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What's sprouting in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall?

By Matt Breen

When Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s ‘Empty Lot’ opened in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall last October, it drew mixed reactions. The installation consists of 240 triangular wooden boxes, each containing soil taken from a different location in London. But, with nothing growing in them, it looked a bit barren. A sense of expectation hung over the piece.

So, when I check in on ‘Empty Lot’ I’m relieved to discover that it isn’t empty any more. Nearly every planter has turned green. ‘The piece is evolving, transforming,’ says a delighted Cruzvillegas as we walk through the installation. ‘It now talks about local identities. You can see there’s a conviviality here.’


Many different plants are jostling for space, in true London fashion. Roy Vickery and Sarah Davey of the South London Botanical Institute are on hand to identify them. There are those you’d probably expect – stinging nettles, dandelions – and those you probably wouldn’t. In the soil from Hampstead Heath, chinese chives and garlic mustard have appeared (‘Probably escaped from someone’s garden,’ says Vickery), while opium poppies have started to grow in – wait for it – the earth from a primary school in Finchley. ‘No need for concern,’ Vickery assures us. ‘Few poppies produce a worthwhile amount of opium.’ In Clapham Common’s planter, an oak tree sapling is pushing its way through the soil. ‘If this was left here, it could end up being 70 feet tall and going through the roof!’ says Davey.

Not that the beds have been left entirely untended. ‘We didn’t want to impose any rules for visitors, apart from “no climbing in”,’ says Tate curator Mark Godfrey. ‘So it was interesting to discover YouTube videos of guerrilla gardeners throwing beans and seeds into the beds. Look!’ He points to a ball of compressed soil, sprouting little green shoots. ‘That’s a seed bomb.’

And what does the artist make of these interventions? ‘I don’t have a problem with it,’ says Cruzvillegas. ‘They’re gestures of hope.’ It’s undeniably heartening to see life grow in the austerity of the Turbine Hall. The show is running for another two months, and as Davey points out: ‘They’re two good months for plants.’ The rest of London might be still battling through winter but, at Tate Modern, spring has already sprung.

Four plants to look out for

Rose From Buckingham Palace

What else would be growing in Her Maj’s gardens? Sadly, this most English of flora tends to start flowering in the summer, so we’ll probably miss out on it in full bloom.

Bluebell From Peckham Rye Park

Something you’d probably associate more with woodland glades than SE15, bluebells usually flower from April to May. Fingers crossed, this is one we’ll catch in full colour before the show wraps up.

Lesser celandine From Akiva School, N3

A cute little member of the buttercup family, and one of the few plants already flowering in the installation, celandine was once known as ‘pilewort’ due to the ailment it was believed to cure.

Stinging nettle From Ealing Common

This one surely comes as no surprise: the humble stinger is already growing in copious quantities in the Turbine Hall. And once the exhibition finishes – nettle soup, anyone?

‘Hyundai Commission: Abraham Cruzvillegas – Empty Lot’ is at Tate Modern. Until Apr 3.

Find out more about the exhibition.


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