the most unusual orchid show yet is all about sculpture
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The annual Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), now in its 16th year, is one of the many harbingers of spring in the city. But spring is taking its sweet time arriving this year, and the lingering chill turns out to be a perfect match for this year’s exhibit. It’s far more cerebral, austere and architectural than any we’ve ever seen. These are not your usual hothouse orchids in prim pots – this is something really new. You may think you’ve seen a floral sculpture before – but we’re willing to bet that you’ve never seen anything like this.
On an icy-cold March day, with the Garden’s grounds barren, brown and still, Team Dandelion Chandelier set out to see the results of the collaboration between the NYBG and Belgian artist Daniel Ost, who was asked to design several site-specific displays especially for the Garden’s spectacular Enid Haupt Conservatory for this year’s Orchid Show.
Ost is a self-described “bloembinder,” the Dutch term for an artist who works with flowers. In Belgium he’s known as “the Picasso of flower arranging;” in France he’s touted as “the international star of floral decoration.” Ost apprenticed for a time in Japan with a grand master of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. There, he embraced the concept of wabi-sabi, the philosophy that finds beauty in imperfection, asymmetry and impermanence. Throughout his career, he has incorporated those concepts into his work.
The result? The opening vignette of this year’s Orchid Show could not be any more different than those in years prior. Usually whimsy dominates in the initial display, which is always stationed underneath the 90-foot Palm Dome. For example, in 2017 the theme was Thailand, and the installation first greeting visitors featured topiaries of Thai elephants bearing graceful boughs of blooms in vivid pink and yellow meant to evoke a lush Thai jungle.
It was lovely, and charming, and easily understood. This year’s opening display? Far more intellectually demanding.
It’s called Cascade of Orchids, and the NYBG describes it as “a living sculpture featuring thousands of live orchids, including rainbow, cane and moth orchids.” It’s 18 feet tall.
The accompanying signage notes that the artist’s primary goal in creating this work was to celebrate the individual qualities of each flower. The plastic tubing is meant to reflect light and mimic the rain forest vines from which tree-dwelling orchids hang in the wild.
From the ground, we experienced it as one might experience the train of a magnificent ball gown, or a glorious hand-crafted wedding dress: a billowing mass of gorgeous colors, innumerable delicate and intricate details, and an almost overwhelming sense of movement, life, and beauty. It wasn’t at all what we were expecting, and we circled it numerous times to try to understand it more fully.
As we did, we observed small details that spoke to the fierce intelligence at work behind this display: the way the curves of the supporting structure mimicked and complemented the palm fronds surrounding the installation. The interplay of water throughout the towering piece. The contrast of tiny pink and white orchids and mammoth green palm trees. The color play alone is absolutely magnificent.
Reluctantly turning away from this first display, we following a winding path through the various connected greenhouses, passing through many charming vistas: a European-style gallery with a classic Greek fountain amidst a pool of water lilies; a mossy wall that might have been the habitation of Hobbits; and a room filled with desert succulents.
These sights were in keeping with the norm for the Orchid Show – graceful, refined and organic. There were orchids of every shape, color and size nestled into lovely vignettes along the way.
Then we encountered the next significant installation designed by Ost. Which was none of those things, but something altogether different. And mesmerizing.
It’s a geodesic dome crafted from dark green plastic tubes made to look like bamboo shoots. Each side of the spherical structure is different, but all employ orchids in brilliant yellow, orange and red – a dramatic contrast in mood from the pale pastels of the floral cascade.
From a distance, the dome looks unfinished – the top is free of adornment and the effect is that someday the flowers will grow to overtake it – but not yet. It made us reflect on the nature of the constructed world, and how ultimately nature triumphs over the structures made by man. Or not.
Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that inside this verdant dome there are even more orchids. One of the friendly docents on duty explained that some of the orchids are so rare that they’ve never been displayed publicly before (we later learned that Ost’s designs afforded the NYBG the opportunity to showcase the widest range of orchid diversity ever presented in the annual Orchid Show). The dome serves as both art and as a protective device – the most fragile of the flowers can be seen but not touched through its lattice of tubes.
The final “act” of Ost’s creation unfolds in a narrow greenhouse adorned with panels made of the same tubing used in the two prior works – they mimic a thatched roof, and throughout, orchids of every type and color spring from the ground, dangle from the ceiling, or rest gently at eye level, just waiting to be seen.
The goal of showcasing individual blooms may be most fully realized here: there are some gorgeous specimens that get their full due, including some that are extremely rare (like the “Mother of Hundreds” orchid).
This is the kind of experience that rewards repeat viewing. So why not see it by both starlight and sunlight? Orchid Evenings are held on selected Saturday evenings at the NYBG, with orchid show viewing, cocktails, live music and dancing.
We never leave without a quick stop at the charming Shop in the Garden. If you love books about specific plants, or about the great gardens of the world, this is your place. In addition, there are botanical table-top items, archival prints, stationary, hand-made soaps, decorative lanterns, planters, pots and live plants on offer – all beautifully merchandised.
Spring will eventually arrive. This year, we think the memories of the Orchid Show will linger long after the season is gone.