The following is a lecture presented in October as part of the Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland. Unsound focuses on experimental music and extrapolations into other realms: sound art, installations, and large-scale live visuals, as well as a talks program that features writers and thinkers alongside artists discussing their work. The festival is based in Krakow but also operates in London, New York, and Toronto, as well as Adelaide, Australia, and smaller locales throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Each year, Unsound takes up a theme, such as “Future Shock,” “Horror,” “The End,” “Interference,” or “Dislocation.” This year’s theme was “Flower Power.”
I have been involved with the festival since 2010, as a co-curator of the talks program and a curatorial adviser for the programming as a whole. The text that follows—on the subject of the latest theme—draws from one of four Unsound talks presented this year by ARTnews. (The three others were artist talks with minimalist musician Jon Gibson, artist/musician James Hoff, and John Brien, the organizer of recent archival recordings by artist/designer Harry Bertoia.) The text has been slightly edited and amended for publication. —Andy Battaglia
The seed for this year’s Unsound “Flower Power” theme was planted, as it were, at the start of Unsound in 2016. Mat Schulz, the festival’s director, and I were talking a year ago at the opening-night party with longtime festival friend Philip Sherburne about potential ideas for new themes, which is a fun subject that comes up often. We got around to the fact that this year would be the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” the storied season in 1967 when the idea of the ’60s was at its zenith. Schulz had made a joke about how Unsound is, in its way, a sort of hippie festival but with everyone brooding over end times and dressed in black. From there we went on to think about how the ’60s was a time of proudly proclaimed utopian love and progressivism but—then again, at least as much—dystopian darkness too.
As we discussed it more over the course of last year’s festival, we imagined graphics with the words “Flower Power” styled in the looks of different musical epochs and scenes that came after, like in a ’90s rave aesthetic or scrawled letters like in ’80s hardcore punk—or disco or indie-rock or techno or Chicago house and so on. That idea didn’t quite take hold, but it got us to thinking about what “Flower Power” might mean when considered from different perspectives and especially through different vantages of time. For it to work as an Unsound theme, it would need to be prismatic and open to interpretation—and at least a little bit resilient to the prospect of being kicked around.
So that’s in part how we arrived upon the language used to introduce the theme in the present era, which reads as such:
Resisting the temptation to spin off in a dystopian musical spiral in response to instability, we feel more than ever that this year’s theme should be multi-faceted, reflecting darkness and light, growth and decay, ecological vulnerability and resourceful regeneration. “Flower Power” is an exploration of counter-culture forged in opposition to dominant forces. It is in part a nod to the 50th anniversary of 1967 and the Summer of Love—a period rich with aspiration and riddled with contradictions—as well as dark, chaotic cross-currents of that era that now seem to crash over us again. Exploring protest and hedonism, oppression and resistance, and utopian and dystopian sensibilities, Flower Power also aligns with Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, opium eaters, hackers, marchers, environmentalists, jazz, punk, black metal, idealistic early disco, and rave. From another angle, Flower Power associates with dark ecology and biology both before and after human life, considering what might have preceded us and what might be left to sustain and grow after humans are gone. It is a response to the feeling of living in the shadow of the Doomsday Clock ticking ever more forcefully forward.
Instead of the visual designs evoking different musical epochs, the festival struck upon a distinctive look designed by Aleksandra Grünholz, who has performed at Unsound in the past (under the name We Will Fail) and otherwise works in graphic design in Warsaw. What we were going for was a sense of the creepy/crawly aspects of flowers and plant life, or what Grünholz described in an early email devising it all as a “botanical explosion” with “some nasty details (mold, thorns, and teeth-like forms).”
Flora and fauna of the sort feature in the history of art—with nasty details in addition to otherworldly beauty—and, for me, some of the best ways of thinking about “Flower Power” started showing themselves in paintings and sculpture and other forms of visual art. So this talk will take a highly subjective and digressive—and definitely reductive and incomplete—tour through some examples of flower power as I came to see them.
