Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹
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 U·turn Art Space’s 2010 “Stuff Art” group show of contemporary assemblage artists, an uncredited author defines the tactic as follows:
”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 …The evolution of these art practices is also in dialogue with “truth to materials” philosophies that began in the International Style of Modernist architecture…”²
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 Warhol’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 “plant” or “houseplant” & occasionally “office plant” which can be found repeatedly throughout digital & physical gallery dialogue.
The houseplant’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 aren’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 “[t]he close and ambiguous relationship between art and decoration.”³
In a matryoshka-like way, the art of arrangement is repeated on a smaller scale within the houseplant’s own container, & even institutionalized by the practice in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. According to the Ikebana International website, “In 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.”⁴ Assemblage artist Carson Fisk-Vittori discusses her Ikebana-like exploration of this link in a 2011 interview with Claudine Ise of contemporary art blog Bad at Sports:
”…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… It’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.”⁵
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 plant’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 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). 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.”⁶
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 cliché & 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:
”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 sculpture’s light, their shadows enveloping the work.”⁷
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 Miliani’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 arranger’s identity as artist, as in Miliani’s installation, or as interior decorator, as in Pittman’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 writer Arden Sherman (www.miseengreen.com) that intuitively documents the plant’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 Wacker’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, João 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.”⁸
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.”⁹
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 houseplant’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 KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
Next up in our Mantras for Plants series, artist Heidi Norton and I interview Cris Merino, Isa Merino and Carol Montpart, the directorial team behind The Plant Journal, a biannual magazine based in Barcelona, Spain (The journal’s editor is Cris Merino, and its art directors/graphic designers are Isa Merino and Carol Montpart). The Plant Journal’s editorial statement describes the publication as follows:
Besides providing botanical contents in a simple, personal and cozy way, The Plant Journal offers to plant lovers a new look on greenery by featuring the works of creative people who also love plants. As a curious observer of ordinary plants and other greenery, the magazine presents a monographic on a specific plant and brings together photographers, illustrators, designers, musicians, writers and visual artists, both established and emerging, from all over the world, to share with The Plant Journal their perceptions and experiences around plants.
We love that their focus is simply on “plants,” yet that subject alone can take them in an infinite number of cultural directions. Also note that Plant Journal’s Spring/Summer 2011 issue features the mind-blowing photo-collages of Chicago artist Stephen Eichhorn! You can subscribe to this print-only journal by going here. We want to thank Cris, Isa, and Carol for answering our questions!
Heidi Norton: How was The Plant Journal conceived? Who are your readers? What types of people, places, things are featured?
Editors: We suppose everything began when we realized that every time we had to make a gift, it was a plant. And our friends do the same with us. Plants arrive to your home, you care of them and you establish quite a special relationship with them. Furthermore, as we love publications, especially in paper, we thought that it will be a beautiful idea to create a magazine completely dedicated to plants, since we didn’t find any that gave plants the relevance and the approach we had in mind.
The magazine is addressed to people more or less like us, who enjoy plants even if they seem incapable of keeping them alive, people who feel inspired by greenery and whose creativity is open to establishing connections with plants. That’s why in The Plant Journal you can find photographers, illustrators, designers, chefs, etc. Probably they are also our readers. On the other hand, since plants spread out whenever they want to without asking anyone’s permission, we look for them wherever they are, in their own natural habitat, but also in our cities, homes, offices, etc.
Claudine Ise: Yes, I really like how you use the subject of plants as a jumping off point to talk about a range of subjects — music, art, film, and other areas of culture. The essay that looked at how houseplants were arranged in some of Eric Rohmer’s films as a way to investigate his approach to formalism is a great example of this. Can you talk about how you solicit articles for the journal – what kinds of essays hold appeal?
Eds: We were thinking about the connections between cinema and plants, so we looked for Lope Serrano (from Canada productions www.lawebdecanada.com). He writes articles for a cultural magazine from Barcelona, and we knew about his vast visual and cinematographic knowledge. And it was Lope himself, during a chat, who suggested the connection between the ethical and aesthetic formalism of many of Rohmer’s films and the plants that appear in some scenes. As we admire Rohmer’s films, we loved this approach. The result is a very academic and didactic article that completely fits with the aim of the magazine. But in general, there’s a little bit of everything in the articles. There are some that are proposed by its authors and others cases when we explain a general idea to the writer and then, after exchanging ideas, we reach an agreement. In the case of sections such as “My plants by” or the interviews, our work is about finding the right person. That’s why it is very important for us to have a wide network of contributors who share our interests.
