Botanical Garden art work attracts right-wing attacks

SOL Grotto, by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, in the Botanical Garden’s Natural Discourse exhibition. Photo: Hannah Long

The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, nestled in Strawberry Canyon, seems one of the few parts of Berkeley where political agendas can safely be set aside. But the politics-free zone of the garden was disturbed on Tuesday when right-wing bloggers, Fox News and the House Energy and Commerce Committee confected a story out of one of the artworks in the current Natural Discourse exhibition (which Berkeleyside will review later today).

SOL Grotto, by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, uses 1,368 glass tubes salvaged from Solyndra, the Fremont-based solar cell manufacturer that went bankrupt last year, despite a $527 million loan from the federal government. SOL Grotto is, in the artists’ words, “a spartan retreat that is a space of solitude.”

The right-wing attacks focused on the use of materials from Solyndra to create an artwork, leading the House committee, for example, to claim that SOL Grotto had become the world’s most expensive work of art. Greg Gutfeld on Fox News — a Cal grad — sputtered with rage at the art: “Our loss is someone else’s hip, pretentious art.” He suggested someone should take a sledgehammer to the work and call it performance art, before adding, “I’m kidding, of course that would be wrong.”

“We were totally taken by surprise,” said Paul Licht, Director of the Botanical Garden. “We weren’t making any political statements. It’s an attempt to create news.”

According to the Mercury News, the tubes used in SOL Grotto are a small fraction of 8 million glass tubes now owned by JIT Transportation, a San Jose firm that had a contract to transport and store the tubes.

“Not everyone likes every work in this exhibition,” said Licht, “but I’ve met no one who doesn’t like this work. It’s a fascinating use of materials.”

Licht said he hopes the flap over SOL Grotto will bring some attention to the Botanical Garden, which he described as “the leading collection in the country”: “I’ve been told that no publicity is bad publicity.”

The Natural Discourse exhibit will run through January 20, 2013 at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. For more information, and a full list of artists and pieces, see the exhibition’s website.

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  • erik schmitt

    Damn, I accidentally hit liked on your post! More nonsense. Conservatives are constantly taking aim at any and all money spent on public art or support for artists. It is not a false dichotomy. Art and artists are considered to be frivolous and pointless by the right (after all it’s European and elitist to like art, and we all know they’re a bunch of socialists).

  • The Sharkey

    Calling Obama a liar isn’t a distortion, it’s a fact. Virtually every politician – including Romney – is a liar so that’s not very surprising.

    But he’s definitely not a Socialist. I’d have a lot more respect for him if he was.

  • The Sharkey

    How quickly we forget the things we were all saying about Bush and Cheney when they were in power.

    We were lynching and burning effigies of Bush in the Bay Area not all that long ago.

  • The Sharkey

    The false dichotomy is between Republican/Democrat, and trying to lump 50% of the country under the nebulous label of “Conservative.”

    But you’re right that the Republican party in general is against funding for public art, so I gotta give you a thumbs up for making that point.

  •  Yeah, good luck with that.

  • EdNolty

    and your point is?

  • EdNolty

    Too stupid for words.

  • EdNolty

    On what point do you agree with Republicans, if I may ask?

  • guest

    You are hilarious!

  • guest


  • The Sharkey

    Did you read you own post? You attacked Romney for calling Obama a liar. I was simply pointing out that that charge, at least, is accurate.

  • The Sharkey

    Voting for either Obama or Romney is what would really be too stupid for words.

  • The Sharkey

    Depends on which part of the Republican party we’re talking about.
    When it comes to mainstream Republicans like Romney or Ryan, I don’t really agree with them about anything.

    Unfortunately when it comes to big-picture issues that are inconvenient to talk about (endless wars and overseas meddling, reliance on slave labor in China, etc), Democrats agree with Republicans in most cases.

  • EdNolty

    Hello.  My point is that Romney has been launching the vicious personal assaults and Obama has been raising legitimate questions.  You are equating the two.