Journal

Robert Chambers: The Myth of the Serepens

Robert Chambers uses the power of contemporary art to popularize detailed scientific research into a native plant and plans to galvanize a challenge to Big Sugar

By Tyler Emerson-Dorsch

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A collection of alien shapes greets visitors as they enter the AIRIE Nest at the Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center to the Everglades. One looks like a giant, unraveling Celtic knot. A custom-built table with milled CNC-cut leaves and flowers holds a loose pile of ovoid forms. Another similar table supports 12 to 20-inch tall sculptures of insects. Topographical diagrams hang on the wall, along with a video of a train that seems to run over the camera. An established sculptor, Robert Chambers orchestrated the design and display of these objects by enlisting the help of a community of scientists, architects, designers, environmental advocates and curators in order to magnify the power of the Saw Palmetto plant (Latin name: Serenoa repens), one of the oldest living clonal species living today.

Robert Chambers first realized the Saw Palmetto’s importance while a fellow at Artist in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE), when the group organized a trip for Chambers to Archbold Biological Station (ABS) located in the headwaters of the Everglades, just northwest of Lake Okeechobee. There, the organization’s director and lead scientist Dr. Hilary Swain’s description of the incredible persistence of the Serenoa repens enthralled Chambers. As she pointed to what looked like a humble gnarly root shaped like an alligator’s back, she described how this plant has a vast root system that allows it to withstand extreme drought and regenerate after fire. It is so hardy that the oldest plant identified at ABS is more than 5,000 years old. Its roots, fruits, and leaves form the habitat and vital sustenance for birds, mammals, humans and more than 300 species of insects. The plant has manifold powers, especially its root system, so Chambers resolved to make this part of the plant the nerve center of its charisma. To him, its liminal subterranean presence verges on otherworldly.

The scientific, artistic and myth building aspects of Chambers’ SEREPENS project draw attention to the plant to advocate for its crucial role in the history of ethnobotany and Florida’s ecology. The project does more than advocate; it constitutes the launch of a multi-pronged campaign to reverse the Serenoa repens population’s decline. Because the plant has been used since the Mayans for nutritional, medicinal and ritual purposes, and because the plant currently has a significant unregulated market as a supplement, the saw palmetto, as a crop, can compete with sugar and vegetables currently being farmed in what was Florida native saw palmetto habitat. Farming non-native plants requires farmers to use fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which run off into Lake Okeechobee and from there contribute to a deadly phenomenon known as Algae Bloom. Switching from these non-native crops to saw palmetto would eliminate the introduction of these chemicals to Florida’s hydrology and may increase the economic productivity of that land. Finally, the root systems of these plants may decrease the effects of drought on the water table. Chambers has a theory that the roots form a protective mesh just beneath the ground, helping the arid soil retain nutrients and moisture. The structure and systems built in to this resilient plant supports a diverse array of species and prevents or may even reverse erosion. Further peer-reviewed research into all aspects of the plant’s assets can make Serenoa repens’s future very viable.

Robert Chambers with Florida International University RDF MBUS and AS Team. Clonal Phoenix, 2018. An arrangement: 3D printed PLA sculptures on a custom 3 x 7 ft CNC milled table.

Robert Chambers first realized the Saw Palmetto’s importance while a fellow at Artist in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE), when the group organized a trip for Chambers to Archbold Biological Station (ABS) located in the headwaters of the Everglades, just northwest of Lake Okeechobee.

It was once said that Chambers straddled two sides of kinetic art, one Constructivist and the other Dadaist. Though a good way to begin, this duality does not entirely capture the depth of his engagement with the sciences and his ability to synthesize this knowledge within his art. Made from water-jet cut aluminum plate, Robert Chamber’s sculptural mural Ryoanji Sky Garden (2007/2017) merged the perceived harmony of a Zen rock garden, karesansui dry landscape, with shapes in the clouds. He did this by replicating the negative space between the rock forms thus achieving the Zen garden’s harmonious effect in the clouds. Chambers cited the scholarship of Gert von Tonder, who analyzed the nature of this negative space, positing that if the rocks were the clumps of leaves on a tree, one can visualize in the negative space between the rocks an invisible branching tree. The resulting space feels harmonious (as opposed to strictly ordered) because the balance is achieved through organic balance and structure, not rigid linear symmetry.

