Take the birch on the right

Spring is just around the corner, and with it the sun, the heat, the awakening of nature… but also certain inconveniences, because it's also allergy season! And among the scariest plants, it is in a good place, with grasses, wormwood… birch. All are anemophilic species, that is, whose fertilization is ensured by the wind, and not, for example, by insects: the pollen grains are also tiny and are therefore particularly capable of penetrating the mucous membranes, nasal passages and causing inflammatory reactions. With the increase in the occurrence of allergies, it is not surprising that birch does not have a good press and is most often associated with sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes… And it's a shame… Artist Karine Bonneval set out to rehabilitate this essence, and much more.

Indeed, his works, many of which are the subject of a large carte blanche exhibition designed with the Siana association at the Domaine de Chamarande, in Essonne, are largely born from thinking about what humans have in common with plants. Sculptures and installations invite you to put yourself in their place, to move, breathe with them and even listen to them. They are mostly designed in close cooperation with scientists.

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Therefore, Listening to the Earth, consisting of twelve ceramic pieces (developed with Charlotte Poulsen) stuck in the soil for pots, allows us to hear the sounds associated with the activity of the soil fauna. They were recorded using a sensor made for the occasion by Fanny Rybak, a bioacoustician from the University of Paris-Saclay. Another example, Dendromité, breathes with the tree, a film made with Claire Damesin, a tree ecophysiologist at the University of Paris-Saclay, who detects, through an infrared camera with a cooled lens, the faint CO2 emissions of trunks.

As for birch, it is at the center of several works designed with Nicolas Viez, an aerobiologist at the Laboratory for Advanced Spectroscopy for Interactions, Reactivity and the Environment (Lasire), at the University of Lille. Thus, Berkanan (see the photo above) is composed of a fountain of birch sap (a liquid endowed with numerous healing properties), again made of ceramics, whose basins have the shape of the scales of catkins, these blossoms from which millions of pollen grains escape in the spring. The whole is arranged in the middle of several white trunks of the plant in which we can see as many individuals. This is one of Karina Bonneval's contributions to the work of Lasire after two years of exchange with scientists working there. To what extent the amount of pollen and its allergenic power are affected by the position of the birch in isolation and the conditions prevailing there, especially pollution? This is the subject of an ongoing thesis in a laboratory in Lille, where several trees in the city, in an old slag dump, on campus, etc. are being closely monitored.

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Birch Whisper, a basketwork sculpture connected to the carpet, is decorated with tears of birch pollen soap and “portraits” of those grains produced in Lasire. These are paper chromatographs of pollen extracts: different compounds migrate differently in the carrier and are thus separated. While making them, the Lasire teams discovered an intriguing compound, iron. Could this metal, which quickly leaves the grain when humidity is high (this is the case in mucous membranes), play a role in the inflammatory reactions associated with allergies? The answer is being worked on.

The goal of this collaboration, according to the artist, is to “re-establish the family with birch” and no longer see it as anything but a source of annoyance. In fact, among the Celts, for whom Berkanan was a rune associated with the birch, this tree, the first tree in the calendar, was a symbol of birth and renewal. Let it, in accordance with the wishes of Karina Bonneval, be a new attention, facilitated by science, which is given here to plants and in general living beings around us.

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