Guest Post by Wendy Lee Spacek
Greetings from INDPLS, new friends!
Caroline and I saw one another a few weeks back at a poetry reading I gave at Heavy Gel in Chicago. I gushed about life in Indianapolis to her, so she asked me to send a monthly dispatch from the Circle City all summer long, and I’m delighted to do so. You may be thinking: INDIANAPOLIS?!?! WHERE IS IT? WHAT IS IT? You may even be thinking “more like, IndianaNOPLACE!” and I assure you, many a naysayer has said that (including our own Native Son, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)
But let me relay to you a tale of a place that has touched me deep down in my soul like not so many things can. For a number who live here, Indy is the most magical Midwestern city; Steeped in possibility, affordable, walkable, bike-able, jam-packed with public art and home to some seriously nice people.
Indianapolis is the 12th most populous city in the United States (sandwiched between #11 Jacksonville, FLA and #12 San Francisco.) As of today our population is approximately 834,852.
Indianapolis is the state capitol of Indiana. The capitol used to be in Corydon (pop. 3,122) but in 1820 some powerful dudes decided to move it to the very center (almost) of Indiana. In part because most capitols are located in the center of their states and partially because they mistakenly believed that the White River could be used as a highway for boats. Well they were wrong- Indianapolis is the largest city in the United States on a non navigable body of water.
Being our capitol city, downtown is the center of government, so we have a high density of beautiful, historic government buildings, memorials and monuments.
Speaking of these beautiful, historic government buildings, this May First Friday (the night out for art here in Indy) brought a once-in-a-blue-moon, one-night-only opportunity to enter the former City Hall building on Alabama Street for an exhibition of work by 47 current, former or graduating students from Herron School of Art and Design. Aptly named VACANT, the exhibit took inspiration from the wildly successful TURF exhibition held in the space during Indy’s moment in the spotlight: Super Bowl XLVI.
The show was curated by graduation Herron Seniors Taryn Cassella, Anna Martinez and Andrea Townsend. Where TURF was an exhibition of installation art, VACANT included work across mediums. I especially enjoyed Jordan Ryan’s section off the main library detailing the history of the building. A good review with some pictures from the exhibition an be seen on Indy’s weekly arts newspaper, Nuvo’s website.
Vacant Old City Hall Building. Image via Historic Indianapolis.
Jon Keown’s artwork in VACANT. Imagine via Nuvo.net.
This is actually one of the most exciting things I’ve seen lately. The paintings themselves demonstrate a super high level of skill, extremely tight and in an incredible array of colors. The addition of Chromadepth 3D glasses was almost too much to take. I spent at least an hour circling through the gallery taking in florescent anthropomorphized fast food and dancing psychedelic popsicles popping out at me. It was a visual treat. Plus, Tripper was there and his whole outfit was in Chromadepth and he was a really nice guy.
Images via Monster Gallery
The very next day brought the long-anticipated opening of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail (an 8 mile bike & pedestrian path that connects the city’s seven designated cultural districts.) It was an all-day event that featured tons of free activities along the entire trail. A sampling of what I saw/did: petted an albino skunk, talked to a miniature therapy horse, saw a knit bombed house, and saw live performances by 9 marching bands! The marching bands were my favorite part because of their historical context in celebrations/mourning, as well as their significance for youth. Six high school bands converged on Market St. downtown with the sole purpose of playing “Get Down on It” by Kool & The Gang.
High School Marching Bands converging on Market St.
John Marshall Community High School’s drum line playing “FREAK THAT” on closed down Market St. Downtown.
A contemporary twist came through the addition of a free performance on the ground/steps of the Central Library by Chicago’s own Mucca Pazza as well as a Brazilian-style party parade down the trail led by Bloomington’s Jefferson St. Parade Band.
Mucca Pazza performing in front of the American Legion Mall
Late in the month brought the Broad Ripple Art Fair a fundraiser for the Indianapolis Art Center, (my place of employment) which included 225 local, regional and national artists. My participation was working the Make Art Take Art Leave Art Market where people could make and trade art for free!
I also hosted a poetry reading at Indy Read Books, our only independent bookstore within the downtown area. Here is a Vine from local Poet Doug Manuel’s reading.
My friends and I also painted this mural (on the sly?) on an electric box in our neighborhood:
And lastly at the end of every month the Indianapolis Museum of Art hosts an free event called Final Friday and I typically find myself there. The music is curated by DJ Kyle Long of Cultural Cannibals and features both a DJ set by him and a live performer or band. This month was a Pakistani via Brooklyn garage band called The Kominas. Overall it was a good event. Although I did get in trouble for trying to dance with a Georgia O’Keefe painting.
