The gracefully balanced flower arrangements of Camille Henrot’s installation “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers” (2012-2014) occupy the second floor of the New Museum, contributing a soothing, zenlike presence to the exhibition of the artist’s recent works. The delicate blossoms and twisting stems of the bouquets, punctuated with thoughtful empty spaces, make for more than happy embellishments. They are floral translations of weighty literary titles, themes, and quotations pulled from the bookshelves of the artist’s personal library.
When Paris-born Henrot moved to New York, temporarily leaving many of her personal belongings behind, she discovered a surrogate for her literary heroes and favorite books in Japanese ikebana flower arrangements. The combination of artistic whimsy and the theory that inspires it parallels the balance between playfulness and obedience intrinsic to ikebana, an ancient but ever-adapting cultural tradition. Each gap in the flora is as specific and important as the vines, leaves, and flowers that create them. The flower names, ranging from Latin-based etymological to nursery-rhyme literal, are listed nearby, offering complimentary verse to the lyricism of the texts they represent.
Here is a glimpse of the thought-provoking, colorful, and fragrant fun.
The trickster coyote character of Native American folklore has met his match in this floral double, “Coyote Stories,” Mourning Dove, a bouquet of flexigrass and love-in-a-mist tangled around one another in a way that is at once playful and violent.
The precariously displayed lone radicchio in “Diary: How to Improve the World (You will only make matters worse),” John Cage is the ideal balance of natural and man-made, structure and happenstance—an artful homage to Cage-ian composition.
In “Tales,” Charles Perrault, the famed account of marital mishaps and familial revenge as told by the father of fairy tales is translated into an arrangement of a sharp-leafed mother-in-law’s tongue jutting from a snake-like vase undulating across the floor.
“Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein, a blossoming ode to the writer and poet, integrates aptly named corndog grass with velvety, red plumed cockscomb and—of course—rose (is a rose is a rose is a rose).
The floral construction “The Black Book,” Lawrence Durrell maintains all the savagery and obscenity that made the novel so scandalous when it was first published in 1938. Through menacingly twisting dead branches of Scotch broom erupts a cluster of Moth Orchids, symbols of luxury and virility.
Behind, “The Fetishism of Commodities,” Karl Marx, an understated bouquet of blossoms referred to only as “various flowers available at the market,” is a floral riff on Marxist theory.
Just as the characters in Franz Kafka’s Amerika, the story of misfortune and trickery, lie and deceive, the artificially colored daisies of Henrot’s arrangement purport to be something they are not—the dye-muddied water they sit in exposes their fiction.
Meanwhile, in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Jules Verne, the beloved sci-fi novel is transformed into a composition of moss and starflower pincushions that sits humbly on its shelf looking like some furry, antennaed critter from deep below the volcanoes of Reykjavik.
And nearby the simple yew bough of “Robin Hood” is bent in such a way that one cannot help but think of the benevolent bows and arrows of the band of Merry Men.
Inspired by a text more overtly related to Henrot’s interest in taxonomy and philosophy, “The Order of Things,” Michel Foucault, is an explosion of metal odds and ends mixed with anonymous vegetation and a rainbow of paint swatches—a colorful starburst of the playfully arbitrary.