by Jincy IypeDec 27, 2022
Growth of a Pea Plant (Ankurachi Wadh), a minute-long film, was Indian filmmaker Dadasaheb Phalke's 1912 equivalent of an elevator pitch. Obsessed with the moving image, Phalke’s pitch deck was a time-lapse of a potted pea; germinating, sprouting, a few delicate leaves, tendrils reaching the sun. The miracle of life was captured, frame by frame, as many still images, painstakingly put together in succession, with the film projected on a piece of cloth to potential investors. As they wrote cheques to finance what would be (almost certainly) the birth of cinema in the subcontinent, an inadvertent realisation of plant 'consciousness' was germinating. Two years later, in 1914, Professor Jagadis Chandra Bose would write Plant-Autographs and Their Revelations, an elegant scientific paper filled with diagrams, graphs, observations, and questions, from experiments done on self-designed apparatus, extravagant theories articulated with both empiricism and romance, all anchored around the challenging of preconceptions that fundamentally differentiated the plant from the animal. Do plants feel? Do they grow tired, ecstatic, sleepy, wounded, or depressed? The 'Bose doctrine' continues to torment plant physiologists as they enquire 'sensitiveness' in our flora kin, demanding a reimagination of our extractive relationship with them.
By virtue of colonising and enslaving a people that lived in synchrony with the plant kingdom, the coloniser 'explored' them both. Appropriating, plagiarising or rejecting indigenous knowledge, nomenclature, and taxonomy, the colonial project instead assigned value to plants by virtue of their appearance, use, exoticism, and even sexual prudence. A herbarium became of many formats in which European ideas, nay inventions, of nature, beauty, dignity, biology, science, race, gender, and virtue were projected as universal fact.
A herbarium is a careful collection of botanical profiles, the desiccated carcass of leaves and flowers pressed and flattened between its pages, all life vaporised, up for post-mortem scrutiny. A herbarium is an exercise in finding fascination in the many whorls of a flower; its reproductive organs, its sex, its original home soil, blooming period, anatomy, pollination moods, shapes, colours, sizes, diseases, life span, deformations, and the likes. The colonial project is never complete, and neither is it ever contained.
Green Modernism: The New View of Plants is an exhibition looking at the anthropogenic history of plants. It commenced on September 17, 2022, and is open to the public till January 22, 2023, at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in Germany. Around 130 exhibits and three broadly categorised chapters—The Plant as the Other, The Adopted Plant, The Plant as Relative—trace postulations of Modernist society, starting in the early 20th century. The early twentieth century was a time when the world was obsessed with floral motifs (The Flower Euphoria of Weimar Republic, the 1920s), and the gender binary.
The New Woman, the horrified man, and the flower
The disintegration of the categorical separation of female and male was expressed nowhere more distinctly than in fashion—in hairstyles, makeup, and attitudes as much as in clothing. The meaning of blossoms in patterns, décor, and furnishings was one of ambivalence—between the genders, between skin and textiles, between flora and flappers (New Flora: On Blossoms and Metamorphoses in the 1920s; Burcu Dogramaci, 2022). It is imperative to remember that while the flower is often depicted as a symbol of femininity, virginity, purity, and delicate beauty, most flowers are actually hermaphrodites. The 1920s was also a time when the world was grappling with the horrifying phenomenon named the 'demise of humanity'. When the 'New Woman' found employment, travelled without a male chaperone, donned a short haircut, and 'could no longer reproduce'. As 'New Women' unleashed their 'masculine' wrath on the world, accessorised with a necktie or monocle, flowers made appearances on lapels of lesbians, queers, and gender fluid identities—much closer to their true nature—daintily mocking the constructed notions of gender binaries and assigned roles and traits.
Furthering the colonial project of defining (suppressing, limiting, criminalising) sexuality, Carl Linneaus, the Swedish taxonomist became the authority on cataloguing plant life. As his own system of rigid categories ripped at the seams, unravelling with more exceptions to his rules, the disobedient plant kingdom proved untameable by the white man’s system. His quest for precision took him back to the drab ideas of western society, giving birth to the concept of nuptiae plantarum, "the marriage of plants".
