Selby Gardens and the Slowest Form of Performance Art

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BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY FEB 8, 2019

Though plenty consider Sarasota a paradise in itself, the staff at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has been hard at work creating a whole other natural nirvana in Gauguin: Voyage to Paradise, unveiling this Sunday. Following in the footsteps of 2016’s Marc Chagall, Flowers and the French Riviera and last year’s Warhol: Flowers in the Factory, the Jean & Alfred Goldstein Exhibition Series continues with this celebration of the wandering post-impressionist painter, exhibiting rare works in the Payne Mansion and transforming the grounds into a Tahitian paradise such as inspired the work.

The makeover begins in the Conservatory, where visitors are greeted upon entry by a trio of dug-out canoes suspended from the ceiling and overflowing with vibrant vegetation. “We always want to epiphyte everything,” jokes Selby Gardens’ Angel Lara, part of the team that spent seven months planning the Conservatory exhibition, and then a whirlwind six days installing. The exhibition winds through the Conservatory pathways, over a bridge flanked by flower “torches” and Tahitian aromatics that immerse one in the smells as well as the sounds of Gauguin’s Polynesian paradise. “Everyone has to walk across the bridge to really experience it,” says Selby CEO Jennifer Rominiecki, and over the bridge and through the somewhat manicured tropical jungle lies a “fire pit” of flame-red flora, floating coconuts full of orchids, a living wall mural and a great feminine tiki overlooking it all. “Theatrical horticulture,” quips Lara. “The slowest form of performance art.”

Not confined to the Conservatory, the Tahitian terraforming spreads throughout the entire grounds, from the ceremonial masks-turned-planters in the Children’s Rainforest to the lean-to village installed on the Gardens’ peninsula to the fishing village scene, recreated with thatched-roof huts, dug-out canoes, coconut palms and white sand. On the pathways connecting them all, keep an eye out for Tahitian plantings, celebrating not only the beautiful and the colorful, but the culturally and economically important, such as bananas and breadfruits, often accompanied by displayed Gauguin quotations. One of the most important Tahitian staples, taro, gets the premier treatment in a carefully planted field, flanked by male and female pandanus trees, whose leaves would be woven by Tahitian natives for roofing, and guarded by an overgrown and oversized male tiki sculpture.

Inside the Payne Mansion, see the art that inspired it all (or was inspired by, depending on the interpretation) in rare works on display. See woodcuts, wood engravings and lithographs from Gauguin himself, but also explore the Tahiti of his time through colonial-era photographs, 19th century postcards and maps of his explorations.

Opening this Sunday, Gauguin: Voyage to Paradise runs through June 30.

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