HN: The introduction that you use to promote the journal states, “providing botanical contents in a simple, personal and cozy way.” Can you explain what you mean by “cozy”? I ask because, there is something “cozy” about plants, an unpretentiousness that makes places, objects, spaces, and materials more accessible.
Eds: With ‘cozy’ we want to emphasize and vindicate the affection for plants. At least in Barcelona, people don’t use plants as much as we would like in the way that you explain. So we think it’s not always obvious that plants are cozy by nature. You sometimes have to stop and think about it, and that was one of the reasons to create The Plant Journal. We had an example of this a few days ago. We created an installation with plants and macramé for the magazine launch party in Otrascosas de Villarosàs gallery in Barcelona. The space also contains the meeting room for an important advertisement agency, with its typical big table and nothing else. Well, yesterday Marc (who is responsible for the space) told us that since plants were there, people want to have the meetings next to them, and they even asked him to leave them there. That’s nice, because plants have made that room a better place. And nobody there thought about it until now! That’s why we thought we must emphasize the coziness of plants.
CI: Your journal’s content isn’t available online. Do you think it’s important, conceptually or otherwise, that the journal remain a paper publication that is circulated “on the streets,” as opposed to via cyberspace/the internet?
Eds: As we love publications, we like to go to a bookshop or a newsstand, choose a book or a magazine and then read and enjoy it calmly in your place. You can get it back whenever you want to, you can collect them, write on them, cut them out, etc. It might be fetishism or nostalgia, but we think that the experience of paper is more accessible, relaxed and intimate. It is obvious that the Internet offers a lot of opportunities for a publication (starting with the production costs, always more expensive in paper), but we never doubt it: the magazine is printed in paper, an object that in addition is beautiful. We will create some different contents for our site, but they will be more casual and fast consuming contents specifically created for the Internet. For us, it is priceless: the Sunday aperitif with the daily papers and that feeling is something a screen will never give you, no matter what the possibilities that an iPad can give to you.
HN: What things are inspiring you today, right now?
Eds: We are now very interested in rediscovering traditions that seem to be ignored because of the high-speed way of life and the anxiousness for new stuff. That means we get inspired by and enjoy cooking for friends, going on a trip looking for mushrooms in the countryside, caring for our little gardens, knitting macrame, etc. All kinds of domestic, simple and everyday activities that make your life better. As music, cinema, arts and books also do.
Artist Heidi Norton and I share an abiding interest in all things plants. During several conversations we had while I was profiling her for Art Ltd., we often talked about the relationship between art and gardening. Heidi incorporates living plant matter directly into her sculptures and has used various types of house plants in her New Age Still Life photographs, along with the more recent series of images shown in her show Not To See the Sun at ebersmoore last month. Heidi and I have continued to talk about the relationship of art, plants, and gardening, and as the next iteration of what has become an ongoing exchange, we’ve decided to conduct a series of interviews with other artists to further explore those connections. Voila: Mantras for Plants, a new, irregularly appearing series of posts.
First up, Heidi talks with Chicago photographer John Opera about his practice and his use of the Anthotype printing process. Opera recently exhibited his photographs at Andrew Rafacz in Chicago and at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, MO. He’ll be exhibiting his work in a group show titled “To Tell The Truth” at Monya Rowe Gallery in New York from June 17th-July 29, as well as in another group show at Statler Waldorf Gallery in Los Angeles that opens June 17th.
Heidi Norton: What is an Anthotype? Can you explain the process? How did you come to find it and how do you feel it fits into your practice?
John Opera: The Anthotype is a printing process that was invented by Sir John Herschel around 1832, five years after the first known photograph. It represents a moment right at the beginning of photography as a medium. The discovery of the process was very much a part of the initial experiments that led up to photography, as it was eventually known in the 19th century, both in technical terms and in metaphoric terms as well.
In addition to his photographic research, Herschel was also an accomplished botanist and researched the chemical properties of light. His experiments often crossed disciplines. That’s how the Anthotype came about—it was an attempt to connect fixing a photographic image to photosynthesis. Herschel discovered that he could make a rudimentary print emulsion using pigments extracted from plant material. He made his prints by treating paper with the plant-based emulsion and pressing a negative tightly against the paper under a sheet of glass. The prints are then exposed during the height of summer when the sun is very intense. The printing process can require anywhere from a week to three weeks in direct sunlight.
