Greenspace: Art and Utility Make Plants Essential to Humanity

So much of our relationship with plants we take for granted. However, the role of plants in individual and community health and wellbeing deserves urgent attention.

American artist Taryn Simon’s exhibition Paperwork and the Will of Capital explores re-creations of floral arrangements associated with the signing of peace treaties and other international accords. The exhibition began at the 2015 Venice Biennale and was subsequently exhibited at the Gagosian in New York, and The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow until May this year. Her starting point is the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, in Bretton, New Hampshire that addressed the globalisation of economies after World War II, and led to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In tracing this, and subsequent agreements by the 44 countries participating at this conference, she observed that leaders were consistently flanked by floral arrangements during official signing ceremonies. Using historic images, and working with botanist Daniel Atha from New York Botanic Garden, she shipped 4000 plant specimens from the Aalsmeer flower auctions in the Netherlands to her New York studio. Here she recreated and photographed the original arrangements and explored what she describes as the “stagecraft of power”.

Taryn-Simon-Flower-Arrangement-Munitions-Adelaide-Review-GreenspaceTaryn Simon, ‘Convention on Cluster Munitions. Oslo, Norway, December 3, 2008’, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015

So, what is going on here? Is beauty an essential element in sealing international agreements? Do flowers civilise our relationships with each other? Does beauty imply trust and reinforce truth? Are flowers a polite backdrop or a grounding providing courage for major commitments? While hardly the espoused purpose of Taryn Simon’s work, the exhibition wonderfully illustrates the complexity of our relationship with plants. This relationship with plants is complex. One approach might reasonably be to divide the relationship between utility and art. However, as is apparent from the “stagecraft of power” even these two dimensions are difficult to separate, analyse and interpret. The beauty and utility of an almond orchard or wheat field captured by Vincent van Gogh, or of pencil yams captured by Emily Kngwarreye illustrate the artificiality of this division. Nevertheless, such a classification facilitates the exploration of the relationship between plants and people. A sub-classification of ‘art’ into three realms may facilitate further exploration of this terrain. A first realm, and, perhaps the most significant, is our relationship with plants in our environment. Here, plants are fundamental to our health and wellbeing. This realm isn’t only about nature conservation and agricultural production. English social reformer Octavia Hill, who led the movement for greenspace in the late 19th century observed, “I think we want four things. Places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in.” She saw the requirement for these things to be immediately accessible as the basis for physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Greenspace-Plants-Park-Utility-Adelaide-Review-2Public parks have become highly prized greenspaces for recreation and relaxation

Greenspace still struggles with priorities driven by an accounting perspective of cost and risk rather than by community benefit and opportunity. Our environment in this realm extends to indoor plants and flower arrangements, gardens and designed landscapes and parks and reserves. A second realm in our relationship with plants in art is in the representation of plants. Here the media range from flower and landscape painting and sculpture to the imagined worlds of The Wizard of Oz or Avatar on film, and in architecture ranging from classical motifs of Acanthus adorning Corinthian columns, to the Lotus (Nelumbo) inspired Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, the Lotus building in Wujin, China, and even Singapore’s supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay. The imitation and celebration of the beauty of plants plays a significant role in our humanity. Greenspace-Plants-Lotus-Building-Utility-Adelaide-Review-2 The third realm is where Taryn Simon’s work is best placed and comprises the symbolic and metaphorical roles of plants. The symbolic use of plants in politics, religion, stagecraft and in public places, and the communication of power and tradition in public spaces remains as important as it is ubiquitous.  Think, for example, of Rosemary being used for remembrance (- Ophelia’s words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember”), and red poppies for specific remembrance of soldiers who died in the Great War, and now generally applied to all wars. Other forms of communication involving flowers, include floriography (as manifested in bouquets, art and literature), the giving of plants and flowers as gifts and both the marketing and use of plant-based cosmetics to communicate purity, social status or desirability.

Greenspace-Plants-Remembrance-Utility-Adelaide-Review-2LONDON – Oct 24 2014: The art installation in Tower Bridge which features 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for every Allied soldier killed during the conflict, marks WW1 centenary

So much of our relationship with plants we take for granted. However, the role of plants in individual and community health and wellbeing deserves urgent attention. Greenspace needs to be reframed in terms of the benefits and opportunities it provides to address the community’s economic, social, environmental and cultural aspirations. Wellbeing, social cohesion, innovation and jobs can all be related to greenspace. However, there’s a substantial challenge involved in resetting our vision, institutions and industry capacity to deliver sustainable and beautiful urban environments. The work that Horticulture Innovation Australia is currently progressing through the 202020 Vision provides a great opportunity to reset the relationship between plants and people in cities – see 202020vision.com.au/about-the-vision. If we get this right, the distinction between art and utility here may prove immaterial. @StephenJForbes

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