The Kominas playing at the IMA
Ai Weiwei’s Installation “He Xie”
Kyle Long DJing in front of Robert Irwinâ€™s, Light and Space III, 2008.
Until next month!
Wendy Lee Spacek is a poet who lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana. She likes her city very much. She is a core volunteer of the Indianapolis Publishing Cooperative (Indy Pub Co-Op), publishes small editions of handmade books under the name Soft River and is an arts administrator at the Indianapolis Art Center. She will be posting monthly all summer long about her encounters with art, culture, creative experiences and resources in her city.
Barbie and La Nouvelle Vague (part 2)
I remember my first Barbie. I received her as a Christmas present from my Aunt Diane.Â My aunt gave me other dolls (Strawberry Shortcake and Cabbage Patch Kids) over the years, but none consumed my imagination like Barbie. And even after she lost a legâ€”Iâ€™d flushed her down the toilet in an effort to gain attentionâ€”I still played with her. Â I played with her alone. I played with her alongside the kids from down the street (the â€œbad onesâ€ my parents worried would improperly influence me). We played Malibu Barbie, Wedding Barbie, and Travel Barbie.Â In an instant we were teleported with the accessories she wore.
I can appreciate Dr. Cunninghamâ€™s concerns that Barbie is overtly sexual. I can even ignore my motherâ€™s eye-roll as I tell her about the importance of Barbieâ€”she only became a symbol as my social consciousness was formed.Â To my-1986-self Barbie was static and the epitome of femaleness. As I use words like â€œstaticâ€ and â€œfemaleness,â€ Iâ€™m keenly aware that this is my-2013-self dissecting the feelings of childhood. Barbie was my girlhood friend. Â In fact, she was reminiscent of â€œYvonne,â€ played by MichÃ¨le MÃ©ritz in â€œLe Beau Sergeâ€ (â€œHandsome Sergeâ€). She, like Barbie, could bend and loseâ€”endure hardship and remain hopeful. In the end, Yvonne birthed a viable baby. In the end Barbie is the ultimate feminist and symbol of womanhood.Â And, â€œsome feminists actually believe she is the symbol of female emancipation because she works and does not have to depend on men for her wealth and possessions,â€ Kristin Riddick argues (â€œBarbie: The Image of Us Allâ€). Despite her amorphous state, my experiences with Barbie are quite tangible.
I became a writer while playing with Barbie. Â It occurred during the fall, well as much of fall that ever visits Pasadena, California. So, this means it was September, and the new school year had just begun, I was six or seven.Â While taking â€œOcean Barbieâ€ and â€œBaby Keikoâ€ the whale out of the box, I read the description about their origin and it became clear that the story lacked pertinent details. Barbieâ€™s text needed more variation and a valuable reworking of characteristics. I realized that the name â€œOcean Barbieâ€ was without history. That meant, in the moment, I could continuously edit her title and rewrite her story. Â I could make her story mine by writing about identity.Â What makes Barbie different from me? I wondered.Â And, I thought, what makes us similar? I already understood that people were fragmented, that they were driven by thoughts and feelings. Barbie did not possess this ability. But I knew that she had an identity. Â She is Kenâ€™s girlfriend, Midgeâ€™s friend, Skipperâ€™s sister. As I jotted these details down, I considered their significance. I knew that where you come from has a major part in shaping who you later become. Â I wrote an elaborate tale about Barbieâ€™s birth and childhood. Â Did you know that Barbie was adopted? The words boomed, sometimes creaking, as they filled my coloring book. This process continued for some time.
Play time with Barbie created a space for the infinite possibilities that language enables. This is, albeit a different medium, how the principles of La Nouvelle Vague operate. Within this movement there seems to be an intense need to circle-back, to recreate, and to satirize all with the intention to provide a variety of end results. It is the distance that is traveled while watching these films that should be observed. They provide a wealth of possibilities. For instance, in â€œÃ€ bout de souffleâ€ I am amused by the collage of scenes that jump back and forth like a child playing jump rope. The mismatched shots pull from a variety of American cultural references. I recount the jazz notes and sounds, Andy Warholâ€™s Campbellâ€™s soup cans, Humphrey Bogart, and countless other references. As I played with Barbie, I adapted. I coordinated a sense of wonder and culture, and this established my freedom to create.
