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Experimental Apples of Jessica Rath

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While rushing between college Halloween parties during a particularly cold late October New England night, I ran into a friend dressed as a witch. Along with the dramatic black dress, hat, stellar makeup and the rest, her primary prop was a huge shiny red apple that she creepily cradled in her hand. This small detail sold the entire getup. "That's fake, right?" I asked. "Nope, it's a Rome," she answered.

Much like asking a magician for his/her tricks, it's a breach of Halloween etiquette to poke around too much behind the masquerade of festival attire. Costumes are about altering our perceptions of the world and ourselves. Better just to go with it. Yet this Rome apple, which was used to help construct an illusion, was edible and "real." It still seemed so bizarrely artificial in context.

In her series take me to the apple breeder, Los Angeles-based artist Jessica Rath has wrestled with and honored the power of this particular fruit. She's obviously not the first to meditate on the apple, the symbolism of which has been the subject of human obsession since the dawn of time. Rath's approach is a nuanced blend of art and science that's based in some pretty geeky examination of genetics and breeding practices. And the outcomes are stunningly beautiful.

The seed for the series was planted, so to speak, when Rath read Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire. Eventually through a Kickstarter campaign, she funded an initial visit to the USDA/Cornell University Plant Genetics Resource Unit in Geneva, New York, where Rath researched the mechanics and aesthetics of apple reproduction. The unit collects existing and often fragile, endangered apple varieties, and also supports a breeding division at the Cornell University-NYS Agricultural Experiment Station.

The exhibition featuring Rath's complete series opens at PMCA on Sunday, October 28th. The collection of work includes nine high-fire glazed porcelain sculptures of older and endangered apple varieties, and 11 large-scale photographs shot in collaboration with a fashion photographer. These have got to be the most elegant and almost ethereal shots of crossbred cloned apple trees in existence. Also remember that it requires a distinct passion to voluntarily spend time outdoors in central New York orchards during the darkest, coldest days of winter.

Rath spoke with us about how she got bitten by the apple bug, and what this fruit has to teach us about current food debates, diversity, and our relationship to nature and art. It's
definitely a different type of conversation than the Fuji vs. Pink Lady discussions you
might have at your farmers' market apple vendor stand, where you will need to load up to
make Sweet Rose Creamery's ice cream chef Shiho Yoshikawa's recipe for apple pie ala
mode sundae
, complete with salty pecan crumble and cinnamon sauce toppings. take me to the apple breeder is on view at PMCA through February 24, 2013.

For the record, apparently the aforementioned Rome apple looked gorgeous, and tasted terrible.

Apple Shadow (clone water sprout).
Apple Shadow (clone water sprout).

What about Michael Pollan's writing about apples inspired you to use them as a point of exploration of how human beings manipulate the natural world?

I was reading his description of the Plant Genetics Resource Unit. He went into detail about his experience, and that description of the "botanic ark" of the orchard. It's a different fruit. The oddness of that was really attractive to me. It took me two years to figure out how I wanted to make work about that. I kept it in the back of my mind.

I was doing a sculpture of an effigy of a dying apricot tree in my own back yard. I hadn't made small precious objects in a long time, something almost jewel-like and carried light. I experienced with flip cast porcelain and had an aha! moment. Now I know how to make this work. Porcelain and high fire glazes are partially made of glass, they vitrify. They form together. Then I had the material.

That's how I work. I have an idea then I have to sit on it for a while until I have a material that's appropriate. Then I raised funds to go to the Plant Genetics Resource Unit. I spent a couple days there, tasting, looking, learning. I brought several hundred apples home. I bought an extra refrigerator and kept them as cold as I could. I brought home 20 varieties and chose nine.

So what is it about apples?

I was trying to show that incredible diversity, things that you couldn't imagine were apples. Blushes you hadn't seen in the store or elements that were so intriguing that you could imagine someone seeing that seeding, which has that incredible beauty.

Once people understand, it's accepted, but most people have forgotten that the apples are all clones. You can't plant an apple from seed. That's why the Resource Unit exists, because those apples are from all over the world in orchards that are dying off. You can't replicate genetic material unless it's alive. You have to graft it every seven to ten years.

Apple Shadow (clone columnar with early pubescence).
Apple Shadow (clone columnar with early pubescence).

What's happening to orchards?

The orchards are dying off because of encroachment from modernization. Some are older orchards and the family doesn't want to take over.

Market needs are fickle. Groceries stores and distributors want a long shelf life and ship-ability. [They're concerned about] stem length and bruising. There's a certain starch-sugar relationship. Overtime apples will become more starchy. Apples have been bred to last six to eight months.

The genetic material is really important. There's only one place where apples have been left to grow wild left. It's in Kazakhstan, with 300 year-old trees next to saplings from seeds. There's a lot of disease resistance you can never find in commercial trees. Apples are weak trees.

Why do we think of this production of fruit in the way we've done it as something outside of nature, and human construction of sweetness as outside the natural course of things? Agriculture has to be part of nature, in a holistic sense, and maybe we'll come to some different decisions. If we keep playing this blame game, that's not going to work. Human connection to nature through agriculture is one of our strongest connections to nature. It's like a daily meditation.

Apple Shadow (clone weeping with resistance).
Apple Shadow (clone weeping with resistance).

What types of questions do you hope the audience leaves the exhibition with?

I hope they think about this incredible diversity, that if you leave something to seed and let nature take its course, it becomes as diverse as we are. If we have a family, all these children are so different. That variety is mind-boggling. You get a glimmer of it when you see the nine sculptures.

When did you decide to use two media for this project?

I got a call from head of breeding at Cornell, Dr. Susan Brown. She said, "I have these incredible trees. I want you to come see them." I went around with her. I noticed from tree to tree the leaves were different. They didn't have a standard shape. She said if you look at the architecture, you can see the incredible diversity. These people are responsible for creating new varieties. She explained how food scientists explain the apples. She crosses the pollen from one onto the stamen of another, waits until the trees bear fruit, and she takes thousands of seeds and plants them out.

Every tree is completely different. There's this huge gamut. Just one cross-produced that variety. I wanted to go back and shoot that. Because they're portraits they have a human quality. I had a crew. The way they're shot in the ground is very present.

Did your research at the Resource Unit leave you feeling concerned, hopeful, wary, etc.?

The work is incredibly important. They work on curating what we know of the past, and breeding. There are only three breeders in the country. She [Dr. Brown] is the one who understands these trees. I think of them as people who are connected to genetic work of the apple, but completely devoted to diversity and maintaining the genetic material necessary to provide for the world. If they fail, we're in trouble.

We can focus on heirlooms and local apples. That's important. [But] food scientists are trying to provide for billions of people. There's no way the heirloom can provide in that way. Maybe we will. But without these food scientists, we wouldn't be surviving. There has to be a conversation about both. We are still getting lots of things from around the world, and we can't pretend we're completely local. As the climate changes, we need these scientists.

We have this idea that our desire for beauty and taste is outside of nature, but we need to think of it as in nature. These trees are a lot like us. They're of sexual reproduction and individuals. You don't have to be a scientist to understand this.

Are you sick of apples?!

I'm not a big apple eater. I'm more interested in this philosophically. I'm interested in how food is produced, and how those forests exist in Kazakhstan. I'm not a foodie. I'm an aesthetic liaison.

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