Third Nature

Cambridge University

Pistoia, Italy, Summer 2022

In that empire, the craft of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the empire itself an entire province’

Jorge Luis Borges, ’On Exactitude in Science’

Nature as a stage set. As the gap between the synthetic and organic narrows, technological and scientific advances change the way we experience the world and the shifting boundaries between the natural and the artificial, the real and the romanticised, the living and non-living, ‘us’ and the ‘other’. 

When looking through the digitised library collection of Cambridge University we came across 18th century architectural and landscape master plans ‘for laying out Cambridge’, hand drawn by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the master landscape designer that fundamentally changed the perception and reception of British landscape and topography in general. 

Whilst he was known for the immense efforts he went through to move mountains, lakes and forests to carefully contour the ground creating perfect landscapes to conform to a naturalistic, seemingly untouched aesthetic, what he created was a simulacra of the only seemingly untouched or ‘naturalised’. For all their artifice, his modifications to entire ecosystems epitomised the very idea of a pristine ‘first nature’ which, since, has been so powerful within European romanticism.

Informed by our interest in ecological simulacra, this led us to look at the increasing use of digital tools in landscape regeneration and the collection of material libraries, edits, adjustments or objects that one can apply to any virtual setting. We were intrigued by the increasingly generic forms of landscape representations, how they mark an estrangement from material spaces, and how technological tools are shaping the way we perceive, depict and construct our environment and nature itself and provide the perfect tool to parse today’s world. 

Third Nature is a living sculpture which adopts the language of a digital tree library. The artwork consists of 15 native and non-native mature trees that are planted in a grid pattern typically associated with representations of trees in virtual landscape softwares.   

The placement and typology of trees mirror those of their digital counterparts which do not bear any meaningful connections to botanical taxonomy, horticultural requirements or contextual relevance nor do they follow any coherent order either in heritage, character or simply form. The trees, both the ‘real’ and digital, are arranged in alphabetical order, yet even this is a random combination of latin, common and made up names.

Each tree in the artwork, between 4m and 15m tall and anything between 10 and 40 years old at time of planting, is routed at the centre of a 9 by 9m square filled with differently textured grass and surrounded by white gridlines. These gridlines are constructed of white marble setts that, in their arrangement, mirror the self-same, reflective geometry of Superstudio, the artistic pioneers of dystopia and the idea of nature as a technological substrate.

The choice of trees was based on creating the most incongruous collection of ‘representatives’, a combinate of different shapes, colours, origins, cultural and botanical significance.

The search for the right trees was supported by the head gardeners from the Cambridge Botanic Gardens whilst a Cambridge based nursery provided support to source the species across the UK and Europe.

Third Nature opens Spring 2024.