Imagination is essential to my connection with Barbie. Amanda Kingsbury, author of â€œSocial Structure of the Playground,â€ observed children as they chose and played with the toys. She writes, â€œThere is usually a continuous story being told about what Barbieâ€™s doing, where sheâ€™s going, and what sheâ€™s thinking.â€ What would Barbie think of the identity Iâ€™ve given her? I wonder. Would she care that I defend her. Would she want to be defended? And, as I write in my journal, I wonder: Would Barbie prefer the narrative instead of the poems?
Jamie Kazay teachesÂ in the English DepartmentÂ at Columbia College. A California native, she holds a BA in English from California State University, Northridge and an MFAÂ in Creative Writing, Poetry from Columbia College. She co-curates the Revolving Door Reading Series and is currently reading of a lot of Camus, Derrida, and Dorothy Allison. Her collection,Â Small Hollering, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2011.
Guest Post by Robert Burnier
I once had a penchant for the obsessive, compulsive traditions of certain Dutch painters like Paulus Potter, Adriaen van der Spelt and Jan van Cappelle, so whenever I was in an encyclopedic museum, I would always make my way toward those galleries. Afterward, however, I would go straight to where the modern art was and stand in front of a Cy Twombly or some other such work. In 2002 the Gerhard Richter retrospective, 40 Years of Painting, came to the Art Institute of Chicago. One salient aspect of this was to witness a similar kind of range more or less present in one artist; one who held up Reading, Grey Mirror, and 256 Colors as artistic statements of the same order. I see these memories as analogies for the way I continue to approach works of art, especially â€“ though in a limited sense â€“ when it comes to issues of craft.
When I look at art today, I would say my taste still involves a dialectic similar to my earlier favorites. I can appreciate artists like Roxy Paine and Mari Eastman, Nicole Eisenman and Richard Rezac. With Paine, we have someone creating sculptures by a distribution of expertise among multiple minds through the idiosyncratic use of high-tech machines and processes, producing objects of a mysterious and alien ilk. Eastman at once shows her knowledge and understanding of painting while withholding some obvious trappings of virtuosity in favor of revelations of a seemingly more personal sort, which are then often further complicated by some borrowed subject or motif. Eisenman is commingling many ideas of painting together with the understanding of craft necessary to put them in conversation with each other, adapting them to her subjects. Rezac makes highly resolved and technological constructions that are nonetheless very slippery to our perception and suggestive through their careful arrangement. In all cases, the individual hand moves, sometimes at a distance, even if only to turn the knobs so that the machine overruns its target output.
Of course, for many reasons â€“ call it the loss of center , bourgeois democratic/market forces, technology, transportation, and communication â€“ our era is splintered artistically. It is apparent in public collections where many eras are present at once, creating a stacking effect of latent visual experience. Our perception of space and time are compressed. It isnâ€™t really possible to point out what to do or not to do because no one person can index all of it. Technology is of little help. It only reminds us of our difficulties even more. But we can reach into this heap of history, as I like to think Robert Smithson might have put it, for resources, touchstones, and questions unanswered.  We can look for ways and means that might yield new meanings or recuperate older ones in new ways. Not only does this apply to the mode and medium, but also to the work, effort, or craft involved.
The degree of facility is linked to the effectiveness of the artistic statement, with the critical caveat that it is for something and not self-reflexive. I often find myself saying to people that craft is only craftiness when facture overtakes ethos. If you paint the sides of a stretched canvas because you want it to look â€œfinishedâ€ the painted side remains a superficial garnish; if the painted side reinforces the conceptual aspect of the object, it can serve the work intrinsically. We could get into semantic questions of intent here, but I think if you really know it and mean it, it has a greater chance of seeming to be true, or we have a greater chance of becoming involved in the work on a deeper level. A specific example would be the vast difference between Karthik Pandianâ€™s recently exhibited sculpture at Rhona Hoffman, I Am My Own Wife â€“ a highly polished construction in steel and industrial-grade color â€“ and any number of sculptures that are often sprinkled along Navy Pier or grace the ad pages of a major art magazine, aspiring to a similar finish. Pandianâ€™s work perhaps takes us a distance toward examining issues of gender while the other sculptures too often donâ€™t take us anywhere in particular beyond the awareness of their often massive size and tired formalism. Another successful example would be the work of an artist like Alicja Kwade, whose phenomenological sculptures and installations can cause a shift in our basic understanding of the elements of experience. Works such as Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6), 2009, toy with assumptions of objecthood in terms of weight, substantiality and permanence. So what Iâ€™m saying is that with our incredibly intense media saturation, I turn to usage before material specificity for what I get out of seeing a work of art. I want to try to not judge a book by its cover; to allow the myriad options to play out; to remain variable, accepting and catholic in my assumptions about material and craft. Here I am reclaiming the non-religious sense of having a catholic attitude, which simply means to be open to a wide range of tastes.