First, a brief consideration of the metaphysical—maybe even pataphysical—aspects of flora all around us. A little while ago, I came across mention of a book from 1973 called The Secret Life of Plants: A Fascinating Account of the Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Relations Between Plants and Man, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The book was quite a sensation when it was published, in the midst of a sort of post-hippie haze informed by mindful back-to-nature ideas circulating in Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog and other literature of the kind.
The book starts off like so:
Short of Aphrodite, there is nothing on this planet lovelier than a flower, nor more essential than a plant. The true matrix of human life is the greensward covering mother earth. Without green plants we would neither breathe nor eat. On the undersurface of every leaf a million movable lips are engaged in devouring carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen. All together, 25 million square miles of leaf surface are daily engaged in this miracle of photosynthesis, producing oxygen and food for man and beast. … From crib to coffin, man relies on cellulose as the basis for his shelter, clothing, fuel, fibers, basketry, cordage, musical instruments, and the paper on which he scribbles his philosophy.
The Secret Life of Plants goes on to make some wide-ranging and not always especially convincing arguments about the special powers of plants, among them ESP and modes of cognition tested by means of polygraph tests. Scientists took great issue with it, and a review in the New York Times around the time of its publication argued that the authors had “concocted a popular-science pastiche of New Occult hopes and brought them out into the marketplace, glibly tailored to bid for middle-class respectability.”
Nonetheless—or maybe sometheless—it sketches out interesting routes for digression, including a chapter on “The Harmonic Life of Plants” that opens with the image of Charles Darwin jamming some music of his own making to a flower. To quote: “The strangest experiment Charles Darwin ever performed on a plant was to sit before his Mimosa pudica, or touch-me-not, and play to it his bassoon in close enough proximity to see if he could stimulate its pinnae, or feathery leaflets, into movement. The experiment failed but was exotic enough to stimulate the renowned German plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer . . . into attempting, also unsuccessfully, to provoke stamens of Cynararea, a small genus of erect herbs, into response by means of sound.”
My appetite for plant-based wonderings thus whetted, I came across a book published last year called Botanical Art from the Golden Age of Scientific Discovery (University of Chicago Press, 2016), by Anna Laurent. It’s a monograph devoted to a large swell of scientific and educational wall charts that flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks in part to budding taxonomical curiosity and advances in printing technology that made large-scale printing easier and more economical. Laurent writes, “Europe was enjoying a golden age of scientific discovery; naturalists were exploring the globe and there was a clamoring for knowledge of the natural world. A pedagogical curiosity was no longer limited to elite salons and research; education was now considered a right afforded to all, in classrooms across the continent. And thus the botanical wall chart was born: a synthesis of art, science, and education.”
Some of the charts are amazing, such as one by Arnold and Carolina Dodel-Port of the greatly named Narcissus Poeticus (a.k.a. Pheasant’s Eye or Poet’s Daffodil). A description in the book explains that, as a couple, the Dodel-Ports were interested almost exclusively in plants’ reproductive processes, and this one shows the ovary of this plant, where reproduction occurs by way of the union between male and female plasma.
An illustration from Norway in 1934 shows the roots of the Field Bindweed as they writhe and wind their way underground. At the top is a cross-section of seeds and different outward-projecting parts of the plant, which is closely related to another kind of weed that goes by the dastardly names Devil’s Guts, Creeping Jenny, and Withwind. Some particularly nice other drawings depict tobacco plants, such as one in a chart by the German botanist Herman Zippel and illustrator Carl Bollmann from 1899. The description of it in the book reads: “More interesting than Zippel and Bollmann’s illustrations is their companion text, in which they editorialize the effects of tobacco. At one point they write: ‘The leaves of all species of tobacco smell, in fresh condition, more or less disgusting, and taste bitter; the cause is the nasty poisons they contain.” Behold, a prescient anti-smoking screed from close to 120 years ago.