For Sugabus (2004), a 10’ high bronze sculpture on permanent view at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri, he hyperbolically enlarged a molecular model of sucrose and tweaked its composition, so that it looks like Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades in Greek mythology. Chambers was equating the micro, the molecular structure of structure of sucrose, to the macro, Cerberus, an obsolete constellation created by Hevelius of a three-headed mythological creature in space.

Both of these previous works resonate in the project at AIRIE Nest. Chambers connected a 500-year-old Zen garden to clouds and to research into how the negative space plays a role in compositional harmony. The negative space between individual saw palmetto plants play a role in the three-part method of analyzing the saw palmetto’s age. Chambers and his team used Grasshopper and Rhino programs to make two-dimensional graphs topographical, and therefore possible to 3D print. This technically impressive process is an effort to popularize research about the Saw Palmetto in an effort to create environmental awareness on many levels through the conduit of contemporary art. And Sugabus, with its play on language, scale, and value declaration, is certainly connected to SEREPENS, in which Chambers harnesses the power of all the manifold tools at his disposal in the service of one species.

It is useful here to delineate a contemporary art concept “site-specificity” in Robert Chambers’ work and his SEREPENS project in particular. In Miwon Kwon’s seminal essay “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” (1997), she observed that contemporary site-specificity was not limited to the place where the artwork is located. It can also refer to its content, resulting in artworks that have multiple tiers of sites. In this sense, the first site of SEREPENS is bi-locational – its habitat in pinewood-scrub palm forests mostly located in Central Florida and northward, wherever the elevation is slightly higher, allowing for a long dry period in low-nutrient (sandy) soil. This habitat forms a buffer between wetlands and more developed areas, and, as public planners in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy and Hurricane Harvey have shown, maintenance of buffer lands, both wetlands and forests, are crucial to mitigating property loss from storms. It is the goal of Everglades conservationists to change the present and fragmented flow of water to its natural North to South flow, also known as Sheet Flow. The vector Chambers establishes by bringing a plant (in representation) from the Headwaters of the Everglades south to AIRIE Nest (the second location) parallels the optimal water flow. Public policy and environmental advocacy are each sites of discourse relevant to this project. Additional sites for this project are discursive: the scientific communities’ scholarship and field studies about the Saw Palmetto, the technical imaging and production assistance at Florida International University’s Miami Beach Urban Studios and Robotic and Digital Fabrication Laboratory, and Chambers’ contemporary art background and practice. In this project, Chambers comingles all of these sites in service of his action plan of how to help the Everglades and, specifically, the Serenoa repens plant.

Installation view of Robert Chamber's exhibition SEREPENS at AIRIE Nest Gallery in 2018.
Installation view of Robert Chamber's exhibition SEREPENS: Serenoa repens at AIRIE Nest Gallery in 2018. The project was funded by a National Endowment of the Arts Art Works Grant.

It was once said that Chambers straddled two sides of kinetic art, one Constructivist and the other Dadaist. Though a good way to begin, this duality does not entirely capture the depth of his engagement with the sciences and his ability to synthesize this knowledge within his art. Made from water-jet cut aluminum plate, Robert Chamber’s sculptural mural Ryoanji Sky Garden (2007/2017) merged the perceived harmony of a Zen rock garden, karesansui dry landscape, with shapes in the clouds. He did this by replicating the negative space between the rock forms thus achieving the Zen garden’s harmonious effect in the clouds. Chambers cited the scholarship of Gert von Tonder, who analyzed the nature of this negative space, positing that if the rocks were the clumps of leaves on a tree, one can visualize in the negative space between the rocks an invisible branching tree. The resulting space feels harmonious (as opposed to strictly ordered) because the balance is achieved through organic balance and structure, not rigid linear symmetry.

For Sugabus (2004), a 10’ high bronze sculpture on permanent view at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri, he hyperbolically enlarged a molecular model of sucrose and tweaked its composition, so that it looks like Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades in Greek mythology. Chambers was equating the micro, the molecular structure of structure of sucrose, to the macro, Cerberus, an obsolete constellation created by Hevelius of a three-headed mythological creature in space.

