Fantastical flowers and peculiar plants: New York Botanical Garden opens ‘Wonderland’ exhibit

May 20, 2024

A 12-foot-tall White Rabbit at the Leon Levy Visitor Center, Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal, Steel frame, geraniums, sedum

The New York Botanical Garden has fallen down the rabbit hole. The enchanting exhibition “Wonderland: Curious Nature” debuted on Saturday, transforming the garden’s 250 acres into a whimsical paradise inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel stories. On view through October 27, the exhibition includes a 12-foot White Rabbit made of plants, larger-than-life mushrooms, gardens of the Victorian era, a large-scale chess set designed by Yoko Ono, and more.

Topiary garden on the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory Lawn

Published in 1865, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” remains a timeless classic, captivating generations of readers around the world with its fantastical landscapes and characters. The story inspired the new garden-wide exhibition through horticulture, contemporary art, and archival objects that bring the events and settings described in the book to life.

To kick off the experience, guests are greeted in the Leon Levy Visitor Center by a towering, 12-foot-tall white rabbit made entirely out of plants. Created by Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal, a Canadian company known for its creative blend of horticulture and sculpture, the rabbit has been shown in botanical gardens and attractions in North America, Europe, and Asia.

A flower show of curious plants, including colorful, whimsical mushrooms

As visitors make their way through the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and the surrounding area, they find themselves in a “horticultural wonderland,” with plants found in a traditional English garden as well as plants seemingly plucked from another world.

The exhibition continues past a display of Victoria amazonica, a giant tropical water lily, as well as other aquatic species, before entering a manicured landscape featuring an English double border. The floral scene takes after the famous water lily house and walled gardens of Oxford University, one of the locations that famously inspired the tales and characters of Alice.

Shrumen Lumen, 2016, FoldHaus Art Collective, Corrugated plastic, aluminum and steel, Variable size

The orderly garden becomes undone as the exhibition continues, leading through an ominous rabbit hole that opens into a bold display of vibrant plant species. Featured plants include Devil’s tongue from China, giant milkweed from Africa, and Myrmecodia, an Australian plant home to ant colonies.

Located outside on the Conservatory Lawn, the norms of botanical art are challenged by more than 100 topiaries in geometric shapes. Featured in this section are “Shrumen Lumen,” kinetic mushroom sculptures by FoldHaus Art Collective that change size at random and appear as if they are breathing.

At night, the mushroom sculptures are illuminated with colorful, moving LEDs that encourage visitors to continue through the magical dreamscape.

A World Made of Time, Alyson Shotz (b. United States, 1964), stainless steel, 114 x 168 x 6 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Derek Eller Gallery

Situated along the edge of the Thain Family Forest, artist Alyson Shotz uses mirrors as part of “A World Made of Time” to invite visitors to interact with nature through changing perspectives created by sunlight and wind.

“Play it By Trust,” a chess-inspired commission created by famed artist and performer Yoko Ono, overlooks the Rockefeller Rose Garden. Inspired by the game of chess played in the novel, the commission features an oversized chess board and pieces in one color, serving as a thought-provoking statement on the “traditional aspirations” of competition and gamesmanship.

Three Portals for Alice, Patrick Jacobs (b. United States, 1971), mixed media, 15 x 15 x 15

Portuguese architect Andre Kong’s “Homegrown” is inspired by a scene in the novel where Alice has a sudden growth spurt and sends her shooting through the roof of a cottage. The work is his own interpretation of the cottage home, consisting of bricks made entirely out of mycelium, a type of fungus known for creating intricate, root-like colonies.

Exhibits in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Building build upon the global appeal of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass.” The Victorian period, the era in which the novel was originally published, is remembered for major developments in technology and science that revolutionized how we understood the world.

By using 19th-century publications, objects, and other artifacts, the displays in the exhibition examine the stories through a modern lens by juxtaposing the historical context with the work of contemporary artists.

Giant Triple Mushroom, 2014, Carsten Holler (b. Belgium, 1961), mixed media

Additional works on display include a mushroom sculpture by Carsten Höller, miniature worlds created by Patrick Jacobs, fantastical dreamscapes by Augus Putu Suyadnya, and a short video by Paula Wilson that offers a “contemplation of identity” through human connections with nature.

NYBG will host “Wonderland Nights” for adults 21 and over on June 1, 8, and 15 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The after-hours evenings will include staged performances by Thistle Dance inspired by the Mad Hatter’s dance party, as well as cocktails. More dates will be announced in September and October. Tickets will cost $39 for non-members and $29 for members.

The garden is also offering a variety of refreshments and dining options inspired by Wonderland, including Alice’s “Drink Me” lattes, “Queen’s Lemonade,” inspired by the Queen of Hearts, and themed pastries like Wonderland sugar cookies and Mad Hatter chocolate brownies.

The exhibition is organized by curator and scholar Jennifer R. Gross, in collaboration with NYBG. Featured contemporary artists include FoldHaus Art Collective, Carsten Höller, Patrick Jacobs, Andre Kong Studio, Abelardo Morell, Yoko Ono, Beverly Semmes, Alyson Shotz, Agus Putu Suyadnya, and Paula Wilson.

An all-garden pass, which includes admission to “Wonderland: Curious Nature,” costs $35 for adults. Buy them here.

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