In 2015, the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted an exhibition, “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life,” that got me thinking a lot about flowers and plants—or at least made me regard them differently as objects and subjects both. Still life painting conventionally has a reputation for being a little dowdy or just flatly matter-of-fact, unless there is some sense of paradigm-shifting visual development like in Cézanne or the bottles and vases and jugs of Giorgio Morandi. But there’s often a lot going on in still lifes, particularly from ages before photography really took off and images in general became so ubiquitous.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider how, in the present, we’re not even really able to conceive of what it might have been like not to be completely subsumed by images—and not just images with a purpose, as in media or advertisements, but simply any kind of pictures at all. To see a representation of any sort before the mass-media age, and before printing presses became common enough to lower the barrier of entry to books, a person needed to be looking at a painting or a work of art of some kind. Then, when so engaged, the objects depicted would have had a surer chance of resonating and refracting in some way or other.
That was the context for a lot of the work in the “Audubon to Warhol” show, which focused mainly on 19th- and 20th-century art. After still life painting had developed in America with a restrained sense of contemplation and allegiance with scientific study, it started to become more indulgent and expressive in the middle of the 19th century, as America itself began to grow. Fishbowl Fantasy, a painting by Edward Ashton Goodes from 1867, is an example of a newly ebullient kind of still life that was more than just an austere study of a subject sitting on a table. There’s a reflection in the glass of a fish bowl at the center of two women walking elegantly outside on the street, and a few details—a discarded pair of gloves, a love letter in the lower left corner, and a cross on a necklace at the bottom that might have been removed for some steamy reason—suggest a sense of storytelling that the artist was happy to stimulate. But the flowers exploding up out of the vase are the real stars of the show: bursting in their color and arrangement, all in full peak bloom, overflowing the bounds of the frame.
Another work with a similarly bright, expressive, and stately style is Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest (1853) by Severin Roesen, who moved to America from Germany. Some of the flowers grouped together grow at different times of year, meaning the congregation defies any sort of seasonal logic by which all of them could be seen together at one time, simultaneously. In that, it hearkens back to the notion of the “impossible bouquet” in Dutch still life painting in the 17th and 18th centuries, like works by Jan van Huysum that sometimes show dozens of different flowers all together, many of them non-native and grown throughout different times of year. To paint them, the artist would have worked on it over the course of one or even two years, to add different flowers to the arrangement as they became available. In that way it’s a kind artistic sleight-of-hand, conjuring something on a canvas that could not really exist in the waking world—a kind of abstraction hidden in plain view.
Cactus and Photographer’s Lamp, New York (1931), a much more modern work in the same exhibition, is a favorite work of mine. Sheeler was known more widely for paintings like River Rouge Plant (1932), a beautifully detailed and realistic-looking portrait of the Ford Motor Company’s largest factory in Detroit, which at the time was home to Henry Ford’s new idea of assembly-line labor at the beginning of its peak. This was also a time when the idea of America was really starting to hum, at least in certain industrial ways, and Sheeler was enamored of progressive kinds of machinic power and industry. He spoke of factories as a new sort of cathedral, and he also celebrated brute mechanical force in paintings like Rolling Power (1939), of all the working parts at the base of a train spied with real reverence and adulation.
For the cactus painting, he worked, as he often did, with photographs he had taken himself. The photo he worked with is in black and white, and it’s a strange sort of a photograph of photography itself. The process of the picture being taken is very much at the foreground, with the photographer’s lamps featured prominently, and the little table the cactus is sitting on is a special sort of photographer’s table, painted half in black and half in white—so that a photographer could choose to put a subject on one or the other, depending on the desired contrast.
So here you effectively have a photograph of photography and then, later, a painting of that same photograph. In the painting, only the plant and its pot in the middle are shown in color; all the workaday elements of a photography set are rendered in black and white—a mark of indifference or maybe just difference. It’s hard to tell.