Both of these previous works resonate in the project at AIRIE Nest. Chambers connected a 500-year-old Zen garden to clouds and to research into how the negative space plays a role in compositional harmony. The negative space between individual saw palmetto plants play a role in the three-part method of analyzing the saw palmetto’s age. Chambers and his team used Grasshopper and Rhino programs to make two-dimensional graphs topographical, and therefore possible to 3D print. This technically impressive process is an effort to popularize research about the Saw Palmetto in an effort to create environmental awareness on many levels through the conduit of contemporary art. And Sugabus, with its play on language, scale, and value declaration, is certainly connected to SEREPENS, in which Chambers harnesses the power of all the manifold tools at his disposal in the service of one species.

It is useful here to delineate a contemporary art concept “site-specificity” in Robert Chambers’ work and his SEREPENS project in particular. In Miwon Kwon’s seminal essay “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” (1997), she observed that contemporary site-specificity was not limited to the place where the artwork is located. It can also refer to its content, resulting in artworks that have multiple tiers of sites. In this sense, the first site of SEREPENS is bi-locational – its habitat in pinewood-scrub palm forests mostly located in Central Florida and northward, wherever the elevation is slightly higher, allowing for a long dry period in low-nutrient (sandy) soil. This habitat forms a buffer between wetlands and more developed areas, and, as public planners in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy and Hurricane Harvey have shown, maintenance of buffer lands, both wetlands and forests, are crucial to mitigating property loss from storms. It is the goal of Everglades conservationists to change the present and fragmented flow of water to its natural North to South flow, also known as Sheet Flow. The vector Chambers establishes by bringing a plant (in representation) from the Headwaters of the Everglades south to AIRIE Nest (the second location) parallels the optimal water flow. Public policy and environmental advocacy are each sites of discourse relevant to this project. Additional sites for this project are discursive: the scientific communities’ scholarship and field studies about the Saw Palmetto, the technical imaging and production assistance at Florida International University’s Miami Beach Urban Studios and Robotic and Digital Fabrication Laboratory, and Chambers’ contemporary art background and practice. In this project, Chambers comingles all of these sites in service of his action plan of how to help the Everglades and, specifically, the Serenoa repens plant.

Chambers suggests that Saw Palmetto fruits and other productive properties might be farmed as an alternative to other agriculture currently taking place in the historic Everglades sheet flow. With Robert Chambers’ artistic direction, master in architecture Patricia Aguilar interpreted the plant’s fruits, modeled them in Grasshopper and Rhino software, and 3D printed them at many times their size in a material that is a PLA made of sugar derived from starches found in foods like corn, grain or beets. The material used in printing corresponds to the crop he seeks to challenge – sugar and non-native vegetable crops cultivated in the Everglades Agricultural Area. This correspondence is not lost on Chambers, who combined, for instance, a mythological monster with sucrose in his previous sculpture Sugabus in language (the title is a portmanteau) and in form (the sculpture is a representation of the molecule and also a huge multi-headed dog-like.) Another productive pun at work here is Robert’s claim that the Saw Palmetto is the rhinocerous horn of the Everglades. It is a coincidence that one of the modeling programs is called Rhino, true, but perhaps it can serve as a mnemonic device within the project, allowing at every turn recognition of extra weight or value.

Chambers’ statement that the Saw Palmetto is the rhinocerous horn of the Everglades brings to mind the criminalization of subsistence living in and around protected lands. There are three complex issues at play here. The first is the legacy of the Western colonization of Florida, beginning with the Spanish arrival in the mid-1600s. Waves of colonization in different guises resulted in forceful removal and/or displacement of a wide range of marginalized people from lands considered a natural resource and later by a far-off elite as an untouched Edenic paradise and therefore worthy of protecting.

