To render life delightful
A posy for Ayesha, Alicia
Lilacs are for new lovers. So says The Sentiment of Flowers, a nineteenth-century text which catalogues blooms according to their symbolic meanings, used by would-be sweethearts, intimate friends and family members to communicate in a language just outside of speech. In the book, the lilac earns this esteemed association for “the freshness of its verdure, the pliancy of its tender branches, the abundance of its flowers,” appearing early in the spring to “summon up those sweet emotions which enrich beauty, and impart to youth a grace divine.”1
In Ayesha Green’s Bouquet for Jameela #2 (2021), four branches of lilacs appear stacked as tiles, sandwiched between four branches of lilies of the valley—denoting a “return of happiness”—and four branches of cowslips—signifying, “you are my divinity.” Together, these flowers, and those that appear in grid formation across the eight paintings of the Bouquet for Jameela series, chart the story of a relationship. The paintings track the dizzying highs of courtship, to infatuation, to adoring intimacy, to the sorrow of heartbreak, to gratitude, and sweet remembrance. Certain feelings occur more than others. Some fade, only to reappear sometime later. #3 begins and ends with inspiration, represented here by angelica. #4 is occupied by ten branches of myrtle, standing in for love. In #7, read from top left, campanula—gratitude—and periwinkle—sweet remembrance—flit back and forth before a branch from the spindle tree—meaning, “engraven upon my heart”—appears. In each, Green names the feeling, rather than the flower. She renders images with a characteristic flatness—with a vibrancy and playfulness that trades the anguish of realism, for the pleasure of the cartoon.2
In her practice, Green employs the reproduction of historical imagery—botanical specimens, portraits of the British royal family, images embedded within both national and personal archives—to consider the role visual material plays within the circulation and reproduction of systems of knowledge and relations of power and subordination. Her work is sensitive to the ways cultural values, particularly within the context of Aotearoa’s settler colonial history, congeal around certain objects, natural phenomena, or people, and how these values spill out into daily life through the repeated appearance of images, and the repeated insistence of what in the world matters, and how it matters.
Green tells me the subject of this series of paintings is more personal than she otherwise allows herself to be.3 Completed not long after the relationship ended following Green’s relocation from Ōtepoti to Tāmaki Makaurau, Green considers it an offering, an intimate gesture of love for a fondly remembered ex-partner. There is indeed a sense of playfulness, or joy—though tempered by mourning—in decoding what the blossoms have to say, but there’s something else happening here, too. Though the taxonomy presented by The Sentiment of Flowers, and texts like it, may be frivolous, or quaint, or deeply associated with the feminine, and though its use here is tender and sincere, these works offer an opportunity to consider how things in the world are appraised, categorised and narrated for human ends.
The pleasure of the lilac is deliberate. The “sweet emotions” it summons in humans is of course a survival strategy for the plant. Its delicate appearance and sweet scent are forms of living developed over millennia, designed to intoxicate bees, bugs, and other pollinators, (including us humans) and guarantee its reproduction. We might call it a slow-moving creativity that exceeds notions of agency or intention as they’re understood within a Western framework. The lilac does not care about the human dramas it finds itself embedded in, but it might benefit from them, sometimes. Put another way, philosopher Michael Marder writes, “the uses to which we put vegetal beings do not exhaust what (or who) they are but, on the contrary, obfuscate enormous regions of their being.”4 There’s nothing intrinsic to the lilac that marries it to the first feeling of love, of course, but its continued cultivation, its pleasant appearance in manicured gardens and parks, its spread across temperate climates far from its native habitat, might all be wrapped up with the symbolic attributes thrust upon it.
The closing paragraphs to the introduction of The Sentiment of Flowers, remind the reader that arrangement is key to what one hopes to communicate. A flower presented inclined to the right expresses the thought attached to it; tilted to the left, “it is understood to convey the contrary of that sentiment.”5 A rosebud stripped of its thorns means, “There is everything to hope.” Stripped of its leaves, the message becomes, “There is everything to fear.”6 A marigold placed on the head signifies, “distress of mind;” upon the heart signifies, “the pains of love;” upon the breast, “ennui.”
There’s a syntax here; a scheme determining how meaning is made through positioning and relation. Making sense of anything relies so much on the context in which things appear, on something’s proximity or distance to other things. A datura, for example, in The Sentiment represents “deceitful charms,” described through a lengthy comparison with an “indolent beauty,” who, by day, languishes about, avoiding the cheering light of the sun, but by night, “exhibits herself to her lovers.”7 But how are we to read that same flower when located, as it is in Alicia Frankovich’s Atlas of Anti-Taxonomies (2022), next to an image of a brilliant pink-red disk-like mushroom sat upon patchy dirt and grass, and a glowing purple-pink-red space blob ripped from NASA’s Instagram?