Robert Mapplethorpe worked several decades later, in a style known most widely for striking pictures of the human body and erotic activity. But all his pictures, even of the most aggressive kind, are marked by a sense of delicacy and finesse, a light touch of a kind shared with Old Master painters.
Mapplethorpe learned his way with the camera, according to some ways of telling the story, by taking pictures of flowers early on. In a gorgeous book titled Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers (Phaidon, 2016), Dimitri Levas, an early collector and friend, writes about how, when Mapplethorpe was given a Polaroid camera in the 1970s, he taught himself about light and exposure by photographing flowers. Unlike people, flowers could be patient and not require favors to sit for him as a subject.
Levas writes about some of the darkness in Mapplethorpe’s visions of floral beauty, which include pictures of a thorn puncturing a rose and seeming to hurt itself in a way that echoes his more expressly sexual and fetishistic imagery. “Though flowers are often viewed as symbols of purity and innocence,” Levas writes, “under Robert’s gaze they seem decadent and dark as well as erotic. I remember Robert’s excitement if a flower picture appeared slightly sinister.”
In another essay in the book, Herbert Muschamp, a terrific writer who for a while was the New York Times’s improbably fantastical architecture critic, wrote about the melancholy realization that comes with looking at things so beautiful—especially flowers that are cut to be held out and appreciated but can only be paid attention while the clock is ticking. “Mapplethorpe’s flowers, in choosing to be born, have already made cause to be cut and die,” Muschamp writes, before posing a question alluding to the American epoch after World War II in which Mapplethorpe grew up: “Was it from cut flowers, that archetype of ephemeral splendor, that our postwar industrialists acquired the techniques of planned obsolescence that stoked the national economy in those booming years?”
On the subject of their shadows, Muschamp finds some of Mapplethorpe’s beloved flowers haunted by a sense of paradox: “Ambiguity is essential; their shadows will contradict what the blossoms appear to be saying.”
Full of ghostly images of a different form, The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness (Open Humanities Press, 2016) is a book written by Michael Marder and featuring artworks by Anaïs Tondeur. Marder is a philosopher, and the book is part of a series, titled “Critical Climate Change,” that endeavors to think in new ways about what environmental awareness and activism could mean in the future. A description of the series reads: “The possibility of extinction has always been a latent figure in textual production and archives; but the current sense of depletion, decay, mutation, and exhaustion calls for new modes of address, new styles of publishing and authoring, and new formats and speeds of distribution.”
The book has Marder musing on various aspects of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, including recollections of the author traveling around Russia as a child in search of places he could live at different times of year with severe allergies and asthma that made it necessary for him to flee certain kinds of pollen and other irritants. The artworks by Tondeur are photograms of different kinds of plants growing around Chernobyl, with their images summoned by pressing the plant on photo-sensitive paper and letting light and time do the work that a camera might otherwise do.
Marder calls an image of a type of Linum plant “an explosion of light” and states that, much like radiation, the camera-less, absorptive photogram process is “indifferently imbibed by whatever and whoever is on its path—the soul, buildings, plants, animals, humans—yet uncontainable in any single entity whose timeframe it inevitably overflows.” Another image of a geranium reveals itself “in a uniquely vegetal mode of exposure,” Marder writes. “It emanates a steady glow, similar to the continuous acts of meaning-making by living plants, the acts coextensive with their lives.”
He writes about that making of meaning in the physical world as an active, ongoing process, almost like consciousness in a different register: “For us, who are accustomed to thinking of plants as passive beings devoid of consciousness or as persisting in a state of torpor at best, it is extraordinary.”
In the preface of the book, the author and the artist both muse collectively: “As always, plants will be our guides, reconnecting us with the (hopelessly contaminated) soil, illuminating the meaning of the remains, and helping us to envision a kind of testimony that respects absolute silence.”
