Greenery in corporate lobbies, much like the art there, is often a form of window-dressing—an attempt to render the unlovely face of international capital more humanly appealing. Countless philodendrons have suffered in silence as droning masses of salarymen passed them by, unnoticed, in glass-clad atriums. Implant, a show organized by the Horticultural Society and currently on view in the midtown lobby of UBS, a Swiss banking consortium, endeavors, via art, to see things from the plants’ perspective. Taking off from author Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (2001), a provocative investigation of the way plant life has helped to shape human behavior, curator Jodie Vicenta Jacobson has assembled 96 works by 45 mostly contemporary artists, all inspired by or incorporating various forms of vegetation.
“When artists use botanical subjects in their work,” Jacobson suggests in a brochure that accompanies the exhibition, “it is because the plants have chosen them first.” It’s a bold (if somewhat nutty) idea, and tough to apply with any rigor to the loose and very uneven bouquet of videos, photographs, conceptual pieces, paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and assemblages displayed here. Instead, Implant identifies several ideas percolating through today’s art (and evident in the recent Whitney Biennial, in works by Phoebe Washburn, Fritz Haeg, and numerous others): a focus on microcosmic creations, an effort to effect change through small-scale, local gestures, and a constant invocation of the ever-shrinking sphere of nature. Viewing this show, a suspicion repeatedly arises that the great divide of the species—between flora and fauna—may not be as iron-clad as one thinks.
A properly historical survey of this rich subject might begin with the work of Anne Vallayer-Coster, court painter to Marie-Antoinette, in whose hands the traditionally feminine (read “lesser”) art of flower painting achieved cult status. (And it might end with the flower-power paintings of Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami.) Instead, some of the earliest works on view here—mid-19th-century photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron of a quartet of long-haired sisters posing in a rose garden, for example—play up the presumed unity of women and nature as an Edenic refuge from the more nefarious side effects of the Industrial Revolution.
Over a century later, Francesca Woodman’s 1980 photographic self-portrait, showing the young artist wearing a leaf-print shift and posing with her arms wrapped in birch bark, offers a coy reinterpretation of this theme. Playing off Woodman’s name, this latter-day wood nymph, like Daphne, risks transformation into plant life, and we risk mistaking the artist for the trees.
In contemporary artist Pipilotti Rist’s photographic diptych, a related chain of associations links the stray, curling tendrils of a woman’s chignon (seen from behind) with a fuzzy close-up of blossoms. Similarly oblique, the eightysomething painter Jane Freilicher’s intimiste still-lives of plants and flowers—nasturtiums and petunias, for example, sprouting on an urban terrace framed by skyline—suggest, amid the city’s hubbub, a private, sheltered realm of interiority and reflection.
For other artists, the natural world (even in its most domesticated incarnation, as houseplant) tends to inspire fantasies of domination. “I’ve never been one to react positively to nature,” Dennis Oppenheim recalled in 1995, apropos of his Compression—Fern (1970). (“I was from Brooklyn,” he added by way of explanation.) That short film shows the artist’s beefy hand crumpling up an unsuspecting fern, like a giant creature from a 1950s Japanese science-fiction movie descending upon Manhattan. Elsewhere, in Carsten Höller’s Suicide Gerbera Daisy Plant (2008), the natural world threatens to auto-destruct, as the potted bloom slowly grows toward a live wire.
That the vegetable kingdom has, unbeknownst to us, thoroughly invaded our urban milieu is implied by the itinerant, Irish-born artist Katie Holten, who has re-created the astonishingly long roots of a New York City street tree in molded newspaper and wire and suspended them from the gallery’s ceiling. This worm’s-eye perspective hints that the human goings-on aboveground are merely surface manifestations of a much deeper reality.
And the idea that plant time is incommensurate with human time, because infinitely more vast, also recurs here. (This became clear to me personally several years ago when, confined to bed rest for three months, I measured the passing of the weeks by the growth of the houseplants surrounding me, such that the unfurling of a new leaf struck me as an event of momentous significance.) William Eggleston’s early color photograph of the rusting hulk of a black Cadillac covered with vines reminds us that human technology’s grip on our world is but partial and temporary.
Gabriel Orozco’s two photographs of La Oficina (1992)—a home office, scattered with the detritus of an unquiet mind (an empty booze bottle, an abandoned coffee cup), where weeds have sprouted across a computerless desk—suggest both the meandering byways of creative time, which artists and writers often spend moldering about in the studio or study, and the post-apocalyptic scenarios with which we have become hauntingly familiar, from Hiroshima to Chernobyl and Katrina.
Plants, after all, were here before us, and they will survive us. Silent partners in our evolutionary endeavors, they may also make fruitful creative companions. The artist Peter Coffin’s contribution to Implant is a strangely welcoming greenhouse filled with hanging ferns, potted palms, and the like, along with an assortment of musical instruments. A soft and vaguely modernist soundtrack accompanies this conservatory garden—”for the plants’ enjoyment,” a wall label informs us. Anyone entering is invited to pick up an instrument and play a few notes for this attentive if vegetative audience. You sense, in fact, that the plants may do their best listening after the close of business hours, in midtown’s still and secret night.