to 20th century botanist and plant explorer David Fairchild. His installation, opened last December, is on permanent display.

Fairchild is an heroic American figure, co-creator of the Everglades National Park and founder of the Seed and Plant Introduction Section for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such, he was responsible for bringing more than 58,000 species into the country. He also helped to define the city of Miami as much as any developer, architect or urban planner ever did, and it’s impossible to understand the genie of the place without understanding Fairchild’s vision.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, a few miles south, was named in his honor by its founder and Fairchild’s friend, Col. Robert H. Montgomery. But to understand Fairchild’s vision, one must see its full manifestation in the gardens and workshops of the Kampong, where Dion was invited to create an installation.

In his books — “Exploring for Plants (1930); “The World was My Garden’’ (1938); the “World Grows Around my Door” (1947); etc. — Fairchild comes across as a Zelig-type visionary and latter-day Johnny Apple Seed, who eems to have gone everywhere and met everyone. He traveled the globe to gather rare specimens with Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy bachelor, importing mango trees from Trinidad, tung seeds from China, alfalfa from Peru, shaddock seeds from Iran, raisin grapes from Italy, sausage tree seeds from Egypt.

In 1905, he married Marian, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. They hung out with Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers as the inventors took their first manned flights in North Carolina. In 1916, Fairchild bought the Kampong, converting the seven-acre property into a family home and experimental laboratory, and planted many of the species that he gathered during his travels. His seven-acre garden flourished and expanded to nine acres.

His refuge through all of this was an old building made from oolitic limestone that lies on the south side of the Kampong property. In 1923, he converted it into an office and laboratory and surrounded himself with plant samples, books, maps, horticultural charts. This was where he documented, cross-fertilized, photographed, and wrote about his subject with increasing passion.

Dion’s brief was to reconstruct the interior of the lab in a way that Fairchild might have left it if he’d walked out one day and never returned. The work is part historical reconstruction, part 18th-century Kunstkammer, part poetic exegesis. Working with scant evidence, a small collection of original documents, and one or two grainy photographs, the artist assembled a roomful of artifacts, arranging books and objects on shelves and table tops with old botanical prints, maps and typewritten notes pinned to a cork board. Here too are specimen jars, tweezers, pencils, plant presses and drying racks, seed pods lying in enameled trays, rubber stamps, drafting and measuring tools, and an encyclopedic litany of material culture culled from the first half of the 20th Century.

At times, one feels suspended between artifice and authenticity, but that seems to be the realm that Dion chooses to inhabit as the ultimate bespectacled amateur — archeologist, entomologist, ornithologist, paleontologist. Armed with pith helmet, butterfly net and fine-arts degree, he surfs a thin line between museology, botany and installation art.

It’s a liminal realm Dion has explored in both his personal life and art, whether in collaboration with other artists and scientists or in museum installations. Its most living manifestation is probably at Mildred’s Lane, a hundred-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania that Dion co-founded and continues to serve as experimental Petri dish for artists, dreamers and students. It is a place where the accidental and natural often converge.

Dion’s Kampong installation is not a platform for critical analysis or condemnation of human impact on the natural world. For those acquainted with art history, the intricately composed vignettes may recall artists of the past. Rusting awls, hammers, snips and knives are hung from a custom-made tool rack, like the fetishes of a Joseph Beuys installation. A still-life grouping of stoneware jugs summons forth Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. A collection of wooden boxes has been stacked and clustered like a Cubist relief with a red Savarin Coffee can as the only moment of pure color — an homage, perhaps, of Jasper Johns’ “Painted Bronze” (1960) that also featured a red Savarin can.

For visitors without an art history background, the installation is a reminder that Fairchild and other natural scientists face a similarly complex process of selection, attempting to create order from the chaos that is nature.

Just outside lies the riotous tangle of Fairchild’s true laboratory: nine acres under the big-finned palm, the green vine angering for life;” the Royal, Talipot, Sagisi, Pejibaye and Arikury palms; jackfruit; heliconias; mango trees and cycads laced and interwoven with bell-shaped figs creeping up the walls of the main house. Ant trees, rubber trees, succulents with frazzled white threads, Soursop, the flamboyante from Madagascar, a swelling baobab from Tanzania, the Ashok or so-called “sorrowless tree” from Southeast Asia create a magical jungle. Carpets of tiny flowers leading down to the saltwater inlet now filling in with thickets of mangrove and stalked by a somnambulant iguana.

A giant banyan (Ficus benghalensis) hangs over the main entry with veils of shaggy air roots, threads, shoots, buds. All of these plants and vibrant colors, these “green sides and gold sides of green sides” can be seen within the context of Fairchild’s greater legacy: a museum of living matter, indexed and catalogued despite the apparent wildness.

“Gardens are philosophy made concrete,” said Dion. While he never lays hands on the exterior landscape, his reclamation and reconstruction of Fairchild’s second-floor laboratory serves as a kind of lens through which to view, re-frame and re-experience the living thing itself. Here, in the garden of forking paths and “slovenly wilderness,” Dion sheds light on the very culture of exploration and selection that Fairchild helped to invent.

If you go

The Kampong is at 4013 Douglas Rd, Coconut Grove.

Reservations: Required; email or call 305-442-7169.

Tours: Guided tours including Dion’s installation are offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays September through June at 10 a.m. and noon, for $20 adults, $10 ages 4-12.