Kim? Contemporary Art Center is now presenting an exhibit by Swedish artist Ida Pettersson (1979), The Vegetable Lam and Other Ravishing Stories from the Past, which was on display in Uppsala, Sweden, in 2010 and in Riga will be open till August 7. The drawings, sculptures, and photographs seen in the exhibit conjure up a unique love for people’s gender. The myths selected by the artist about fantastical creatures and strange phenomena each embody a specific era’s impassioned attempts to understand the world. When 16th century Europeans came into contact with the enormous nut Coco de Mer, nobody knew where it came from. Over time, ignorance was replaced by a widespread view that the nuts grew on mythological trees at the bottom of the sea.
Having received a positive charge from humanity’s imagination in creating myths, I was momentarily overcome with irritation at the scientists who show up and “ruin all the fun.” In this way, in the late sixteenth century, the doctor and collector Sir Hans Sloane unmasked the Vegetable Lamb as a hoax: the animal’s legs were in fact made of fern stems and its supposed wool came from the fern rhizome. Before that, people believed the Vegetable Lamb grew from the ground, connected by its navel, and was incapable of moving from its place. The Vegetable Lamb nourished itself on the surrounding grass, and when all the grass was eaten it starved to death. A couple of years ago Ida Pettersson saw a model of the Vegetable Lamb at the London Natural History Museum, and so the idea for the exhibit was born.
But it’s hard to stay irritated for long at those scientists. The artist’s exhibit establishes a distance that allows you to see the rationalization of nature as just another stage in world history, in which people untiringly search for an suitable explanation for what is going on around them. And just when it seemed as if the Earth had been crisscrossed twice over—that all the trees, birds, and animals have been documented and classified—the world’s tallest palm tree was discovered in Madagascar in 2007. The palm appears once every fifty years, grows, blooms, and then immediately dies. Nature researchers are poring over dictionaries and encyclopedias with furrowed brows, because they staunchly believe they will find an indisputable explanation. How sweet.