Artists And Botanists Take Over Urban Nature Reserve In Bethnal Green

An obscure corner of an urban Nature Reserve located in Bethnal Green East London, ‘Phytology’ is quietly gestating. Part urban physic garden, part natural laboratory and part pharmacy, it is a new year-long collaboration with artists and botanists, exploring the medicinal properties of wild plants and weeds common to derelict urban environments.

Phytology brings artists and botanists together to explore the medicinal properties of plants that are common to derelict urban environments. Thirty-two species have been sown on a specially created site in the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Generally regarded as ‘just weeds’, each plant has been selected for their on-going use in phytotherapy and traditional medicine. The project invites visitors to explore the site, to harvest and use the plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes. Phytology aims to challenge ideas of use, value, resilience and the function of wildness within our urban ecosystem. Phytology has been advised by ethno-botanist Dr Peter Giovannini, International Projects Officer for Kew Botanic Gardens.  He was recently part of a group of international experts on plants used by humankind that urged the development of a global program on the conservation of useful plants and associated knowledge.

Thirty-two species of wild plants – usually regarded as weeds – have been sown on a specially created site that was once meadow and pasture, and occupied by a medieval nursery and market gardens.  Ranging from Black Mustard, Common Nettle and Feverwort, to Wild Garlic, Marsh Mallow and Sweet Woodruff, the plants have been selected for their continued use in phytotherapy and traditional medicine.  Visitors to the Reserve are encouraged to learn how to safely identify, harvest and utilise the plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes.
The new medicinal plant field is celebrated in a series of year-long artist commissions taking place throughout the spring and summer, supported by an Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust. British artist Talya Baldwin is producing a contemporary take on botanical illustrations depicting all 32 species of ‘weeds’ for a billboard hoarding located within the Reserve and an online archive at
Vhils, a Portuguese artist whose radical form of urban art explores the aesthetics of vandalism, is responding to the plant collection with a large-scale site-based carving, street stencils and billboard posters; and artist-designersInstitute of Use, whose work re-purposes underused spaces, investigate the history, ecology and derelict materiality of the site.
Phytology is also a collaboration with locally based, internationally influential organisations including the Ministry of Stories, who work with young people and renowned novelists, scriptwriters, poets, artists and filmmakers on experimental creative writing projects; and Jagonari, a ground-breaking organisaton for non-European women based in Whitechapel. Both will produce projects inspired by Phytology’s themes and ideas and the wild environment of the medicinal meadow.
Human Nature is a series of talks commissioned by the Siobhan Davies Dance, happening in May and August in parallel to Chelsea Fringe Festival and the London Festival of Architecture 2014.  Ideas around urban wildness, harvestable medicine, alternative urban planning and biodiversity within the modern metropolis will be discussed.
Phytology: a rarely used 17th century word meaning botany. Phytology is a Nomad and Cape Farewell project. Supported by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England.  It is a partnership with the Teesdale and Hollybush Tenants and Residents Association, whose dedicated management of the Reserve has protected and developed it.
Growing Season is curated in collaboration with Alison Proctor of Siobhan Davies Dance, and independent producer Vicky Long.
Talya Baldwin is a British illustrator who graduating from Central Saint Martins, London and is now based in West Yorkshire, England.  Her drawings are always rendered by hand using biros, coloured pencils, pastels, wax crayons and felt tip pens. Her work often documents the unloved, forgotten, unpopular or overlooked such as weeds, pigeons, rats and human outsiders.
Alexandre Farto a.k.a Vhils was born in Portugal in 1987. He studied at Central Saint Martins, London. Vhils currently lives in both London and Lisbon, Portugal. An avid experimentalist, he has been developing his notion of the aesthetics of vandalism in the form of stencil painting, wall carving and pyrotechnic explosion drawings.
Nomad was established in 2009 by Michael Smythe to facilitate new dialogues between artist, collaboration and exhibition in the public domain. Nomad continually strives to build support structures for artists to explore non-traditional working and presentation methods. Their commissioning process is orientated towards increasing knowledge and experience for artists, collaborators and audiences alike.  Recent projects include Marcus Coates’The School of Imagination (2013) and Vision Quest (2010), Day of the Dead in the Old Vic Tunnels (2012), and The Memory of W T Stead (2013) by Lundahl & Seitl and Cassie Yukawa.
Cape Farewell works in partnership with scientific and cultural institutions to deliver an innovative climate programme of public engagement using the notion of expedition – Arctic, Island, Urban and Conceptual – to interrogate the scientific, social and economic realities that lead to climate disruption, and to inspire the creation ofclimate focused art which is disseminated across a range of platforms – exhibitions, festivals, publications, digital media and film.

Image credits:  Middle, Talya Baldwin, Sweet Woodruff, Courtesy of NOMAD & the Artist – 2014
Right, VhilsScratching the Surface Project, Fame Festival, Grotalie, Italy – 2010, Photo by Vhils

Phytology is open 26 April – 14 September 2014, Friday and Saturday, 10:00am – 5:00pm, or at other times by appointment. Email  Admission, free.  Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Middleton Street, Bethnal Green, London E2 9RN – For more information see

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