A 'living artwork' for insects aims to step into the world of other species

The work called 'Pollinator Pathmaker' aims to protect endangered pollinators by creating an environment that supports their reproduction

Artists responding to the climate crisis during the Cop26 conference often focused on protest art and political calls to action.

But a new work by artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg hopes to engage insects first, then humans. “By stepping into the world of other species, can we look back at ourselves and the ways in which we care for nature?” she tells The National.

This week, she unveiled the Pollinator Pathmaker, a 55 metre-long "living artwork", where over 7,000 plants will grow into a colourful and densely packed garden in Cornwall's Eden Project, in the south of England.

The chosen plants are not all bestsellers at the local garden centre, but they are loved by pollinating insects like bees, wasps, moths, beetles and ladybirds. “It’s unlike a garden that humans would design,” she says. “It’s got every colour, shape and size of flowers. It is layered and super dense.”

The aim is to create an environment that would support populations of pollinating insects, who play a vital role in our ecosystems. “The Eden Project asked me to produce a sculpture about pollinators, but it seemed like an opportunity to do something for them instead,” says Ginsberg.

The decline of insect species threatens ecosystems across the globe. “Many plants, including food, rely on pollinating insects to help them reproduce. As these numbers decline and plants don’t get pollinated, we’ll start to see the knock-on effects of ecosystem collapse,” she says.

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By designing a garden for pollinators, the idea was to create empathy for them by seeing the world as they do
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, artist

The Pollinator Pathmaker aims to protect these endangered pollinators and bring attention to their plight. “We often hear about the threat to bees. But insect populations across the world are in jeopardy,” she says.

Empathy is at the heart of this project, Ginsberg says. “For pollinators, the world looks and smells quite different. Bees and butterflies see different parts of the colour spectrum to humans. The way they see a garden, its colours and depth, is different to how we see it,” she explains. “By designing a garden for pollinators, the idea was to create empathy for them by seeing the world as they do."

To design the garden, the artist collaborated for over 18 months with beekeepers and horticulturalists from the Eden Project, as well as experts on pollination. With their knowledge, she created a database of compatible plants that are important for pollinators.

Then, she developed an algorithm with the help of a machine-learning expert to generate a bespoke garden design that would suit the climate and soil type and attract local pollinators. “The algorithm serves as a buffer between my biases and tastes for gardens and what pollinators prefer,” she says. “We normally use algorithms in service of our own interests, but we developed an algorithm to benefit other species.”

The algorithm also takes details like insect behaviour into account. “Bees can visit up to 10,000 flowers a day, and they memorise their locations. So it is important for them to take the shortest possible route,” she explains. “But other pollinators like beetles may just randomly forage."

The Pollinator Pathmaker is one of many gardens that the artist hopes will emerge from this project. Members of the public can design their own garden using Pollinator.art, an online tool which the artist also launched this week. The website uses the same algorithm to generate designs for any type of garden in the UK and similar climates in northern Europe. Users will also learn which plants support different pollinators. Digital paintings of plants that appear on the website were drawn by the artist.

To test this, Ginsberg generated and planted her own garden at her home. “I wasn’t choosing how to arrange things, but following a plan and being told what to do knowing that it was going to be beneficial for other species,” she said. “The process gave me the sense that I wasn’t planting a garden for myself.”

Further editions of the Pollinator Pathmaker are being designed for London’s Serpentine Gallery and the Light Art Space in Berlin. Cultural institutions and private collectors are invited to commission their own editions in collaboration with Ginsberg and the Eden Project. This would contribute towards expanding the plant database to other continents and climates.

But is this art, or a useful design tool for gardeners? “For me, good art makes you see the world differently. The aim of this work is to change our perspective on what a garden is and who it is for,” she says.

“Every garden that is planted is a good thing, but the Pollinator Pathmaker is not intended as a solution,” she says. “The end result may be a garden, but if you think of it as an artwork for other species, then it’s a different way of seeing the world, and of thinking about why we make things and who they are for.”

Updated: November 6th 2021, 8:01 AM