Plants Are People Too: a very brief history of botanics in art
Since time immemorial, humanity has relied on the bounty of the organic world for sustenance. However, this sustenance is so much more than physical. Yes, plants have always been used as housing materials and incorporated into clothing and food, but they have served aesthetic purposes as well, what one may presumptuously call a spiritual food. Barks, berries, and root vegetables have been used for the production of artistic materials (dies, inks and paints) for ages. Some archeologists believe that mosses, in all their soft and airy glory, were the original paintbrush. But aside from participating in the production of art, plants have, for the longest time, been the subject of art.
The lotus flower, for instance, has been found on ancient Egyptian ceramics, amulets, and papyrus paintings symbolizing fertility and birth. Jumping to the Middle Ages, millefleur, a pattern of intricate flowers covering tapestries, was popular for its aesthetic value. The Renaissance led to a bloom in botanical still life painting. During the Industrial Revolution, plants emerged as a new code of symbolism. With rising rates of imperialism and colonial endeavors, the organic shapes of plants came to represent the wild and untamed lands waiting to be conquered. Plants depicted in art at this time were both dangerous and exciting. The wild nature of the plant was soon complimented by a more domestic representation in the Victorian era as floriography, the art of crafting simple messages such as love notes or apologies through the contents of bouquet gained popularity.
In the 20th century, for the most part, plants became background noise in art, no longer the stars of the show, or they were recognized for their symbolic and emotive potential, and added to museums and galleries as fillers or decorations. As living, growing things, gallery plants were intended to bring a calming organic contrast next to the human-made artworks they accompanied. Some designers even suggest that plants can act as stand-ins for gallery patrons, taking on an anthropomorphic quality. Faye Kahn, a writer for Bad At Sports, says they “occupy space in an analogous way to how a person would, with similar height and life presence.” Thus plants became a central part of the welcoming atmosphere but were not meant to attract attention, just as one patron is not generally concerned with another unless they make a disturbance.
In the 1980s to 1990s, concerns about moisture from plants ruining precious artwork drove the decorative flora outdoors, now adorning only the entrances of many buildings. However, it seems that plants were destined for more than decoration. Leading into the twenty-first century, new artists have brought the foliage back into installations. But, this time they have an even more vibrant presence. Plants, it seems, have leapt out from canvases and etches, establishing themselves as their own central exhibits.
In 2014, Rashid Johnson created Plateaus, a layered sculpture made from shrubs, cacti, ceramics, metal, and wood, creating a conversation about collonialization and urban displacement. Similarly, Canadian Artist Tau Lewis’ sculptural work draws a parallel between the hardiness of cacti and “the perseverance of black life.” The artist uses the harsh contrast between the organic and constructed to symbolize the African diaspora. While creating a sense of distance in this particular work, the plants within the artwork still encourage a weird sense of empathy, “perhaps a vague, displaced feeling of connection with other living beings,” making this plant the perfect platform for conversations about race.
In summer of 2018, the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas featured a five-month-long exhibition titled Big Botany: Conversations with the Plant World. The exhibition sought to engage with “artists' studies of plant forms; historic and contemporary plant lore; ecological sustainability and biomechanical plant hybrids; plants in a post-human world; and scientific research on how plants sense the world and communicate.” The exhibition’s website stressed its aim to “cultivate viewers’ empathy for plants by addressing the tendency of humans to dismiss plants as a static backdrop to their fast-paced lives.” Perhaps there could be no better way to phrase the current plants-as-art movement.
Whether or not one chooses to believe the studies purporting that plants talk to one another and have memories, it is impossible to ignore their ever-present and apparently growing influence in human life.
Plants are not a backdrop for human activity or simply the subject of inanimate painting but have finally regained their spot in the spotlight.
These new plant-as-art installations have unique allure because they grow and change as they are viewed—they are not entirely controllable. They are, in many ways, independent of the artist; they have free will. Plants, it seems, are becoming more human. Plants have become our companions, breathing with us, living with us, and inspiring us to become more human.