The Amsterdam Zoo is known as Artis, short for its motto Natura Artis Magistra or “Nature is the Teacher of Art and Science.” To artist Pavèl van Houten (Bergen op Zoom, 1984) this motto was the guiding principle in designing wallpapers for a number of offices and rooms to be renovated at the facility. Preliminary research for the project centered on a performance on the grounds of the zoo, which ran for one month during the summer of 2013 and in which forty-one volunteers participated. The artist was also asked to take the coloring of the original wallpapers dating from 1891 into account, and to match the feel and function of the various rooms (manager’s offices, reception, and meeting rooms).
Van Houten and his team studied three different botanic species represented in the park, the pagoda tree (Sophora), the plane tree (Platanus), and bamboo (Bambusa). Examining one single specimen of each (one clump in the case of bamboo) they drew, counted, and described aspects such as the distribution of 248 bamboo stems, the position of approximately 31,000 pagoda tree leaves, and the shape of some 1,300 irregular patches of plane tree bark, putting together a kind of biography for each. The resulting datasets were translated into infographics (visual images) that were subsequently reworked into patterns that hark back to forms found in nature, such as constellations, leaves, branches, and fungi.
Van Houten’s work is characterized by the study and blending together of elements of art, science, and nature. He is keenly interested in the rituals of science and religion, two most important endeavors for finding meaning. He tries to put them into perspective and make them comprehensible and concrete. He also assigns special significance to objects and events that are often viewed as inconsequential or inane—in this case, three individual sorts of plants.
Pavèl van Houten is one of the 26 designers and studios that are selected for the group show Dream Out Loud – Designing for Tomorrow’s Demands. The exhibition can be visited from 26 August 2016 in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Read more about the exhibition or order tickets.