Alternatively, the work of an artist can be de-skilled either in the sense that he does not concern himself personally with technique or high craft, or he transfers it to an outside technician (or even leaves it to chance). But if this becomes too dominant to the meaning of the work, then the lack of facility or personal involvement may fall into banality. For example, Iâ€™ve found it hard to pay attention to very much â€œglitchâ€ art. This has surprised me somewhat since it seems to go against my own extensive background in computer science. However, much of it seems to stop at the glitch itself, piling one glitch on top of another. Aside from the sense that I think glitch art may be claiming a little too much for itself anyway , I just canâ€™t be too impressed by the mere malfunction of a computer, even though Iâ€™m fully aware of the potential auratic qualities of such failure.  It just stops too soon. That said, I really liked Christopher Meerdoâ€™s recent show at Document. What separates his work is not only a very careful selection of some of the more uncanny images and a spectacular transformation into the medium of print, but also the stress laid on the origin and the process of exhuming source images: discarded vacation photos on found memory cards. Meerdoâ€™s exhibition really reflects on the medium, its relationship to our human lives, and our capacity for recording and forgetting through the usage and leveraging of those very same auratic tendencies of malfunction. I draw a similar conclusion about the difference between some of the stacking and leaning of things we are seeing today , and the output of an artist like Felix Gonzales-Torres, some of whose best work relies utterly on stacking and piling for it to function.
So there is a kind of competence I see that has to do with an investigation within an artistic practice and through the artistâ€™s level of experience with it. This most often involves objects and materials, though it could also be bodies and spaces or something else. The artist grows a micro history of production, a personal academy and repertoire. The depth of the work emerges from the depth of the investigation and the shape of the path walked by the artist. She can come to know quite well what she is doing, while avoiding the twin pitfalls of connoisseurship and disinterestedness. This is about studio time.  The artist may find it better to reflect on what she did rather than what she thought, or accept what happened over what she intended. This doesnâ€™t involve the rejection of purpose, but the acceptance of things that come into view. For example, looking at R.H. Quaytmanâ€™s work for the first time a few years ago, I felt initially that the pieces functioned like works of art as essays in the sense put forward by Art & Language . But even as they projected a kind of ultra-intellectual air they had a resolve and physical quality that drew me in. From subsequent lectures and artist talks, I learned about the experiential origins of much of Quaytmanâ€™s work. Â A frequent refrain I remember in her talks went something like â€œ… after I did that, of course I thought it worked becauseâ€¦â€ In the end, the body of work sheâ€™s constructing is one of thoughts and contexts, but also of trials, errors and discoveries.
What kinds of experts do these artists become? All of them possess expertise in the statements they want to make in relation to their own concerns and toward the historical context. But in the same way that de-skilling was a term borrowed from economics, I want to say that these works have been â€œright-sizedâ€ in their respective areas of making. Pretty close to the mark from my perspective is a relatively recent piece by Claire Bishop where she says, â€œSome will say that skills no longer matter, that the artist today should be fully â€˜spectralized,â€™ because the truly emancipatory position is to erase the line between professional and amateur. [â€¦] That said, the best forms of de-skilling evoke in the viewer something of this spectralization: Such works generate in us not a disdainful â€˜I could do thatâ€™ but the generative energy of â€˜I want to do that!â€™â€  If I ever get that kind of energy from viewers of my work, then I have probably done my job.
 I saw this phrase in Christine Mehring, Jeanne Anne Nugent, Jon L. Seydl, Gerhard Richter: Early Work, 1951-1972. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.
 What I mean here is that glitch is a breakdown, a misuse or a chance process. Not a new idea, though consistent with a medium specific conversation, the fact that it is a computer malfunction makes it a contemporary concern. Itâ€™s a concern that is, of course, worth examining, but the question is how to approach it.
 See, for example, Martin Dixon, The Horror of Disconnection: The Auratic in Technological Malfunction, Transformations Journal, http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_15/article_06.shtml
 Robin Dluzen, https://twitter.com/RobinDluzen/status/324255330265595904/photo/1
 For a fascinating read on contemporary issues regarding studio time and its effect on the production of art, try Dieter Roelstraete, The Business: On The Unbearable Lightness of Art, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-business-on-the-unbearable-lightness-of-art/
 Such as in Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Essays on Art & Language, MIT Press, 2003.
