“You can’t tell the story of orchids in Asia with items from the 21st century. With PAGODA RED’s generosity, we used Asian antiques to bring stories from the 1700s and 1900s to life.”— Gabriel Hutchison, Exhibitions and Programs Production Manager, Chicago Botanic Garden
Every year, in the depths of February, the Chicago Botanic Garden fills its greenhouses with tropical orchids. It’s a welcome burst of color and warmth in the middle of winter, and a reminder that spring is on its way. This year’s exhibition, Asia in Bloom, pairs exotic orchids with Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian objects on loan from PAGODA RED. We spoke with Gabriel Hutchison, Exhibitions and Programs Production Manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden, about how he translated Asian inspiration into modern installations.
Many months before the show opens, a team begins the research process. “I work with a designer, writer, and horticulturalist, and the four of us begin by researching pictures and stories,” Hutchison says. An image of a Japanese fence with horizontal bamboo slats inspired an installation that recalls classical Japanese teahouses, while writings on the medicinal uses of orchids led to a display of Chinese mortars, pestles and apothecary jars. A centuries-old practice, Chinese medicine still uses dried and ground orchid bulbs to make homeopathic teas and capsules.
Additionally, Hutchison incorporated kimonos and obis embroidered with orchids in the exhibition.
“Ironically, the orchid that pops up most frequently on kimonos are Cattleyas, which are native to Central America, not Asia. It was an a-ha moment for me to see that traditional Japanese garments were rendered with non-Asian orchids. It speaks to the fact that orchids have been heavily traded for a long time,” says Hutchison.
Every culture has orchids that go in and out of style. In our current Western moment, the orchid that’s reached peak ubiquity is the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid. When selecting orchids for your home, Hutchison urges people to look beyond the obvious.
“There are so many varieties. Oncidiums—or dancing ladies—come in a wide range of shapes and colors: greens, yellows, browns, and reds. You don’t have to display them in a traditional orchid vase, you can use driftwood or find an unconventional way to display them on vintage pieces. I love orchids in cut flower arrangements with bromeliads. They can be calm or vibrant.”
When choosing the containers for the orchid show, Hutchison gravitated towards pieces rich in history and narrative. A hand-carved limestone Japanese Buddha (c. 1900) receives daily orchid offerings from the garden staff, just as it would have in a temple or home garden. Chinese Taihu Stones and a limestone planter, hand-carved with celestial clouds, rise up from a blanket of greenery, just as they might once have risen from the grounds of a Qing Dynasty temple garden.
“Objects have to be authentic,” explains Hutchison. “When the public comes to see these objects, there’s a standard that needs to be acknowledged. PAGODA RED is known for objects with that level of provenance. Working with stylists and curators, “PAGODA RED quality” is shorthand for that kind of authenticity.”
Of course, nothing matches the experience of seeing the objects and installations in person. Asia in Bloom is on exhibit from February 10 through March 25, 2018. For more information, visit chicagobotanic.org/orchid.
Images by Allison Knotts.