In Designed to Move, the microscopic is magnified in Taylor James’s photographs of Colorado Plateau seedpods, revealing a design intelligence humans can only hope to approximate.
Designed to Move: Seeds That Float, Fly or Hitchhike Through the Desert Southwest
April 2023—April 2024
Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff
“Every time we change our perspective on something, we understand it differently,” says Kristan Hutchison, director of public engagement at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. True that. Especially as we’d been viewing the museum’s current exhibition, Designed to Move: Seeds That Float, Fly or Hitchhike Through the Desert Southwest, a show of exquisite photographs of desert seedpods in microscopic and alienesque splendor by artist Taylor James. These are seedpods that, ordinarily, stick to our socks, prick our skin, grab onto our sleeves, and hold on tight for a ride to a new place to grow. Or they let loose and fly to new locales on wind currents. Or drift down waterways until they embed themselves in some nice damp fertile embankment.
In other words, we hardly pay attention to seeds unless they’re an annoyance. We simply glance, pluck, and toss—dispersing them just as birds and furry animals do. But take a look at them through a microscope; the museum has several set up with seeds for viewing. Better yet, get up close to James’s photographs and marvel at the fat red bulbs of crucifixion thorn, veiny with intricate white patterns; the hairy oblong pod of desert willow from which thin white hairs extend, mustache-like; the spiny, leathery, helmet-like skull of sacred Datura; the curved horns of devil’s claw extending as fallopian tubes from the seedpod’s uterus-like opening.
Sensual and scary, anatomical and otherworldly, extraordinary and quotidian: the seeds featured in the Museum of Northern Arizona’s version of Designed to Move are all that. They’re also seeds and pods only from the Colorado Plateau, Hutchison explains, in order to hyper-localize this traveling exhibition and open up opportunities for correspondences between the museum’s other holdings (such as baskets handcrafted by Indigenous makers with devil’s claw fiber and historic Datura effigy jars) and its gardens and herbarium.
The original exhibition was organized by the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University in collaboration with Desert Botanical Garden, ASU’s Herbarium, and ASU’s Design School in the Design School South Gallery. Biomimicry, which came to popular, scientific, and design attention with Janine Benyus’s 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, “is an emerging discipline that seeks to emulate nature’s strategies and principles to create sustainable solutions to human challenges,” states ASU’s Biomimicry Center website. Think Velcro. And beyond.
“Seeds continue to offer a bottomless design and engineering trove for many other innovations,” Adelheid Fischer, assistant director at the Biomimicry Center and curator of the exhibition, told ASU News. “We hope that our exhibition can provide new models for some of these innovations. With new advances in imaging technologies, the average person now can have access to nature’s heretofore hidden designs and begin to imagine new design possibilities.”
Such possibilities are explored in the Museum of Northern Arizona’s exhibition, largely through didactics. The overwhelming sense of wonder created, however, is communicated through James’s photographs, which reveal a design intelligence at work in the world that humans can only hope to approximate. And seemingly must anthropomorphize. Note the acorn’s cap of knitted, overlapping shingles. The cabinet-like structure of the soaptree yucca pod, in which black seeds are layered like so many tiny children in dormitory beds and covered with protective sheeting. Or the heart-and-lung structure revealed in a cross-section of an Arizona walnut.
Photographed on black backgrounds, the seeds pods are at once intimate and illuminated. In the microscopic magnified, we find whole worlds and more than a little bit of ourselves.