 Society for Contemporary Art lecture, The Art Institute of Chicago, March 15, 2012 and The Opening Reception Artist talk at The Renaissance Society, January 6, 2013.
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.
Guest post by Eric Asboe
My favorite pieces of art in my house were made by children — the volcano floor mat, the map of the United States with a Mason Dixon line to California, the drawing of a space shuttle with its top next to its base because the paper is too small to contain it. Some of my favorite and most meaningful art experiences have been with and through kids; no book has shaped me as much as my friend’s son who, while tschunk tschunk tschunking away at a typewriter, hitting only the space bar with no paper, was writing the world’s longest novel entitled Space. It is easy to say that children have not learned to say no to themselves, to self-censor the ideas they have or that they see down connections in their brains we have lost or that their ideas of perspective and coordination and correspondence are not as fixed as ours. Whatever the reason, we love the world children see and create because it is a world to which we think we no longer have access. The entrance to that world, however, may not be as far away as we believe it is.
Every first Saturday of the month, admission is free to the Walker Art Center with family oriented activities throughout the day. The activities not only make use of multiple areas of the museum, they are inspired by and derive from major exhibitions on view in the galleries. This month’s Free First Saturday, Some Assembly Required, was inspired by Abraham Cruzvillegas’s exhibition The AutoconstrucciÃ³n Suites, which explores assemblage, local, found materials, and “self-construction,” utilizing “improvised building materials and techniques” when “materials become available and necessity dictates.” Artist Eric Syvertson guided children through making bird’s-eye views of their ideal landscapes, the maps of their ultimately functional worlds. Children were also invited to continue building and adding to the autoconstrucciÃ³n begun by the Walker Teen Art Council. The changing, expanding structure juxtaposed the teens’ collages with children’s drawings and minimalist inspired tape paintings. In the most living of the autoconstrucciÃ³ns at the Walker, the structure became a new space of creation with the entrance of each child. The works they left behind continued to shape the space into which others entered and altered for their own needs.
As I observed both activities, it was clear that the children were there for more than just making. They wanted to see more, to experience the works that the Walker and the artists that lead the activities do a wonderful job of integrating into their programming. I overheard one boy ask to see “abstract sculptures” after finishing the dog park on his map. One girl asked me where she could find Franz Kline. The Walker is not just shaping young makers; it is fostering people who see art as integral to their lives, encouraging people of all ages to take the museum back into the world. I was not surprised to hear a little boy ask his father when they could visit the “painting museum” again.
I live blocks from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and less than a block from the route of their annual May Day parade. In an overflowing abundance of sunny celebration, community togetherness, and integrated arts, the 39th annual May Day parade gathered hundreds of makers, performers, children, teens, adults, older adults, musicians, puppeteers, dancers, bicyclists, hula hoopers, and tens of thousands of spectators to celebrate the coming of growing things and the gathering of so many different people. The narrative of the parade, as adapted from Bread and Puppet Theater, demonstrated what happens when we poison the earth and what can result if we nurture our natural resources. The narrative was illustrated by giant, multi-person puppets, individual masks, and elaborate costumes of animals, humans, plants, polluters, and planters, but no story can accurately portray the power of the parade. The beautiful, masterful masks, puppets, costumes, and actions of the paraders shaped powerful messages through overarching scenes, layers of movement, and stirring music. The music and sound of the parade in particular evoked palpable emotional responses; despite the cheers of thousands of people, the individual paraders and marching bands formed ominous, foreboding cacophonies, deathly silences, and joyous outpourings that echoed throughout the crowds responses.
The most noticeable change during the parade was the transformation of the normally quiet, relatively disparate neighborhood into a temporary community. Residents invited strangers to join them on porches. Visitors shared chairs and blankets to squeeze in more people. Local businesses did not just sponsor the parade they participated, donning costumes and dancing along the route. The barriers between the parade, the parade route, the spectators, the neighborhood, and the visitors disappeared in the up and down migration of people, bicyclists, musicians, dancers, basketballers, business owners, hawkers, activists, animals, and balloons before, during, and after the parade. By the time the tall bike flanked giant bicycle powered barbeque/drum circle/party bus/open flame/empty air tank gong/cage match skate ramp started the parade, everyone welcomed it as an integral and normalized part of the community that had left everyday life behind to embrace the worlds of art, spectacle, celebration, and togetherness.
