The artworks of Hicham Berrada are poetic manipulations of natural processes and chemical reactions that produce ingenious results. Fragrant terrariums darkly lit inside a gallery space and pictorial projections of scienti c experiments are works that generate a sense of wonder. Yet Berrada’s motivation is not reduced to bringing a laboratory of botany and science into the realm of art. His objective is to employ a painterly use of colour and create compositions that become moving and breathing landscapes. All this is evident in a group exhibition at the 104/Centquatre art centre in Paris where three of his works are presented. Matérialité de l'Invisible, l'archéologie des sens (Materiality of the Invisible, Archaeology of the Senses) explores how artists such as Berrada dig away to find ways of looking at things, without knowing what discoveries they might make.

Berrada is an artist who likes to surprise the visitors. Walk into the exhibition space in the late afternoon and the intoxicating scent of Cestrum nocturnum, known as Night Blooming Jasmine or Queen of the Night, emanates from his installation Mesk-ellil. He has inverted the plants’ life cycle by programming bright horticultural lights to shine at nighttime and lunar-light textures to glow during the day. Shortly afternoon, when the blue LED moon lights – which are invisible to the plants – come on, the small, delicate flowers inside the terrariums begin to open. A few hours later, the heavenly smell of jasmine wafts through the space. The climate-controlled environment becomes a tableau vivant plunged into darkness.

“I always work like a painter and simply replace the canvas with reality”, says Berrada when we meet at the 104 the day after the opening. “It’s important to me that the work is autonomous and that every day the lights come on automatically. It reminds me of how we film night scenes in the cinema using a blue filter. As an artist, I never touch anything with my hands. I just react to the parameters so that nature expresses itself.” This appropriation of nature as the starting point of an artwork that is left to breathe and evolve autonomously aligns Berrada with French artist Pierre Huyghe, whose objects are self-determining. The two artists are both included in the exhibition Life Itself at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which explores how artists from the early 20th century onwards have reflected on existence.

Berrada’s scientific curiosity is hereditary: his father is a pharmacist and his mother a biologist. He did a scientific baccalauréat (high school exam) in Morocco before studying at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts (ENSBA) in Paris and at Le Fresnoy – the National Studio of Contemporary Arts in Tourcoing, northern France. “The first time I worked with plants was in 2012 when I made a performance at the Parc floral de Paris [a park and botanical garden in the Bois de Vincennes]”, the artist recounts. “I broke into the park at night to force the dandelions to open by shining a light on them, and that's what ignited my interest in photonasty, the response of plants to light stimuli.” His subsequent residency at the Villa Medici in Rome furthered his enquiry into botany. Mesk-ellil later ensued, featuring in last year’s Biennale de Lyon, which was curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London.

Pre-dating this, however, was the debut of Berrada’s on-going work, Présage. It comprises video projections of the chemical experiments he makes in a beaker; a tiny camera placed on its outer edge records and projects the performance. “Jean-Luc Vilmouth, who died in December, was my teacher at ENSBA and pushed me a lot to do performances”, Berrada says. “The first time, I used six products, and now I have around 80. I consider the small container a blank canvas, a place to make different chemical reactions occur, to create something like an eco system.”

On show at the 104 are projections of Berrada’s five best Présage pieces. Diversely coloured chemicals and minerals are added and mixed together over seven or eight minutes, until the projected image resembles a landscape. One piece recalls an amber, rocky terrain; others recall exotic or aquatic environments filled with coral. “I stop the performance when I see a landscape forming that makes me think of a painting I might have seen at the Musée d’Orsay or in a book of photos by Ansel Adams”, Berrada says, adding that the works capture the essence of moving landscapes and how nature is never fixed. “Painters depicted the landscape and then photographers caught it in a frozen way, and from that we’ve inherited our philosophical conception of a landscape. By contrast, I always show nature in movement.”

The artist carries out each experiment dozens of times in his studio to perfect it, so that when he creates a performance, virtually nothing is left to chance. “As soon as I arrive at a landscape I like, I try to measure all the parameters that have effected that image in order to know the protocol, which means that I can then reproduce it”, he says. “Just as the Renaissance painters had rules about the composition of a painting, I try to apply my own rules to this, based on this.” Berrada likens his thrill at harnessing the recording of his experiments to Max Ernst’s discovery of frottage: laying a piece of paper on a structured surface and making a rubbing to obtain an image of the texture. “This text [Les Moeurs des feuilles / The Habit of Leaves] by Max Ernst crystallises my work”, enthuses Berrada. “For him, these semi-abstracted, semi-real images of frottage excited the visionary faculties of his mind and were a subtraction of reality, whereas for me the Présage pieces are a strict recording of reality in high definition.”

Some of Berrada's Présage pieces are also included in Life Itself at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. “What intrigues me most about his work is the interplay between chance and absolute purpose”, says Jo Widoff, who has curated Life Itself with museum director Daniel Birnbaum and artist Carsten Höller.

“His tableaux vivants seem to evolve out of chance, but you have a feeling that in due time everything falls into place according to a pattern unknown to us but still there. There is something very fundamental about that, a peacefulness that is at the essence of what life is.”

The third piece on show at the 104 is a brand new work, Mon château (My castle), an aquarium containing water with a high electrical conductivity value, into which a small, stacked steel sculpture is submerged. The properties of the water cause the sculpture to age at a rapidly accelerated pace. “Yesterday, when the sculpture was submerged it was white, and after just one night it has become rusty”, he says. “After a full week, it’ll be as if the sculpture has existed for 100 years.” The piece was inspired by the climatic chambers used in laboratories to induce plastic to age faster, for the testing of industrial applications. As Berrada explains, “It's a kind of ode to destruction; the few minutes that we’re talking is like a few months for the sculpture.”

Certainly, such works are not created with longevity in mind. Berrada also makes wall compositions of chemical manipulations, presented in cubes that are assembled to evoke a slice of landscape. Titled Présage, tranche, these pieces (which are not on display at the 104) instantly pulverise should anybody try to remove them from the wall. The alchemic creations allude to the fragility of nature and, as always with Berrada, possess an element of intrigue.

Matérialité de l'Invisible, l'archéologie des sens (made in collaboration with Inrap – the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research, as part of its NEARCH cultural project) is at the 104 in Paris until 30 April 2016.

Life Itself is at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm until 08 May 2016.

This article appeared in DAM55. Order your personal copy.