For my Anthotypes, I used beets, blueberries, pokeberries, chokeberries and several varieties of lilies. It’s pre-photography. I was really interested in that notion. There is a strange connectivity that the process has to the natural world. It feels alchemical to me. I collected some of the plants at sites where I made landscape photos in the past, specifically the pokeberries, so I guess you could say that some of the images have a connection to my past work, or at least they are part of a continuum.
The images in the prints are of drawings that I made in a glass bottom tray device that I designed which allows me to expose directly onto large format film without a camera. There was no lens used in making the images. They are essentially contact prints of ink in water. For me, the prints point toward the fundamental principles of image formation in photography. They are also still-images about liquid and its connection to the medium.
HN: One of things that fascinate me is the relevance of light in this work. All photography is reliant on light, but the way light is utilized in these pieces is extreme. The “ink drawings” must be created in complete darkness. I imagine you sitting in a dark closet, dropping ink into a tray of liquid, flashing light to expose the latent image. The second process is actually making the contact print. Like you mentioned, at times the exposures can be up to three weeks in direct sun. Can you comment on this duality?
JO: Honestly, I’ve never consciously thought about that connection, but it is a really interesting one for sure. A duality in the process like that is probably a good thing. The pictures are about a balance in a lot of respects I guess—formally, conceptually. The negatives are made in a traditional darkroom setting, while the printing process takes place under very different circumstances. It can take up to 120 hours in direct sunlight to break the emulsion down enough to make a photograph. The image of the drawing is captured on film in less than a second. I see what you mean by “extremes.”
During the printing process, I have to pay attention to the weather and monitor the prints daily. They can only be made during the summer months when the sun is a its highest point in the sky. I suppose there is an interesting parallel between how the prints come into the world and witnessing plants in a garden do the same. I’m reminded of Jeff Wall’s image Poppies in a Garden, which is in the Art Institute’s collection. For me, that image is about the potential universe contained within the poppy. It’s also an image that draws connection to the latency you are talking about in photography. There is a delay between the time a photograph is made and when you see the negative or print. This is what happens to the gardener in the garden as well. I suppose my Anthotypes are somewhere around there in that they are about something provisional. I like to think that their point is also that they break from the observed world, like a hallucination.
HN: Speaking of “hallucination.” This break from the “observed” world, we can call a “secondary” experience or even a transcendence from the lived experience. Maholy Nagy uses of abstraction of light coupled with technology, exemplifies the idealistic and utopian thinking of a specific era. He coined the term “the New Vision” for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not. Is this a relevant conversation today?
JO: I think that every image is a secondary experience to an extent. I feel like photography has reached such a point of self-consciousness that we can agree that any kind of photograph, whether it’s a documentary image or a photogram, occupies a secondary, or abstract position.
At the same time though, I think what you’re getting at is a transcendence of observed experience. There is only so much that a lens-based image can describe, right? I guess that it’s the reason I have periodically revisited abstraction over the past 5 years or so. Despite their straightforward manner, I have always thought of my landscape pictures as being about a topography of interiority. I couldn’t quite get there though. I think I have always used abstraction to express what I couldn’t do with a straight photograph.
HN: The colors and images of the anthotypes have a “West Coast”/LA appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because I know they were made in the summer and we hung out a lot during the time of their creation so in some ways they resonant a certain level of nostalgia. But there is a history of west coast makers that use “west coast” light to influence their practices and works. I definitely make different types of work in the summer–perhaps due to the changes in color palette, a different energy, geographic location, longer days… Besides the fact that the sun is the strongest in the summer, I want to know: Does the sun and warmth solicit certain types of making practices or “types” of art for you? Is there such thing as summer art? If these were made in the winter, would they look aesthetically different?
JO: I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “summer art.” I thought about the Anthotypes all winter long! Although, making the work has definitely made me more aware of the changing of the seasons and of the Sun’s position and path across the sky. I feel like the process of producing the Anthotypes has really been a process of aligning myself with the seasonal cycle, probably a lot like a gardener or farmer would have to do.
HN: So I will ask you the same question I asked Barbara Kasten because it is relevant with your work (and I’d like to compare your answers). I feel we are experiencing a similar scientific/technological revolution in relation to how we capture and perceive light and color. How do you feel digital manipulation has changed the production, consumption and criticism of abstract photography? Do you feel that the abstractions inherent in the medium, particularly evident in your work, are enhanced or obscured by the further abstraction embodied in the act of digital capture/rendering and/or manipulation? Do you feel it’s important to explain this to people or ensure they know the works are not “manipulated”?