Maybe I love children’s art because it too is so much a natural part of who children are. They do not switch from being children to being artists to make something; their making is part of the continuum of childhood, the uninterrupted nature of their lives. I know and experience that those boundaries are artificial, imposed by me upon a world that is full of art, wonder, and discovery beyond my compartmentalized imagination. I am thankful for watching children make and play and for the times I can lose myself in the beauty of a sunny afternoon with raucous paraders. On to a summer free from boundaries.
Eric Asboe is an artist, writer, and cultural worker. As Art Director of Public Space One gallery and performance space in Iowa City, Iowa, Asboe helped shape its nationally engaged exhibitions and programming, including the microgranting meal SOUP and the award-winning Free @rt School. Asboeâ€™s creative works prioritize process over product and explore the boundary between practice as improvement and practice as way of life. Forthcoming projects include ubuwebtopten.com. He currently lives and works in Minneapolis.
Guest Post by Faye KahnÂ¹
Originally Composed 12/2012
Contemporary society occurs within a system of objects: toasters, cars, latch hooks, extension cords, hair pins, keys, cards, bunk beds, and so on. It is this very system (see also: pile, archive, collection, etc.) that contemporary artists have assimilated & reappropriated as a catalogue of their raw material. In a statement from Cincinnati’s UÂ·turn Art Spaceâ€™s 2010 “Stuff Art” group show of contemporary assemblage artists, an uncredited author defines the tactic as follows:
Â “These artists use spatial relationships and juxtaposition to increase our awareness of the common by approaching a free-for-all of range of materials as freed form â€¦The evolution of these art practices is also in dialogue with â€œtruth to materialsâ€ philosophies that began in the International Style of Modernist architecture…”Â²
Not only through Modernist Architecture but more popularly recognized at the advent of the readymade by Duchamp in 1917 & carrying through such evolutionary checkpoints as Andy Warholâ€™s Brillo boxes, Mike Kelly’s stuffed animal agglomerations, the Etsy object sculptures of Brad Troemel, & the composited image collages of dump.fm users. The assemblage artist today is in an active & influential position, albeit one that pushes objects across the gallery floor, cutouts across the photocopier bed, & gifs around the checkerboard transparency field rather than paint across a canvas.
If this is the language in which we are speaking now, a lexicon containing stuffed animals, sign-my-guestbook gifs, Vitamin water, urinals, emoticons, taxidermy, etc. etc. & onward into infinity, it is worth noting the popularity of the term â€œplantâ€ or â€œhouseplantâ€ & occasionally â€œoffice plantâ€ which can be found repeatedly throughout digital & physical gallery dialogue.
The houseplantâ€™s original intention was for the interior decorator, whose profession hinges on the art of arrangement. Houseplants usually function as decoration in the home to soften our transition from nature to domestic space. It freshens the air, appeals to our aesthetic senses, & reminds us of idealized places we arenâ€™t (outside). This relationship to interior decorating is recognized by many plant-wielding artists, including & exemplified by Claire Fontaine in her Interior Design for Bastards show (2009) whose statement immediately admits its awareness of Â â€œ[t]he close and ambiguous relationship between art and decoration.â€Â³
In a matryoshka-like way, the art of arrangement is repeated on a smaller scale within the houseplantâ€™s own container, & even institutionalized by the practice in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. According to the Ikebana International website, â€œIn principle, ikebana aims not at bringing a finite piece of nature into the house, but rather at suggesting the whole of nature, by creating a link between the indoors and the outdoors.â€â´ Assemblage artist Carson Fisk-Vittori discussesÂ her Ikebana-like exploration of this link in a 2011 interview with Claudine Ise of contemporary art blog Bad at Sports:
Â “…a soda can thrown in a flower pot is a gesture, because it is intentionally placed whether or not the person was aware of it… Itâ€™s really a natural gesture, like eating a cherry and spitting out the core, but in our world we are dealing with these man-made objects that are specially designed and branded. The contrast of man-made object and plant life really shows how far away we are from living with nature. I basically started looking closer at these casual arrangements and creating my own with elements of plants and man-made objects…I view these arrangements as microcosms for our relationship with nature.”âµ
This approach also addresses the current heightened cultural awareness of environmental issues, which has pushed plants into the socio-political spotlight that provides the creative fodder of cultural critics & artists. There is also an undeniable escapist aspect of the houseplant, as it is kept inside as a reminder of the outside, natural world. This adds to the plantâ€™s ability to represent tropical & indigenous cultures that have more intimate relationships with nature.
