Plant People

Tessa Mars, "A vision of Peace, Harmony and Good intelligence," 2020. Courtesy the artist.

What is it about the threat of impending death that drives us into the arms of Mother Nature? In 2020, there was a curious correlation between surging transmissions of a new contagion, the decimation of the white-collar workforce, and a sudden romanticism of pastoral life. The New York Times published a story on how to grow edible plants on a windowsill (dubbed the “Victory Sill”) and then later reported on the exploding floral industry. Customers hoarded not only at grocery stores but also at plant nurseries, fueled by a primal anxiety about food security and preparing to sequester indoors. Those who could afford it sought refuge in the woods, away from high rates of infection in densely-packed cities. No doubt the bucolic was en vogue: cottage core, plant daddyism, organic linens, and reconnecting with nature. I became suspicious of my own sudden daydreams of simplified rustic pastiche, sustained by an idealized white femininity and feigned naiveté that mythologizes America’s violent pioneer past.

Tales of agricultural mastery, urban white flight, and vacationing in the jungle have long laid the foundational seedbeds for colonial empire. I will not rehash how its neoliberal legacy continues to encourage retreat from political participation in favor of isolated comfort. But paying attention to how artists and scholars of color work with plants helps trouble that privileged white figure. How do we complicate the attribution of “desiring to leave society” when one has never been included in the foundations of civil society to begin with? How do we seek reprieve in Edenic paradise when its circulation in popular imagination is predicated on our subjugation?

Filipino-American artist Stephanie Syjuco asks us to consider the orchid. Her photographic series Neutral Orchid (2016) features varying species of the genus orchidicae coated in a layer of ghostly gray paint and placed against a studio backdrop of the same color. This so-called “middle gray” is a precise midtone between black and white, which provides an illusion of neutrality for the racist mechanisms built into photographic color calibration. In other bodies of work, Syjuco studies the exclusionary implications of the “Shirley card,” a universalized photo of a Caucasian woman that photo technicians similarly used to calibrate color at the expense of darker skintones. Each Neutral Orchid portrait features different permutations of the moth orchid, or scientific name phalaenopsis orchidicae, which is perhaps more routinely identified with American grocery stores, floral shops, or even Jonas Wood paintings than the wild. It embodies the aesthetics of what Slavoj Zizek has called “corporate zen” – a facade of mental sanity and spiritual (Buddhist) enlightenment while fully participating in capitalist dynamics. Although the species is native to tropical regions of Asia such as Indonesia and the Philippines, its increasingly cheapened commodification has stripped it of national specificity.

Instead, the orchid evokes the Orient – or specifically, the yellow woman abstracted as botanical display – a vignette of “decorativeness that invites destruction,” as Anne Anlin Cheng theorizes ornate Asiatic flesh. At the level of anatomy, the orchid is the perfect exotic foil to the American garden-variety foliage, perhaps second only to the bonsai. Its feminine beauty seems to reside more in its succinctness than its abundance, closer in physical form to Japanese ikebana than a bouquet. Its wayward stems, too pliable to support weighty blossoms on their own, must be bound to supportive stakes, and even then they are not pulled taut but careen demurely downwards. The orchid’s aerial roots reach above the soil and require immense human intervention to maintain indoors. While nearly all plant propagations are called “pups,” only the lonely orchid’s children are “keiki.” The orchid is an alien transplant, at once excessive yet not enough.

Syjuco’s treatment of each potted orchid attempts to reduce them to a blank canvas, dramatizing the very process of racist and sexist projection. The orchid’s objecthood permits the human subject to conquer it, to brutalize and covet it. But also the viewer’s own humanizing process – naming, personification, and assigning race and gender – enables, or makes pleasurable, “her” domination. A plant develops personality and sentimental value, adopts a cuteness that begs for paternalistic subsistence. Syjuco portrays the inverse, or removal of animacy, as a deadening, leveling effect. Embalmed in new pigment, most flowers in the series eventually wilt after serving their use as art. But its first “death” occurs well before this, when it is robbed of its shine, dimensionality, and complexion. Its appeal vanishes with its waning liveliness; in other words, the camera puts the flower to death under the sham of eternal life.

In the case of one anomaly in the series, Phaenopsis + Dracena sanderana, two buds have escaped their tragic fate and miraculously bloomed even after being painted. Their white petals, surrounding delicate yellow centers, register as more brilliant than usual because of their deviation from their monochromatic surroundings; a phoenix rising from the ashes. Syjuco’s decision to photograph this orchid inspires an evergreen provocation: What is life after lifelessness? How do we go on after catastrophic injury? What better than to take a leaf from an object that has come to life? This is, after all, an innocent enough if slightly cliché inquiry when turning to nature.

