Incinerator Art Space, Sydney

Curated by Vigen Galstyan

HERBARIUM OF DREAMS: Photography and flora

It seems somehow appropriate not to begin a curatorial statement with some aggrandising historical quote when the subject of the exhibition is vegetation. It is around and with us almost every single moment of our life. It is placed next to us when we are born and upon us when we die. Like air, flora is indispensible to our lives as is its metaphoric substance. However, what does need constant rearticulation is our fraught relationship with the world of plants – not simply their usage but also our perception of them within everyday life and culture. The exhibition ‘Flora’ by the Sydney-based Photo Group looks at this world through critically aware yet nostalgic lens of 21st century photography.

Photography’s immense role in redefining our understanding of flora is generally accepted but perhaps not fully analysed. The flourishing of botanical photography in the 19th century was due in part to the desire to record, categorise and conquer as much of the natural environment as was possible. In recently ‘discovered’ countries such as Australia, this tendency was especially prominent, becoming part of the colonial project. It could be argued that with the advent of macro imagery by the likes of the German architect Karl Blossfeldt, the medium made us not only conscious of the enormous expanse and complexity of plant life, but also finally locked it down with a humanised mask. Perhaps this is what led Tina Modotti to exclaim in a mixture of horror and excitement upon seeing the freshly minted capsicum, cabbage and celery photographs by her ex-lover Edward Weston. ‘…they disturb me not only mentally but physically – there is something so pure and at the same time perverse about them’ wrote Modotti in a 1929 letter to Weston. This alternatively fragmenting or idealistically purifying vision of modernist photography would continue to ‘other’ nature, use it for formal or symbolic purposes or seek to find its spiritual core for many years thereafter.

But, as French theoretician George Bataille wrote in his 1929 essay The language of flowers, ‘there can be no doubt: the substitution of natural forms for the abstraction currently used by philosophers will seem not only strange but absurd.’ Indeed, today the poetics of flora are less clear cut. From surrealism, horror cinema to uncanny, artificial recreations of foliage by Thomas Demand, the way we relate to nature has been dramatically problematised in contemporary art. Conquering it no longer seems viable and romanticising its beauty is not as straightforward in this proto-Blade Runner age of clones and simulacras.

The 25 works included in this exhibition contribute multifarious perspectives on what the Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig has called ‘the art of nature and the art in nature’. Exploring environmental, social and cultural concerns, images by Mim Sterling, Andrea Klucis and Felicity Jenkins share an interest in the aesthetics of documentary and objective photography with strikingly different results. Impressionist and poetic, the works of Mirjana Tann and Caroline Mclean-Foldes are equally imbued with critical undertones about the colonial and art historical imagination. Yet, in Bryan Cummins’s and Phillipa Morgan’s symbolic abstractions, the desire to find the sublime, the spiritual and the emotive echo between plants and humans remains as essential as ever. Finally, modernity’s destructive and grand ambition of triumphing over nature is gently satirised in Asym Aly-Khan’s deadpan, conceptual photo-documents.

These diverse and overlapping approaches evoke significant and open-ended questions about the function of photography in embalming [or, in some cases, extracting from] the ‘art of nature’ into our collective dream herbarium.