However prescient these decorative & potentially escapist implications of plants, they cannot completely explain their rise in popularity in contemporary art. Though these qualities may influence the artist’s decisions on a conscious level, the houseplant has taken on more complex implications than a simple symbol of nature. Through its living presence & familiarity, it has transitioned into a subject that can go as far as acting as a stand in for a human being.
The movement of the plant from the exterior natural space to the interior Â gallery necessarily devolves the specimen into the tamed version of itself: a house plant. Consequently, this conversion is also the first step in transforming the creature into an entity better capable of relating to humans. Unlike other found props from the system of objects catalogue, a plant is living & needs to be maintained-a quality uniquely expeditious in its importance to living things (in fact the lifespan of the plant determines the duration of visual moments in the work in which it resides).Â Furthermore, in many cases the plants in use occupy space in an analogous way to how a person would, with similar height & life presence. In an article discussing the sculptural work of Claes Oldenburg, Julian Rose describes the effective use of scale in relation to the minimalist work of Tony Smith:
“The primary objective in scaling the work roughly to the human body was to establish a connection between viewer & object. Objects that are too small or too large…tend to isolate themselves from the observer. A small object is perceived all at once, in a glance; it demands no participation. A similar problem arises with much larger objects, which are unintelligible at a short distance and fully legible only from distances so great that the viewer no longer feels that he or she is sharing space with it. A human-sized sculpture, neither too small nor too large, invites the viewer to move around it, gaining a full understanding through exploration of a shared space.”â¶
Coming upon a plant in a gallery space has a similar effect, if not more pronounced with the added dimension of life. In fact, this dimension & our a priori participatory relationship with plants lessens the problem of the small object Rose describes; we are accustomed to getting close to small plants to take care of them which extends our personal, shared space relationship with them.
Plants serve as a unique stand-in for a person because they have no emotive face. The exploitation of emotion & drama through pop culture, capitalism, & consumer arts has caused passion to become a subject that borders on guaranteed clichÃ© & is territory that must be broached with extreme caution & tact. Plants therefore have a heightened utility to the artist as a subject more ambiguous than a portrait, mannequin, or cartoon character. Domesticated houseplants appear innocent, attractive, & defenseless, making them sympathetic individuals, while not fostering any theatrics or relying on sonic communication as an animal does. As a result of this, installations including plants do not always necessarily feel softened by the presence of plant life but can in fact occasionally alienate the viewer as though she were walking into a room of emotionless people. Still, they are more responsive & decisive than a mineral & their anthropomorphic qualities are obscure enough to free us from any social judgement of character from either subject or object.
This anthropomorphic phenomenon in the fine art world can be exemplified by a blog post found on the Walker Art Center website written by gallery photographer Gene Pittman. In the post, Pittman discusses archival photos from the center pre-1971, a time when plants were commonplace in the museum & gallery setting performing a decorative role:
Â “In these images [plants] seem to act as the stand-ins for the patrons, sometimes aloof and in the background or congregating around the radiator as if in discussion. And then there are those that are really into the work, standing in front of a sculptureâ€™s light, their shadows enveloping the work.”â·
Following the text there is an extensive image collection featuring examples of the gallery patron plant in its natural habitat. Looking at these photos today out of context, one might easily confuse them for photos of a contemporary exhibition incorporating plants in an installation. Compare, for example, the following two images:
The top image, from 1959 at the Walker Art Center & the bottom from Jacopo Milianiâ€™s 2008 installation Parrots at the Frutta gallery in Rome. Both situations involve tall, frond bearing plants observing framed 2D artwork hung on nearby walls with no obvious distinguishing feature illuminating the arrangerâ€™s identity as artist, as in Milianiâ€™s installation, or as interior decorator, as in Pittmanâ€™s archival photo.
A similar effect is achieved by the Tumblr hosted image collection Mise en Green assembled by Brooklyn based curator, exhibition producer, and writerÂ Arden Sherman (www.miseengreen.com) that intuitively documents the plantâ€™s evolution from decorative gallery constituent to chosen member of the art piece. Amongst archival museum & gallery photos like those described above appear photos from contemporary gallery shows without any obvious distinguishing feature. For example, a long cluster of potted greens from the Dormitorio Publico 2012 show at the Campoli Presti Gallery can be found between archival photos from the Guggenheim & the MoMA in the 1950s. A selection of hanging & floor-dwelling plants in ceramic containers at Paul Wackerâ€™s Wait & Watch a While Go By show at the Alice Gallery in Brussels (also from 2012) is displayed unobtrusively between documentation of the MoMA & Manchester Art Galleries from the 70s & 80s.