Stephanie Syjuco, “Neutral Orchid – Phaenopsis + Dracena sanderana,” 2016.

Gleaning any happiness – that is to say, perverse pleasure – might require a momentary disavowal that the guiding principles of cruel and ugly life “out there” have not yet trespassed on our small plot. Caribbean novelist and theorist Sylvia Wynter considered this contradiction in observing how the enslaved related to their garden in her seminal essay, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” where “the planters gave the slaves plots of land on which to grow food to feed themselves in order to maximize profits.” There, the exploited could participate in the stewarding of life and, reluctantly, also in their own exploitation. For Wynter, the slave plot was both sutured to the ecosystem of the plantation and became the very site to revolt against it. One might call this elusive feeling of control in a world where in fact one controlled very little; in short, a fantasy. The function of this fantasy was a fugitive escape.

For the racially denigrated subject, what little joy can be stored away sometimes requires a performance of forgetting that American culture preserves, indeed nurtures, the same abjection that lends us the optimism to go on. It is not a matter of ignorance, but a matter of how long knowing can be delayed. Syjuco’s Phaenopsis + Dracena sanderana captures a moment of psychic oscillation between knowing and not knowing. Even within Syjuco’s well-orchestrated plans to neuter the fetishization of the orchid, to empty it of signifiers, the orchid has rebelled in at least one instance, reiterating its usefulness as fetish. Her Frankenstein creation is, in her words, “suspended between life and death,” a wounded figure that can be framed as “perhaps becoming a newly-made possibility” only after her destruction.

Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson’s paper collages exercise a similar entropy in her 2019 exhibition to dig between the cuts, beneath the leaves, below the soil… at Hales Gallery, New York. Comprised of paper collages adhered directly to the wall, … to dig invited viewers to lose themselves within each colorful rupture. Peachy nude anthuriums dissolve into mottled crotons, while fantastical fronds are cut from chrysanthemums. Culled from Patterson’s personal archive, each image is slightly degraded (either through digital pixilation or physical laceration). Beneath the thicket, a severed silhouette of a dark hand or foot occasionally sprouts. Patterson finishes the scene by littering the layered imagery with sharp, quarter-sized punctures. From these mechanical wounds leak forth sinewy, sanguineous ribbons of paper, completing the devastating wreckage. Rather than simply replicate the English garden that inspired her, Patterson has attempted to overturn naturalized Darwinian law, extricating Black femininity as the ultimate humus that turns the gears of endless capitalist cycles.

Jamaica Kincaid in the 1990s and the year 2020, respectively. Courtesy the New York Botanical Gardens.

Why else would anyone take refuge in a place that reproduces the same fantasies of violation from which they are trying to escape? Jamaica Kincaid writes about her own garden as the marker of her transition from the colonized to the colonizing class, conceding that, “In the garden, one performs the act of possessing.” Relief arrives with wild abandon: private indulgence in a world of absurdity and inauthenticity, losing the burden of accurate representation and knowability, and having experiments fail without fear of capture or punishment.

Colloquialisms refer to this process as compartmentalization, or “turning off the brain”; analogies of self-lobotomization are, to me, a disparagement of private, non-laboring time. Instead, the critical opportunity offered by the garden is that it enacts a frame to limit the world. If open borders have often operated as a neoliberal euphemism for the freedom to exploit and invade, perimeters erected by the racial Other remain an open question. If Donna Haraway asked why our bodies should end at our skin, then what happens when the power to set these limitations are suddenly wielded, not by traditional cartographers of bodily integrity, but by the dispossessed?

And if a plant in our possession prepares us for the pleasure of solitude, shielding internal fantasies from the rules of ration and reality, such an object relation also facilitates the negotiation between what is “me” and what is possession. Is it possible that bearing witness to the fragility of capitalist order – triumphant riots and looting that abhorred state murder of Black life – also serviced the broad impulse to disentangle the human possessed by property of that very property? To imagine what life could be outside state governance? Polite liberal initiatives to “humanize” others have always fallen short when the legal definitions of persons has always been defined by property ownership, and excluded persons who were property incarnate. Instead, many sought opportunities to contend with differentiating between person and possession, and how quickly one becomes the other. If the enslaved of the Caribbean were seen as “adjunct” to the highly lucrative sugar cane plant, to borrow from Wynter again, what is the human cost forgotten by a dream of unfettered, abundant growth? How do we not just dream of, but actually conspire? How do we plot with plant people?

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