Five tons of soil cover the floor of the ACFNY’s main gallery space in Midtown Manhattan, supporting over 200 lavender plants growing under fluorescent light. The surrounding walls are plastered over with the image of a verdant forest, sunshine spilling through the treetops and onto the leaves of the lower-hanging branches. A heady smell of lavender is occupying the space, creating a scenario that at first seems meditative. Yet, the aggressive perfection of the trees is not a testament to natural harmony. It is achieved by a generic commercial “Enchanted Forest”-themed wallpaper. Instead of birdsong, one is serenaded by the faint hum of fluorescent lights. And the “piece of land” is no rural field, but rather a subterranean gallery in a Midtown skyscraper. The total effect is less an immersion into the woods, and more a sojourn in a doomsday bunker of the One-Percent. Any calm this environment induces is innately tinged by suspicion of its circumstances.
As it turns out, the plants in this pseudo-retreat are nurtured by the most unlikely of sources: tweets. The lighting system is rigged with an algorithm that matches the intensity of the light to the activity of select powerful Twitter streams. In moments of frenetic activity, the fluorescents burn brighter, pumping light to the sun-starved lavender plants. Roth enlists lavender plants as translators, or even alchemists, capable of transforming the anxiety of their surrounding context into something potentially soothing. The plant’s calming properties, often used to treat anxiety and depression, stand as a stay against the heightened emotions of today’s political moment. At the same time, the slow temporality of plant life is contrasted to the torrent of information generated each second by social media platforms.
In his installations, Roth often plays with the clash of natural and artificial. His practice has consistently pushed at the various interdependencies that make up one’s habitat, calling into question the idea of a “natural environment” through a mutual contamination of organic and artificial elements. Often circling around the nurture of living organisms, his works are strangely intimate and invite the viewer if not to engage directly, at least to consider their relationship to the work on a human scale.
Roth’s installation at the Austrian Cultural Forum offers something half-refuge, half-bunker, in which the only available solace is powered by the very sources of our anxiety. In this sense, the construction of the space echoes popular narratives of self-care, which are propelled by the very same capitalist mechanisms that produced the need for retreat.