The human-derived lexicon of heteronormative marital bliss populates Linnaeus’s organising technology. Stamens transform into 'husbands'. Pistils morph into 'wives'. Floral anatomy becomes an erotic stage for vegetal consummation, as marked by Linneaus’s words:
The flower's leaves... serve as bridal beds which the creator has so gloriously arranged... and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much greater solemnity. When now the bed is so prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gifts.
While petals, stamens, and carpels wreaked havoc in flirtatious ways, another exoticism was under play. The bulbous, fleshy, prickly, often phallic native of the desert and arid land was finding a place in the aesthetics and principles of Modernism. The cactus needed nothing, it was a minimalist that thrived on neglect, dry heat and air, and a purist in form with its geometric, symmetric, cylindrical body giving it neatness.
Imaginary Exoticism and the Cactus
The distinctive look of cacti and the particular habitat they need in order to grow made them a speciality item more associated with rarity than with the lands from which they were taken. Conversely, the cactus' home landscapes were viewed as inhospitable and only fit for lesser races of humans—people who, when the invention of the race was applied, deserved to be tamed into submission or simply violently exterminated, but never brought back to Europe as highly-prized treasures.
(This is an excerpt from Suzanne Pierre’s Imaginary Exoticism and the Cactus that references ideas from Christopher M. Parsons, Plants and Peoples: French and Indigenous Botanical Knowledges in Colonial North America, 1600–1760 and Stephen Gasteyer and Cornelia Flora, Modernising the Savage: Colonisation and Perceptions of Landscape and Lifescape ).
Cacti were valued precisely because they did not look like plants, they looked, instead, like 'things'. 'Things', Die Dinge, was precisely the title preferred by one photographer of cacti, Albert Renger-Patzsch, for his 1928 book 'Die Welt ist schön' (The World is Beautiful), where he compared these plants with industrial objects…
… In the painting Kakteen und Semaphore (Cacti and Semaphore, 1923) by Georg Scholz, there is a parallelism between a light bulb and a cactus and between a semaphore and another succulent, establishing an alternative natural organisation made by aesthetic forms and resemblances, where the organic and the inorganic collide.
(This is an excerpt from Ivan L Munuera's forthcoming paper; 2022)
‘Polymorphous Perversity’ as Portal: On Lili Elbe, Plant Sex, and New Worlds
The End of a World. Amirio Freeman begins with the sardonic brutal reality check for the Anthropocene. Taking cues from a carefully cultivated and newly fostered relationship with plant life, a product of the global pandemic and its accompanying loneliness, they say what we have all come to realise—aliveness requires mutual care and reciprocal concern. As most of us nod in agreement thinking of fellow human bodies, especially working bodies, even more essential workers that bring to us food, medicine, treatment, clean our trash, we are yet to think of care outside of extractive, productive, and reproductive practices. They say—
As I observed the plants around me—those in my home and those I encountered on walks around my neighbourhood or during trips to the park—I found that how my botanic kin approached living critiqued human modes of existence. And that critique offered an invitation to a wholesale annihilation of the world as is. Plants gifted me a petition to walk through a portal into expanded manners of ordering life on Earth; they provided an instructive f*** you! to the ruinous logic of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. As I assumed the pandemic was bringing about the end of the world, plant life assured me that the pandemic was only conjuring up space for the end of a world.
About the Exhibition
Green Modernism: The New View of Plants is a pilot project in eco-curating for the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany. The exhibition catalogue is free of charge at green-modernism.de, with texts by—Burcu Dogramaci, Amirio Freeman, Suzanne Pierre, Zoë Schlanger, Rainer Stamm, and Miriam Szwast.
The exhibition is sponsored by the Freunde des Wallraf-Richartz-Museum und des Museum Ludwig e.V., the Ministry of Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, the Karin and Uwe Hollweg Foundation, the Landschaftsverband Rheinland (LVR), and Sparkasse KölnBonn. The curator, Miriam Szwast, advised by Suzanne Pierre, is an ecologist and biochemist with a focus on soil. Her research interests include the carbon cycle in plant and microbial systems under the influence of climate change.