One of the recurring thoughts we had at the 9th Berlin Biennale is that the representation of plants in art is alive and well. Here we look at the history of plants in art and the provocative symbolism in shrubbery
Plants are people, too
Plants and humans, they’re polar opposites, right? Think again. According to a 2015 study by Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia, not only do flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables talk to one another, they also have memories. And while science may have only recently come around to the idea that plants are sentient beings, in art they’ve always been something more than passive objects, having the ability to both corrupt and empower.
In the origins of Western thought, nature is by turns the embodiment of good as well as the epitome evil. In Ovid’s telling of humanity’s golden age, the Earth was an abundant source of nourishment and pleasure, while in Christianity, a snake that tempts Adam into eating a forbidden apple precipitates the fall in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, both of these themes became major preoccupations for Renaissance painters such as Hieronymus Bosch, who depicted the world as a playground of virtue and sin in “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.
Flora versus fauna
Botanical symbolism took a different turn during the industrial revolution. Religious references were discarded in favour of images of plants and animals as savage entities. In the 19th century a binary began to emerge, whereby human culture was characterised as a civilising force, while flora and fauna were frequently presented as wild, degenerative and untameable. One instance of this is the post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau’s “Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope” (“The Hungry Lion Attacking An Antelope”). Here, it is not only the ensuing violence that is meant to horrify, but also the indifference of the surrounding forest.
Later in the 20th century, vegetation became an emblem of subversion, as in 1974’s “Un Jardin d’Hiver II” (“Winter Garden II”) by Marcel Broodthaers. True to form, Broodthaers pulled the press’s leg by claiming that the foliage installation wasn’t art but merely ‘décor’. Similarly, in 2014, Rashid Johnson further disrupted the opposition between nature and culture with “Plateaus”, a sculpture made from shrubs, cacti, ceramics, metal and wood. Through his juxtaposition of materials, Johnson invokes colonial ideas about supposedly civilised and primitive societies, and his work therefore functions as an exploration of black identity and a scathing assessment of empire.
Turning a new leaf
At Frieze Projects 2015, Thea Djordjadze continued the recent tradition of using greenery as a form of institutional critique when she presented a collection of Monstera deliciosa – the plants that inspired Henri Matisse’s cut-outs – as a way of highlighting the transient nature of art fairs. At last year’s Venice Biennale, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s strolling anthropomorphic pine trees took aim at the stunted concentration span of modern gallery goers. And in “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?” (2012), Camille Henrot transforms the books from an entire library into flower arrangements – a comment on contemporary culture’s anxiety about language and art as ‘public’ institutions.
To be sure, the boom of plants in art has been influenced by changing social values, too. As Earth enters an environmentally precarious age, we’re encouraged to go green, buy clothes made from sustainable fabrics and eat organic food. Consequently, artists have been responding to these urgent calls for conscientious consumption. For example, Sara Cwynar’s 2014 photo installation, “Encyclopedia Grid (Banana)”, acts as reminder of the destruction of the rainforest caused by the banana trade.
After years of apathy, artists are embracing ethics, and the plant has once more become a universal signifier of everything that’s good. It’s not a far cry from Ovid’s golden age, and today, what was once a radical stance risks becoming conformist. But as history has proven, the power of references to plants in art is that they defy simple categorisation – and in doing so they help us question the changing nature of human culture.
Taken from SLEEK 50