The Euro-Western ideal of nature separates ecology from its human dimension. (This is reflected in the landscape paintings of the time.) Laura Ogden, in her book Swamp Life, writes about an area in Everglades National Park called Royal Palm Hammock, which was once a key area for what she called production and reproduction activities. Now when tourists visit this popular site there is little to no evidence of the human element in the vistas seen there. The ideal of untouched wilderness as paradise has biases built in – for instance, the only kind of person living in this jungle would be Rousseau’s “Noble Savage,” and if a human in that landscape does not resemble that paradigm he or she’s displacement would be tacitly acceptable. In addition, the park, as virgin wilderness, was considered by early 20th century scientists as a specimen to add to their collection, like a dead bug or bird.

The third is that the implementation of park protections on the land made subsistence strategies used by people living in this landscape illegal. National Parks, including Everglades National Park forbids the removal of anything from National Park lands. Environmental economics can suggest strategic and efficient licensing measures that could help to manage the new, decriminalized economy. Licenses provide an opportunity for the government to fund enforcement, to limit the number of licenses granted at a time, and to educate the forager. A model for a licensed foraging economy is the mushroom foraging business, as it exists in the Northwest United States. Another method that could prove effective is the agreement achieved by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) with Yum Brands, Inc. in 2005 to pay agricultural pickers a greater share of the retail price. In that agreement was a branding device, called the Fair Food Program, which was a badge of fair labor practices for the company and later awarded to any company, which would agree to CIW’s terms. What if National Parks and select private landowners created a market for permits for picking Saw Palmetto fruits? What if select Saw Palmetto supplement distributors signed an agreement with a body like CIW, a mark of Fair Labor practice, and it made the product more appealing, more above-board to consumers?

During an airboat tour to his mother’s tree island, artist and activist Houston Cypress of the Love the Everglades Movement proclaimed that if you do what you want in the Everglades, like hunt or fish, then you will care for it and work to make it possible. Presently if you fish in the Everglades, you cannot eat the fish because of high mercury levels. As a fisherwoman you will advocate for a fish you can eat. This means fighting against pesticide runoff. Could valorizing the Serenoa repens and the people that work closest to it create a similar, positive cycle?

The proposal at the heart of Robert Chambers’ SEREPENS, that the Saw Palmetto be made an economic engine, constitutes a different way of navigating entrenched categories and assumptions about the natural world by embracing the intersections of art, design, science, human economics and the landscape.

1. Aisling Swift, “Palmetto berries: Immokalee industry has health benefits, harvesting dangers,” The Naples Daily News, posted September 22, 2013. Last accessed online October 19, 2018. Swift lists ancient and present day uses of the plant’s fruit, as well as dangers of harvesting it. http://archive.naplesnews.com/business/palmetto-berries-immokalee-industry-has-health-benefits-harvesting-dangers-ep-313904269-330757541.html

2. The saw palmetto is being aggressively harvested, even poached, for its medicinal properties that address a range of ailments including prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction, and low energy. Warren Abrahamson “A Tale of Two Palmettos: the Foundations of Ecosystems,” Saw Palmetto, Vol 33:3, 2016, 7.

3. Abrahamson, ibid, 5. Palmetto fruits are a key source of nutrition for “raccoons, opossums, foxes, whitetail deer, black bears, feral hogs, gopher tortoises and others.”

4. Jenifer Borum, “Robert Chambers Sculpture Center,” Artforum, December 1991:102-103.

5. Gert J. van Tonder and Dhanraj Vishwanath, “Design Insights: Gestalt, Bauhaus and Japanese Gardens,” in Johan Wagemans, Ed., Oxford Handbook of Perceptual Organization. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015, 21.

6. Warren G. Abrahamson, “Age-old Palms on Florida’s Ancient Ridges,” Saw Palmetto, Vol 33:3, 2016, 8. Stylized and three-dimensional interpretations of the diagrams by Mizuki Takahashi in Abrahamson’s article are on the wall in Chambers’ exhibition.

7. Grasshopper allows designers to perform graphical, component-based algorithmic modeling in Rhino. Source: Lynda.com.

8. Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site-Specificity,” October Vol. 80, Spring 1997, 93. “and different cultural debates, a theoretical concept, a social issue, a political problem, an institutional framework (not necessarily an art institution), a community or seasonal event, a historical condition, even particular formations of desire, are now deemed to function as sites.”

9. Sheet flow is the slow flow of water from the headwaters of the Everglades to Florida Bay. For “other productive properties,” see Aisling, ibid.