The human race has a long history of bending nature to its will. The results of this relationship can be devastating—but they can also be strikingly beautiful, as German artist Diane Scherer skillfully proves with her low-relief sculptures made from plant roots. Scherer grows these works of art by planting oat and wheat seeds in soil, and then carefully, meticulously, warping the growth pattern. She prefers to train her roots into geometric patterns found in nature, like honeycomb structures, or foliate designs reminiscent of Middle Eastern arabesques.
But even with that botanical theme, applied to a botanical substance, Scherers pieces look distinctly alien—like the plant equivalent of women whove trained their waists with corsets, or feet with foot binding. I think that people, they cherish nature, but on the other hand they are really quite cruel with nature, Scherer says. Like the gardener is telling us he loves nature, but the garden has to look like what he wants it to in his mind. He has to crop and prune and use poison. Scherer makes no claims to a nobler process. Her artistic impulse, she says, is to control the roots in her pieces. The roots that I domesticate, they have to do what I tell them.
Scherer started contemplating what she calls root system domestication in 2012, during work on a series called Nurture Studies. She created those pieces by potting flowers in vases, allowing the soil and roots to congeal in place, and then breaking the vases. The root patterns were frozen in place and totally exposed, and Scherer says she became fascinated by the vast differences in growth patterns, colors, textures, and thicknesses. It reminded her of yarn, and, because she’s an artist, she immediately wondered if she could weave roots underground.
Scherer won’t say much about the technique shes developed in the years since, other than it involves a template, which functions like a mold. Since late 2014 she’s worked with biologists and ecologists at Radboud University in Nijmegen, in The Netherlands, learning more about which types of roots grow fast and train easily (oats and wheats) and which ones grow slowly and with less structural conviction (daisies). This year, Scherer won the New Material Award from Het Nieuwe Instituut for the arts, in Rotterdam, for her textile-like pieces. With the help of the scientists at Radboud, shes working on strengthening the designs even further and researching its market potential (hence the secrecy.)
For now, Scherer is in a stage of rapid experimentation. By adjusting the density of seeds or planting a new strain of grass, she can produce wildly different textures. The work is, by definitionl ephemeral—Scherer says she gets each piece for about two weeks before it starts to dehydrate and shrivel. But even with that lifespan, her bounty is significant. Im growing out of my studio, Scherer says. Which feels kind of poetic. Even when youre taming nature, it finds ways to take over.