Visual Art 5-1-2019

Seeing Plants: Vision and Botany in Contemporary Art

Introducing Seeing Plants, a series of writings by artists, designers and botanists questioning the role that plants play in our everyday lives: as material for our artwork, as inspiration, as medicine, as a reminder of our own mortality

1Regan Golden, Spring Ephemerals.

I rush across the gallery towards a vibrant patch of grass and small flowers thriving atop a pedestal in the harshest of conditions: a white-walled gallery in January in Minnesota. I pace around the pedestal, eager for greenery, my heart sinks: the green grass is made of glass. Jim Hodges’ ghost (2008) is an incredibly life-like arrangement of hand-blown glass plants under a glass dome that was included in Hodges’ retrospective Give More Than You Take at the Walker Art Center in 2014. Like much of Hodges’ work, ghost celebrates fragility and growth, as well as the impossibility of keeping what is most precious.

It was the single clear glass Maple sapling arising from the colorful flowers in Hodges’ ghost that got me thinking about plant life in contemporary art: more importantly, it got me thinking about the absence of it. Often when plants appear in contemporary art they seem ghostly, the semblance of a living organism. Hodges’ ghost (2008) is a unique form of mimicry, in addition to its life-like qualities, the sculpture also references Albrecht Durer’s watercolor painting, The Great Piece of Turf (1503), that depicts a patch of grass growing at the edge of a muddy field.1 It is wistful, maybe even romantic, thinking that Durer’s Great Piece of Turf and similarly Hodges’ ghost inspires, as both artworks reflect upon the fleeting nature of existence. Yet what is so unusual about both artworks is that they place a clump of grass and weeds in the foreground, at the center of this conversation about mortality.

The crab grass, yarrow, and dandelion plants foregrounded in Durer’s watercolor and Hodges’ glass sculpture grow throughout the Twin Cities, but are often overlooked. Living in a midwestern city, plants constitute the backdrop of daily life: lining the highway and framing backyards, growing and dying throughout the seasons. Despite this perception of plants as background information, plants are an integral part of everyday existence through clothing, food, and medicine. On a broader scale, the state economy relies heavily on agricultural crops, as Minnesota is the largest producer of sugar beets, sweet corn, and green peas in the United States. If plants sustain our economy and our lives in Minnesota, why aren’t plants more visible in art, or even along the highway?

In 1996 two biologists, James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler, described a phenomenon called “plant blindness,” which is “the perceptual and visual-cognition bases of why plants are often overlooked and neglected.”2 Wandersee and Schussler argue there are many factors that lead to plant blindness, but two stood out to me as an artist: “failing to see, notice or focus attention on plants in one’s daily life” and “being insensitive to the aesthetic qualities of plants and their structures.”3 As Wandersee and Schussler suggest, plant blindness has serious implications for Earth because plants capture carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere, curbing the effects of global warming.4 If people aren’t seeing plants, then we are probably not protecting them either. Since plant blindness is partially induced by visual and aesthetic limitations, perhaps artists and art institutions have role to play in making plants more visible.

Two exhibitions in the past year have done just that, Big Botany: Conversations with the Plant World at the Spencer Museum of Art and The Photographer in the Garden at the George Eastman Museum. Both exhibitions combine traditional botanical prints with contemporary photographs and installations. The Photographer in the Garden included contemporary photographers from Collier Schorr to Robert Adams. Big Botany featured artworks across a diverse array of media by contemporary artists, from Mark Dion’s field guides (2004-2011) to Isabella Kirkland’s hyper-realistic botanical arrangements in Taxa (2006-2008). These two exhibitions also coincided with the first ever biomass study of the entire planet last year, which concluded that plants constitute approximately 80% of all life on earth (humans are just .01%, 1/10000th of the Earth’s biomass).5 If artists and scientists are making plants more visible through their work, does this lead to greater protection of plants?

Seeing plants might be the first step, but appreciating their beauty is what could lead to protection. As writer and theorist Elaine Scarry argues in her book On Beauty and Being Just, beauty inspires protection because the perception of beauty requires the “beholder” to acknowledge the “aliveness” of what is being perceived: “Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness of (in the case of objects) the quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection.”6 Beauty also has a reciprocal effect, according to Scarry, it can be life-saving for the perceiver as well and in this way beauty creates a mutual “pact” of protection.7  When beauty is initially overlooked, but then recognized, as Scarry describes her experience with a potted palm tree, it made be jarring.8 This experience of beauty can even become radically decentering—causing the perceiver becomes “adjacent” to beauty by abandoning a self-centered subjectivity. In such an experience, the center shifts: “It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world.”9 To put this into pictorial terms, in this experience of beauty the figure fades from the foreground, as what was formerly background arises.   

The plants that surround us everyday, even those considered weeds, are anything but background information for ethnobotanist and Anishinaabe medicine woman, Mary Siisip Geniusz, who argues that understanding the medicinal power of plants is key to survival and central to maintaining Anishinaabe cultural knowledge. Siisip Geniusz’s incredible book, Plants Have so Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask, describes in detail the many Ojibwe names for common plants in Minnesota, while also sharing the narratives illuminating their medicinal properties and recipes for their use. Siisip Geniusz’s plant descriptions enable me to see the environment in which I live in all its complexity, and challenge me to honor the plants I work with as an artist. As her important text reveals, based on teachings passed down from her elder Keewaydinoquay, the legacy of colonialism is literally embedded in our language and our gardens here in Minnesota.

A corn stalk, an Echinacea bloom, a white cedar tree are typically described as objects within the English language. How would the perception of plants change if we were to speak of plants or even to plants as beings?10 As Siisip Genuisz states in her book, the first step when harvesting a plant is to ask the plant for permission: “The plants have both spiritual and physical healing to offer. It is just necessary to ask for the help they can give.”11  While the animacy of plants may be a radical idea within plant biology, this is a foundational concept within Anishinaabe culture as understood through narrative and language. If plants are thought of as beings, would that create equanimity between people and plants in Minnesota? To answer this, we’ve come full circle, returning to the way that plants are depicted in art and described through language as background objects. Artists and botanists can reframe how plants are seen by placing plants in them foreground of everyday life.

This article is part of the series Seeing Plants: Vision and Botany in Contemporary Art, guest edited by Regan Golden.

  1. Jeffery Grove, “Endlessness,” in Give More Than You Take, ed. Olga Viso and Jeffery Grove (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center & Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2013), 17.

  2. James H. Wandersee and Elizabeth E. Schussler, “Preventing Plant Blindness,” The American Biology Teacher 61, No. 2 (1999): 82.

  3. Wandersee and Schussler, “Preventing Plant Blindness,” 84.

  4. Wandersee and Schussler, 84.

  5. Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips and Ron Milo, “The biomass distribution on Earth,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (25), June 19, 2018: 2.

  6. Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 90.

  7. Elaine Scarry, 90.

  8. Elaine Scarry, 16.

  9. Elaine Scarry, 112.

  10. Robin Kimmerer, “Speaking to Nature,” Orion, March/April 2017.

  11. Mary Siisip Genuisz, Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to do is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings, ed. Wendy Makoons Genuisz, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 23.

Regan Golden

Regan Golden-McNerney depicts ecological change in the American landscape using altered photographs and drawing materials. Golden’s hand-cut photographs and large-scale drawings have been exhibited in solo and group shows both nationally and internationally, including The Painting Center, Gallery 44: Centre for Contemporary Photography, Harvard University’s Fisher Museum, The Cue Foundation and the Midwest Photographers Project at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. She has …   read more