Utility and art – why plants matter

American artist Taryn Simon’s exhibition Paperwork, and the Will of Capital explores re-creations of floral arrangements associated with the signing of peace treaties and other international accords.  The exhibition began at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and was shown at the Gagosian in New York, The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and the Gagosian in Rome where it will close on 14 June (2016).  Her starting point is the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire that addressed the globalisation of economies after World War 2, and led to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  In tracing this, and subsequent agreements by the 44 countries participating at this conference, she observed that leaders were consistently flanked by floral arrangements during official signing ceremonies.  Using historic images, and working with botanist Daniel Atha from New York Botanic Garden, she shipped 4,000 plant specimens from the Aalsmeer flower auctions in The Netherlands to her New York studio. Here she recreated and photographed the original arrangements and explored what she describes as, ‘the stagecraft of power’.


Memorandum of Understanding between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Government of Australia Relating to the Settlement of Refugees in Cambodia. Ministry of Interior, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 26, 2014.
Photo by Siv Channa/ The Cambodia Daily

So, what is going on here?  Is beauty an essential element in sealing international agreements? Do flowers civilise our relationships with each other?  Does beauty imply trust and reinforce truth? Are flowers a polite backdrop or a grounding providing courage for major commitments?  While hardly the espoused purpose of Taryn Simon’s work, the exhibition wonderfully illustrates the complexity of our relationship with plants.

SIMON 2015.Convention on Cluster Munitions. Paperwork and the Will of Capital

TARYN SIMON “Convention on Cluster Munitions. Oslo, Norway, December 3, 2008, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015”
Archival inkjet print in mahogany frame with text in windowed compartment on archival herbarium paper.  215.9 x 186.1 x 7 cm (framed)
© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Our relationship with plants is complex.  One approach might reasonably be to divide the relationship between utility and art.  However, as is apparent from the ‘stagecraft of power’ even these two dimensions are difficult to separate, analyse and interpret.  The beauty and utility of an almond orchard or wheat field captured by Vincent van Gogh, or of pencil yams captured by Emily Kngwarray illustrate the artificiality of this division.  Nevertheless, such a classification facilitates the exploration of the relationship between plants and people.  A sub-classification of ‘art’ into three realms may facilitate further exploration of this terrain.

A first realm, and, perhaps the most significant is our relationship with plants in our environment.  Here plants are fundamental to our health and well-being.  This realm isn’t only about nature conservation and agricultural production.  English social reformer Octavia Hill, who led the movement for greenspace in the late nineteenth century observed, ‘I think we want four things. Places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in.’ and she saw the requirement for these things to be immediately accessible as the basis for physical and mental health and well-being.  Part of this was requirement was for social equity in access to greenspace and to beauty (– Hill was also treasurer for the Society for the Diffusion of Beauty).  Greenspace still struggles with priorities driven by an accounting perspective of cost and risk rather than by community benefit and opportunity.   Our environment in this realm includes parks and reserves, gardens and designed landscapes and extends to indoor plants and flower arrangements.

A second realm in our relationship with plants in art is in the representation of plants.  Here the media range from flower and landscape painting and sculpture to the imagined worlds of The Wizard of Oz or Avatar on film, and in architecture ranging from classical motifs of Acanthus adorning Corinthian columns, to the Lotus (Nelumbo) inspired Bahá’í  House of Worship in New Delhi and the Lotus building in Wujin, China, and Singapore’s remarkable supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay.  The imitation and celebration of the beauty of plants in this realm plays a significant role in our humanity.

The third realm is where Taryn Simon’s work is best placed and comprises the symbolic and metaphorical roles of plants.  The symbolic use of plants in politics, religion, stagecraft and in public places, and the communication of power and tradition in public spaces remains important.  The symbolic use of plants is pervasive in culture.  Rosemary for remembrance (- Ophelia’s words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember”), and red poppies for specific remembrance of soldiers who died in the Great War, and now generally applied to all wars.  A more formally constructed language of flowers is known as floriography – here, in contrast, red poppies are associated with pleasure.  This language of flowers has been constructed in bouquets, art, and literature.  The giving of plants and flowers as gifts and the marketing and use of plant-based cosmetics to communicate purity, social status and desirability illustrate other symbolic and metaphorical roles for plants.

So much of our relationship with plants we take for granted.  The exploration of a division between art and utility for plants is helpful in understanding that in most circumstances plants cross these boundaries.  Plants are significant for individual health and well-being and for social inclusion and cohesion.  Greenspace needs to be reframed in terms of the benefits and opportunities it provides to address community economic, social, environmental and cultural aspirations.  Well-being, social cohesion, innovation and jobs all connect with greenspace and our relationship with plants.  A number of cities internationally have made this connection and transformed urban environments and urban life.  However, there is a substantial challenge involved in resetting our vision, institutions and industry capacity to deliver sustainable and beautiful urban environments. The work that Horticulture Innovation Australia is currently progressing through the 202020 Vision provides a great opportunity to reset the relationship between plants and people in cities – see http://202020vision.com.au/about-the-vision/.   If we get this right the distinction between art and utility here may prove immaterial.

© Stephen J. Forbes – first published in The Adelaide Review June 2016




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