Captivated by cacti: Ben Russell, Dan Torre and the symbolism of the backbone


Cacti, collected: the Southfields Nurseries display at the Chelsea flower show, 2016. Photograph by Jane Perrone.

Cacti, collected: the Southfields Nurseries show on the Chelsea flower present, 2016. {Photograph} by Jane Perrone.

Mammillarias dotted with flowers in all of the luminous colors of a rack of neon pop socks in C&A, circa 1983; the previous man cactus, Cephalocereus senilis, outdoing ZZ Prime for the sheer luxuriance of its hairdo; the large tree-like, branched saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert, used as a visible shorthand for “the wild west” in each cowboy film, ever.

I have been captivated by cacti since I used to be a child. I used to be fortunate sufficient to go to a decrease college that had a big glasshouse-cum-conservatory alongside one sunny wall of the constructing, and it was stuffed with not-very-well cared for however venerable cacti, some tall sufficient to be tapping their spiny fingers in opposition to the glass. I might attempt to spend as a lot time as attainable hanging on the market, and I feel the top instructor will need to have picked up on my love of vegetation as me and my pal had been allowed to bunk off maths class to go and water the spider vegetation within the library (would not occur at present, proper?!) 

At dwelling, I began up my very own assortment of cacti, choosing up wizened specimens from jumble gross sales and Woolworths. The joys when the primary one flowered – an enormous white trumpet just like the horn of a gramophone that appeared at some point and was gone the following – was addictive. 

It has been satisfying, within the final 5 years or so, to see one thing that I like flip from a distinct segment curiosity right into a pervasive presence in each hip espresso store and elegance journal. “Ah, you lastly acquired it – about time” I feel to myself, smugly. However that’s an unfair illustration of the enduring symbolic energy of the cactus: individuals have beloved and revered these vegetation since earlier than recorded human historical past, and can proceed to take action as soon as the present fad dies down. 

Cactus art: some of Ben Russell's sculptures at his exhibition at the HIgnell Gallery in London. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

Cactus artwork: a few of Ben Russell’s sculptures at his exhibition on the HIgnell Gallery in London. {Photograph}: Jane Perrone.

The real plants that surround the sculptures were supplied and arranged by Conservatory Archives. Photograph: Jane Perrone

The actual vegetation that encompass the sculptures had been provided and organized by Conservatory Archives. {Photograph}: Jane Perrone

Sculptor Ben Russell is a little bit of a cactus lover too. His present Cactus Home exhibition on the Hignell Gallery in Mayfair, London, exhibits how various, intricate, and beguiling are the shapes that cacti could make. His sculptures, rendered in alabaster, onyx and portland limestone, are splendidly tactile: thankfully the very first thing the gallery assistant informed me once I visited was that I used to be free to the touch them.

The sculptures had been set amongst actual vegetation supplied by the indoor plant suppliers Conservatory Archives which supplied an intriguing distinction between the actual and the constructed, artwork and nature (and a few rattling effective houseplants…). I used to be fortunate sufficient to chair a dialogue with Russell and gallery proprietor Abby Hignell, during which we mentioned the ever-changing relationship between artwork and nature and explored the enduring attraction of the cactus. (I even wore one in all my cactus shirts!) The present closes after this weekend (the final day is July 3) so if you’re within the neighborhood, please do go and have a look. 

Spine security: a cactus fence. Photograph: Terry Robinson on Flickr.

Backbone safety: a cactus fence. {Photograph}: Terry Robinson on Flickr.

Ever extra impressed by the cactus as a cultural icon within the wake of the exhibition, I used to be delighted and intrigued when a assessment copy of recent ebook Cactus by Dr Dan Torre (£16, Reaktion Books) landed on my desk. This ebook is not a standard gardening ebook: there aren’t recommendations on watering or repotting. As an alternative Torre explores the cultural and social historical past of cacti, from the traditional – photos of cacti present in Peru that date again to 1300BC – to the current day – genetically modified cacti that develop “human hair”. I used to be significantly intrigued by the “dwelling fences” of cactus which can be frequent in Mexico and South America, primarily out of the organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) and Pachycereus species – together with the “cactus curtain” alongside the border of the US base at Guantanamo Bay within the Nineteen Sixties. 

My kids had been significantly fascinated to be taught that there was an episode of one in all their favorite exhibits, Physician Who, that includes a cactus-like alien known as Meglos. I feel all of us anthropomorphise our vegetation occasionally, however the trope of the “evil cactus” is an fascinating one: maybe one thing anybody who has knocked in opposition to an Opuntia plant and spend hours choosing out the tiny spines can sympathise with. 

I hope to interview Dan in a future episode of my podcast On the Ledge – I can not wait!

Replace: hearken to my interview with Dan Torre right here.

Showing off the spines in my cactus shirt at Ben Russell's Cactus House exhibition. Photograph: Fiona Russell.

Exhibiting off the spines in my cactus shirt at Ben Russell’s Cactus Home exhibition. {Photograph}: Fiona Russell.

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