JO: Things are definitely changing, but I won’t say if it’s good or bad. For me it’s just happening. Digital is definitely erasing certain glitches and characteristics of analog photography, but it’s also creating its own set of peculiarities too. Digital is actually very close to surpassing film in most respects. What will eventually remain is the nostalgia for certain arbitrary properties—film grain, solarization, fogging, etc.
Actually, it’s not really important to me that people know how the images were fixed to the prints, although that is usually the first question people ask me. So how are these made? I could have captured the images on a digital device—actually that would have been a lot easier. There would have been fewer steps. The important thing is that they recorded fleeting compositions—whether that was achieved digitally or traditionally is not important. The fact is that I had to scan the film in order to produce larger printing negatives, so there actually was a digital step to this process. See, now we’re getting too hung up on process.
I’m not sure how abstraction is affected by the digital shift. Abstraction in photography is like abstraction in painting—its meaning shifts according to context—always. The way I use abstraction is different than how it functions in Barbara’s work and vice versa.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Her work has been exhibited all over Chicago in venues such as Monique Meloche Gallery, Dominican University, Northern Illinois University Gallery, and Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Nationally and internationally, Norton’s has been exhibited at the Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Knitting Factory in New York, as well as in Los Angeles, London, and Valenica, Spain. Norton was published in My Green City by Gestalten in 2011. This past year she had solo shows in San Francisco at Hungry Man Gallery and ebersmoore in Chicago. Her work will be included in the group show The World as Text at Columbia College Chicago, opening June 16th.
If you’re a avid (albeit amateur) gardener like me, this might be up your alley: G.E.E.E. (aka General Economy Exquisite Exchange 2011) is currently in operation at the Hyde Park Art Center (thru October 1st, 2011). Billed as “a post-retail museum shop and rooftop tomato garden where neighborly value has become the operative currency and creative bartering has become the dominant mode of exchange,” G.E.E.E. is in essence a trading post, where you can bring your own plants, seedlings, or gardening materials to exchange for the ones that are available there. What you exchange doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of physical goods — also welcome are what the folks behind G.E.E.E. (the Cream-Co. Collective) describe as “immaterial support (dialogue, advice, recipes)” — this could take the form of information exchange or even just a good story.
I stopped by G.E.E.E. several weeks ago, and was completely charmed by every aspect of its homespun display — the handmade, hand-lettered signs, the multi-colored array of seedlings, the little ceramic pig where you can leave money for things you want to purchase at cost. I traded a number of gardening books for a chocolate mint plant, which now sits in a pot in my back yard and which I compulsively sniff every time I go outside. All of the offerings are seasonal, so expect the plants, seedlings, and other good stuff to be changed up on a roughly weekly basis.
The thing about G.E.E.E. is that, if you garden, and if you’re even remotely friendly, you already get what G.E.E.E. is all about. I have plants growing in my garden that were given to me by at least three different neighbors on my block, and it’s common for us to swap stories and advice and the occasional embittered gripes about our gardens having too much shade. But what I find most valuable about G.E.E.E. is the way in which it highlights extant social relations, particularly those that occur neighbor-to-neighbor, whether you live next door or call across to each other from your balconies.
Despite the shitty, depressing, grey, cold, seemingly neverending, and did I say shitty? winters in Chicago, I think there is something so truly lovely, and deeply hopeful, about the act of gardening here. I’ve written about my love for the different kinds of gardens you see in this city before. For some reason it’s always the tiniest efforts that seem to make the biggest impact – you know damn well that if Spring and Fall are short-seasoned, you’re not going to get to enjoy the fruits of your labor for all that long, but still you pull the weeds and breathe in the dirt and try and make a happy home for the worms, and you do it because most of all it’s fun, but also because you’re bringing color and scent and texture and order and chaos to life, after so many months of grey, frozen dormancy.
Can you tell that winter hit me kind of hard this year?
At any rate, give G.E.E.E. a visit. I promise it will lift your spirits if you’re feeling low – it made me think of how grateful I am to have nice neighbors, and most of all a garden that’s more than willing to work with me.
This Friday, May 20th, from 3pm – 7pm at HPAC G.E.E.E. will host the grand planting of the Center’s rooftop garden – and you can pick up a trowel and pitch in. The planting also double’s as the exhibition’s official opening. On Friday, your efforts will be rewarded via barbecue, and on the next day, from 10 am – 2pm, there’ll be a garden party to celebrate. Bring stuff to swap or donate – if you have questions or plants to swap, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, check out the GEEE blog.