Watsonville native Scott Serrano turns back time, lets imagination run wild
Scott Serrano’s journey backwards in time began roughly 10 years ago, when he became interested in science travel writing as a source of artistic inspiration. “I read ‘The Malay Archipelago’ by Alfred Russell Wallace, and I basically fell in love with that book and the way it captured the feeling of being in dense tropical jungles, and somebody immersing themself in that kind of universe,” says Serrano.
“[Wallace] was like a sponge; he was absorbing everything around him,” he continues, “tribal people, plants, insects, the weather, geology… He spent most of that book celebrating how rich the diversity of life is—this from a sheltered young man from uptight Victorian England, raised in a small town in almost-poverty conditions, who had never been out of England until he began exploring.”
That encounter with Wallace’s work proved to be a formative experience, one that motivated Serrano to spend the last 10 years embarking on his own 19th century science expedition. Without access to a time machine, Serrano settled on the next best thing: his imagination. That imagined expedition is the basis for an elaborate art installation/faux exhibition, which opens at the Cabrillo Gallery on Feb. 15.
“Picturesque Flora Wallaceana: Botanical Ambulations In Greater Wallaceana” is described as “a fabricated 19th century science narrative of the tropical island of Wallaceana presented as an installation of images, text and artifacts.” While the project mostly defies any sort of brief summarization, Serrano explains that the idea sprung from the desire to create “an exhibition where people experienced reading about somebody who had gone through that sort of an exploration.”
And in so doing, the exhibition was conceived as something of a tribute to Wallace. “I wanted to invent a landscape named after him,” says Serrano. “So I named it Wallaceana, and I hid elements of his life and biography all over the exhibition.”
The expedition is documented through various mediums, including drawings, photographs, travel journals, artifacts and fabricated specimens. “For the images, I wanted to do an homage to ‘The Temple of Flora’ by Robert Thornton, which is arguably the best 19th century botanical work in terms of detail,” explains Serrano. “It’s very lush and romantic, with very exquisitely detailed mezzotint prints, and I wanted to try and capture the feeling of that.”
While the exhibition is an homage to 19th century traditions of botanical exploration, Serrano also taps into the zeitgeist of more recent history. “So I put contemporary social politics in that sphere,” he says. “Not to do it in a dogmatic way, but to do it in a funny way—and make plants that are named after political people, or people who had tragic lives, or characters from art and history. And have the plants go through the life cycles of the people, and reflect those lives.”
The exhibition is also described as “a critique of objective scientific representation,” which refers to the documentation of the history of science through the use of image, such as art, photographs, charts, etc. “All of these forms of communication are produced by humans who—often unknowingly—create them with preconceived prejudices,” explains Serrano. “The very language that each person uses to describe the world shapes each of us.”
Serrano describes this as a double-edged sword. “On the one hand, that means that scientists study science with a feeling of passionate engagement,” he says. “But they are describing the world using words which already have loaded social meanings, even when they are trying to describe things in a clinical fashion.”
That said, “I also happen to love the images, artifacts, and language of science,” he adds. “And I’m inspired by the extraordinary things the pioneers of science have done to shape our way of viewing the world.”
Perhaps he recognizes a bit of himself in Wallace—a Watsonville native, Serrano now lives with his wife and children in upstate New York, a vastly different environment. He spends his days growing his own food and—every once in a while—making an excursion to Wallaceana. The island may be fictional, but the passion is genuine, and like Wallace, Serrano’s a veritable adventurer.
‘Picturesque Flora Wallaceana: Botanical Ambulations In Greater Wallaceana, 1854 to 1857’ runs Feb. 15-March 15, at the Cabrillo Gallery, Cabrillo College Library Room 1002, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, plus 7-9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. Reception: 5-6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 14. Call 479-6308 or visit cabrillo.edu/services/artgallery Photos: Scott Serrano