A series from 2015 called “Paperwork and the Will of Capital” by the New York–based artist Taryn Simon figured as heavily as anything in the way I came to think of “Flower Power” over the last year. The series regards flowers that sat silent witness to momentous events in history, with photographs of bouquets re-created from old pictures of global summits and geopolitical accords.
To create each picture, Simon researched historic press and governmental reports and figured out with a botanist what flowers were in bouquets that always seemed to be lurking in the background or the foreground, as decoration for events that wouldn’t seem to make decoration a priority. Each bouquet was remade with flowers purchased from the world’s largest flower market, in the Netherlands, which dates back centuries and can be called the first truly global market—and a consummate supplier of instant-gratification goods of a kind integral to capitalism. The Dutch flower industry was the cause and source of “Tulip Mania,” the first economic bubble that grew big and burst in ways that have happened many times in similar cycles since. So the sourcing was significant for Simon, as were the flowers themselves.
Each photograph is in a frame made of mahogany wood, to evoke old stately desks utilized by imperious men, with descriptions of the meeting or summit it is mimicking included. One shows flowers from a meeting in 2014 between leaders of Australia and Cambodia that allowed Australia to offload refugees to Cambodia in exchange for economic aid—in spite of a problematic record of human-rights abuses there.
Simon is interested in the notion of delicate flowers, conventionally feminized, sitting in silence within shows of blustery manly power. When I wrote a story about this series last year, she told me, “Extreme decision-making surrounded by these seemingly benign arrangements struck me: the idea that these castrated flowers, removed from their natural state, are placed in the decorative position around men believing they can influence the course of evolution and politics and economics. There is comedy in them. There’s something amusing when you deconstruct any stage of power.”
There is sadness in them too, a sense of fatalism or futile beauty. But then there’s also a sense of dignity and presence proving significant nonetheless, at least among those who make a choice to look for such qualities in unlikely environs.
The final work to be considered involves the great Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who since the 1970s has called herself a “sanitation artist” with interests including matters of waste and maintenance that are hugely important and happen more or less invisibly around us all the time. Ukeles, who started out in New York and lives in Israel now, figures in the history of feminist art, with concerns about maintenance being conventionally gendered and under-appreciated in spite of their clear significance, and she is a big figure in the story of environmental or ecological art as well.
Among her most-known works is Touch Sanitation Performance (1979), for which she spent eleven months meeting and shaking the hand of every one of thousands of sanitation workers in New York City to thank them for the important work they’d done. Another piece called Social Mirror (1983) involved a garbage truck with a mirrored surface, to reflect back the image of anyone looking at it—to implicate the viewer in the making of waste.
Most pertinent in this context is a piece she has been working on for decades for the former Fresh Kills Landfill in New York, which, until it closed in 2001, was the largest landfill on the planet. Fresh Kills was notorious in its prime, but since it shut down, the site has been undergoing a process of reclamation by nature, with some aid along the way. All the garbage there was covered by thick plastic sheets and, on top of those, dirt was placed to help grass and trees grow. For another story, I got to go out there with Ukeles, and Fresh Kills is outrageously beautiful now. An especially idyllic spot marks a point where tides meet at an estuary that attracts lots of different kinds of migrating birds and vegetation that grows all around.
The landfill is still off-gassing and the noxious effects of it are still being dialed down. The sanitation department mines methane there and sells it to industries, from all the garbage still decomposing. The smell has been mitigated, but there are still traces of it in elements with names like “putriscene,” for putrescent, and “cadaverine,” for the subtle whiff of dead bodies suggested.
Ukeles has been at work since around 1989 on a proposed earthwork project for Fresh Kills called Landing. When complete, it will involve two large ramps jutting into open space that people can walk on and then stand and look around. The beauty is obvious and plain to see—in spite (or maybe because) of what it springs from. And oddly, because people aren’t really allowed there yet, it may be the most bucolic and pastoral place anywhere in New York City.
It’s a case of nature taking back over what people had worked long and hard to muck up—a show of “Flower Power” of a kind we’re still learning to recognize and appreciate.