Viewing the plant as a human stand in allows us to obtain a more insightful reading of contemporary artworks that utilize them. Wait & Watch a While Go By now appears to reference what the group of hanging & potted plants in the exhibit are doing. The gallery is hung with paintings by Wacker & Maya Hayuk done in an unpretentious graphic style, many of which include images of wild plants & houseplants alike. The resulting situation is one of a kind of plant hangout- a place for them to relax & enjoy each others company with pictures of family members decking the halls.
Although this anthropomorphization goes largely unrecognized (at least publicly) by the artists that implement it, at the beginning of his 2008 performance piece Este Cuerpo Que Me Ocupa, JoÃ£o Fiadero directly confronts us with an unadorned plant as subject:
“…Fiadero walks into the stage coming from the audience, crosses it, opens a door on the back wall, and brings in a tall plant in a vase. With care, he lays the vase down on the stage floor and returns to his place among the audience. At the center of the stage, the plant executes a beautiful solo with living creature, inert matter, and imperceptible motions.”â¸
In this example, a potted plant takes on the role of the choreographed dancer. The rest of the performance introduces a cast of other domestic objects (mostly furniture) and a few people, but the first physically present subject is a plant. In internal activity it is between a human and a non-living object. It is transitional, a pathway between identification from a person to a thing.
Buffalo based artist Ethan Breckenridge places his plant subjects in undersized transparent prisms & cubes that emphasize the plant as a sympathetic creature. In his Too Soon installations in Bolivia (2009) & New York (2010), potted plants are crammed into carpeted cubes. The viewer empathizes with the plants, leaves pressed uncomfortably against the walls of the cube, & we may reflect upon our own domesticated & carpeted glass cubes. Breckinridge more specifically articulates the relationship between human & plant in Plants Have No Backs (2008)- another plant (or two in some iterations) in carpeted windowed structure- but this time furnished with a folding chair. The title & the presence of the chair immediately allow the viewer to compare herself to a plant, in particularly those in front of her, humanoid in height. Without any need to sit down or rest its non-existent back, the chair remains empty. If a person were to sit in the chair, she would be in intimate conversation with the plant. One wall of the box is constructed out of a mirrored surface depicting infinite clones of plants with unoccupied chairs. The plant stands tall & unaffected, neither suffering nor lavishing its solitary existence.
In tandem with the plant in the gallery space, the proliferation of the houseplant in artistic practice continues in the internet medium- work that is without 3D physical manifestation. In particularly in the work of younger artists on social communities like dump.fm & the TightArtistNetGang, found plant imagery is common in the composited moments that function as their incessently morphing artistic economy. The plant’s ubiquity here probably has more to do with the large quantity of plant based gifs & clipart used in early web design (much of contemporary net art aesthetics is based in early web/PC nostalgia) than with an anthropomorphic presence. Because web design began by imitating tactile textures, objects & actions in order to make itself more user friendly, it is for the same aesthetic reasons that appears in interior decoration that it finds its way onto the web as design elements. Furthermore, net art of this kind, which seems to seek to create a surreal version of the physical world, would be incomplete without common objects & textures, making plants an obvious & indispensable tool. Like in physical presence, plants here too remind us of an exotic outside world, or, in the case of a potted plant, the physical world immediately outside of the computer.
There are examples of plants in net art at every turn, but 24 year old net artist Douglas Schatz (dump.fm username guccisoflosy), who repeatedly incorporates plant imagery in his work, summarized the trend in posting an animated gif of a potted plant against a grey checkerboard transparency background above the text “Digital Office Plants Are the New Aesthetic.”â¹Â
Unfortunately there is not enough room here to document a full up-to-date survey of contemporary artwork utilizing houseplants, but perhaps acknowledging this mania will allow us to look at this work with added dimension & intellect, rather than relegating it to simple appropriation. Surely plants will continue to aesthetically enchant all kinds of humans until further notice. Worldwide ethnic traditions document the symbolic meanings of various species, but the houseplant as readymade has mobilized the plant image into the 21st century. It has matured out of trite decorative & expired folkloric identities into advanced contemporary symbolic territory. Although the houseplantâ€™s current definition is unstable (as anything contemporaneous), its qualities as an emotionally ambiguous living subject that is aesthetically pleasing make it a versatile object that will continue to take on meaning as its use continues.
H. FAYE KAHNÂ is a freelance animator in NYC & Â a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsoredÂ WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.Â