Botanica: Contemporary Art Outside, starting on Friday 7 May, is a free exhibition of temporary art displayed in the City Botanical Gardens. It is part of Brisbane Art Design 2021 and is funded entirely by the Brisbane City Council. It is in its third iteration this year after a COVID break last year.

The year of feeling disconnected

Botanica Executive Producer, Bella Ford, says Botanica takes eight to 10 months to plan. The team was in the middle of projection and site testing for the 2020 event when Brisbane went into lockdown in March 2020, and they decided to cancel the event.

Despite this setback, the team was determined to plan for a 2021 event and moved forward while anticipating that some form of social distancing restrictions might need to be in place.

“We still progressed with commissioning the artworks knowing that at some point we would be able to show them. We just didn’t know what form Botanica would take.”

“We felt at the very least, we could be putting on just the sculptures, which had been commissioned pre-COVID.”

Ms Ford said COVID has been damaging, and devastating to audiences, to artists ability to present work, and to everyone’s ability to engage in this sort of experience.

“So, we really wanted to put something on, and we were willing to take the risk to see what that might look like in a year’s time.’

Now all the hard work has come together, and Botanica 2021 features nine new artworks created by leading artists including Hiromi Tango, Simone Eisler, Georgie Pinn, Esem Projects, Charlotte Haywood, Jenna Lee, Kellie O’Dempsey, Paul Bai and Georgia Hillas.

“I am so pleased and really proud of everyone: the artists, the technical team, and the garden staff,” Ms Ford said.

A merging of urban, natural and digital environments

“Botanica is the perfect antidote to the year of feeling disconnected from people, from culture, and from nature. I think there is an incredible demand for this kind of work and this kind of experience,” Ms Ford said.

“What better place to be than in the gardens at night surrounded by beautiful artworks.”

Botanica merges the urban, natural and digital environments, allowing conversations, Ms Ford says, “between the built environment and preserved green areas that are so important to our lifestyle and health.”

“These beautiful interventions are site specific and have been created in response to their immediate surrounds. Some are speaking to the urban environment, some are speaking to the history of the gardens, and some of them, of course, to our future.”

“When you are physically there, in this green oasis, you can see this urban landscape rising around the gardens. It is an incredibly unique feeling to be amongst nature, but amongst this urban density as well. And Botanica allows you to stop and consider all of that at once.”

As publicly funded arts events go, Ms Ford said Botanica is unique, and Brisbane is leading the way.

“I think Councils have a strong role in placemaking and this is a very contemporary interpretation of that. And I also feel it is very reflective of global trends for temporary art as public art.”

“It is something that Brisbane should celebrate and feel proud of, because we are leading this global alignment towards more ephemeral art that isn’t tied to  traditional notions of a permanent sculpture.”

Some of the works are interactive, particularly Georgie Pinns work Ripple, an interface that can read your face which will then be projected into the work.

“We really do try to build these participatory moments,” Ms Ford said.

“There’s a lovely work from QUT students called Letters to the Gardens where they’ve collected the mulch and leaves from around the gardens and created that into paper, which you can then use to pen a letter to the gardens, and at the end of the festival it will be returned back to the gardens.”

What did you say

One of this years artists, Kellie O’Dempsey, illustrates how deeply the art is connected with its environment. In her installation, What did you say?, she re-imagines a tree’s stomata as the mouth through which the plant breathes.

“On the epidermis of a tree’s leaves, microscopic pores called stomata exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The word ‘stomata’ comes from the Greek word ‘stoma’,  meaning ‘mouth’.

“Some mouths breathe with ease; others struggle to catch their breath; a silent few are deathly still. Viewers are asked to listen and engage in deep, conscious breathing, to be present in the moment, to connect, consider and rest.”

Ms O’Dempsey said that social and environmental events, like the 2020-21 bushfire emergency, the Covid pandemic, and even the recent focus on women not being heard, have shaped, and informed her work.

“It’s all about listening; listening to what’s happening in the environment, whether it be the social or physical environment.”

“You actually have to lean in to hear.”

Ms O’Dempsey, and her colleagues Helena Papageorgiou and Michael Dick use augmented reality, projected imagery, and a soundscape of breathing, to create an artwork that she says, “responds to our strange and ever-shifting social and environmental climate”.

“And, when I turn it off, it’s gone; it does not exist anymore.”

“I really liked the idea of trying to have a careful footprint on the spaces that you walk around, where you can actually have something that can be transformative and immersive, but at the same time, not leave more junk in the world,” Ms O’Dempsey said.

Take your camera

The event is fabulous for those of us who like to take photographs. It is colourful, full of light and shade, and it’s held at night.

If you are going along and posting photographs on social media, Kellie O’Dempsey says it is good practice to acknowledge the artist in your posts.

“I think it’s good practice. Everything you see actually has someone responsible for it in some way, so definitely credit the artist.”

Social Night Out

This year the Botanica team has also focused on making the event one to share with friends and family.

“We’ve created a program of social experiences, live performance, guided tours: we have a pop-up bar, and there are food trucks. We’re trying to encourage a more social night out,” Ms Ford said.


Botanica 0pens on Friday 7 May and runs to 16 May 2021. in the City Botanic Gardens and will be open from 5-10 pm daily.

There is something for all ages, including guided twilight walks, a children’s discovery trail, talks, and hands-on workshops.

All events are free, with some subject to bookings via Eventbrite. See link HERE.

Cover image by Dave Kan of Kellie O’Dempsey’s installation, “What did you say?” : Botanica 2021