B.C.-raised artist Arvo Leo prepares his cyanotype prints for his exhibition, The Orchids / Had the Look of Flowers That Are Looked At, at the Nanaimo Art Gallery. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)

B.C. artist Arvo Leo presents orchid-themed exhibit at Nanaimo Art Gallery

‘The Orchids / Had the Look of Flowers That Are Looked At’ includes photo and video elements

B.C. artist Arvo Leo’s latest exhibition is inspired by one of the world’s largest, most popular and most enigmatic plant families: the orchid.

Many orchid species are notable for having uncannily evolved to physically resemble, and therefore attract, their insect and avian pollinators.

Leo, who originally hails from Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast, is currently serving as artist-in-residence at Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie school of fine arts. It was while living in the Netherlands that he first developed an interest in the plant family and has since joined the Dutch and Vancouver Orchid Societies.

But he’s unsure if his plants share that enthusiasm.

“After living with and collecting a lot of orchids over here and also in Amsterdam, I starting thinking about just trying to ask the question, ‘Did these plants also enjoy this relationship of being in my studio and in my home and having me taking care of them?’” Leo said.

“Or maybe they felt that this form of domestication could be objectionable. They might find that their freedom, their emancipation, was being suppressed.”

That thought informed his exhibition, The Orchids / Had the Look of Flowers That Are Looked At, which opens at the Nanaimo Art Gallery on Friday, June 22 and continues until July 22.

Curatorial intern Emma Sise said the show relates to the gallery’s ongoing thematic inquiry, “How can we speak differently?” as it looks into the capability of plants to communicate.

“It’s not a literal speaking to, but it can be. Plants do react to music and they react to touch and they react to energy and light,” she said.

The exhibition features a stop motion film starring Leo’s orchids, screened inside a structure resembling a greenhouse. The greenhouse is covered with blue and white prints of orchids and objects using cyanotype, a method of photographic printing used by botanists in the 19th century.

The film is shot at 15 frames per second and runs for about 15 minutes. In it, Leo’s plants mock human behaviour by taking selfies, but also hold a funeral for a dead orchid and, in what he suggests to be an act of domestic rebellion, go on a destructive rampage in Leo’s studio.

“I’m trying to create a space for people, not just for entertainment, but also a space where people will want to engage in some these things that I’m interested in,” he said.

“I’m not trying to say that nobody should have plants … I’m not trying to say that too many people neglect plants. I’m just trying to allow a space for people to think about some of these relationships.”

WHAT’S ON … Opening reception for Arvo Leo’s The Orchids / Had the Look of Flowers That Are Looked At at the Nanaimo Art Gallery on Friday, June 22 at 7 p.m. The show runs from June 23 to July 22.


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