This arrangement appears within a larger scheme—upon one of sixteen suspended, luminated panels all occupied with disparate phenomena: rocks, fungi, plants, bones, viruses and microbes. Each panel might be considered an attempt to wrest phenomena from existing systems of categorisation, stylistic affinity, periodisation and disciplinary containment, in order to invite a frenetic, plural reading of what makes up the world.
Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924-9) provides Frankovich with one point of reference, among many. Warburg’s Atlas, first started in 1924, is a sprawling, unfinished attempt to free the building blocks of art historical research from their strict chronological, geographic and stylistic confines to arrive at unpredictable new readings of visual stimuli. Taking an encyclopaedic approach, the Mnemosyne Atlas attempts to follow the appearance and reappearance of an array of symbolic images from European antiquity, through the Renaissance and to modernity to track the persistence of certain ideas, symbols and affects across time.
Though there might be echoes in form between the two Atlases, they differ in approach. Where Warburg attempts an encyclopaedic method of containing as much of the world as possible, Frankovich’s logic of organisation is vitally intuitive, embodied, and partial; intended not to offer an alternative dogma, but to gesture towards one of many possible routes for thinking about distinctions, between life, non-life, actors and those acted-upon. Each image in Frankovich’s Atlas might invite us to divorce what’s depicted from the human-made schemes we’re accustomed to reading the world with, and ask what, for instance, the datura may mean without us? What relations does it depend upon for flourishing? What tricks has it learned to weather less than ideal conditions? Or, in what way are all the attributes that render it, according to The Sentiment of Flowers, as something dangerous, duplicitous and deceitful—its toxicity, its unpleasant scent—not actually about us humans at all? If The Sentiment of Flowers grants the plant an agency, it maps that agency onto the moral standards of nineteenth century-Britain. Rethought in the context of the Atlas, the datura’s agency is neither good nor bad, noble or deceiving.
Cumulatively, the Atlas appears as a product of a distracted mind—like happening upon more than a dozen laptop screens in the middle of some frenetic research-induced mania. Such an effect is deliberate: as an attempt to do away with the systems of categorisation of knowledge which populate the Western imagination. The artist writes, “I have conceived of the Atlas as a shared space between species, taxonomies and identities in which one image might pollinate with another and thereby feed and sustain a whole community as though it were a forest.”8
Such a methodological approach may be both the promise, and responsibility, of art. We might think of art as a method of thought and making that, through testing things out, trying on claims and seeing what fits, hopes to trouble a way of thinking about that world that otherwise feels ingrained long enough to jam the machinery, even briefly, of a thought-system’s reproduction.
Laura Duffy tells me the flowers that appear in her work From Emergence of After (2022) are lilies and that she got them from the dairy across the road from her studio. In turn, I tell her that the The Sentiment of Flowers aligns the white lily with purity and modesty, going on to quote, “Of all the poetry ever drawn from flowers none is so beautiful, none is so sublime, none is so imbued with that very spirit in which they were made, as that of of our Lord.”9
The lilies are barely recognisable as lilies in the work itself. In fact, they’re barely recognisable as anything at all. They appear within a sequence of tightly cropped, strangely lit views of organic matter in states of decay. These images have appeared on a monitor mounted to a window, as well as being projected, in portrait, in a darkened space. So far, the work has mutated with each showing, with elements changing form depending on the context in which the work is situated.10 The images are accompanied by a soundscape produced by Te Whanganui-a-Tara-based musicians Crone (Emily Berryman and Lucy Reid) which unfolds as a murmur or a muffled drone, building at times to suggest the faraway movement of something large, either organic or inorganic. As well, the work includes a text by friend and fellow artist Aliyah Winter. Each appearance tests the limits of legibility. In the past, the text has been printed in black ink on black paper, and as black vinyl upon a black wall, lit by the project, almost unreadable, definitely irrational, composed of, as the text itself says, “compromised… signifiers.”
Even though I have the benefit of Duffy’s revelation, it doesn’t matter so much whether I know what I’m looking at all. Reading the work, Duffy tells me, is less about finding answers, less about something in the world captured with fidelity, than about what might be fun, or pleasurable, about lingering with abstraction.11 The work positions itself in opposition to the tradition of the botanical specimen, as part of an effort to pin down, prescribe, and make transparent all earthly matter. The story of the specimen is a story of human (Western) exceptionalism: a tradition of identification, categorisation and stabilisation, that considers anything queer an aberration, or else a threat.
What we’re looking at is maybe less important than the process of looking, and the process of making and unmaking, decay and restoration, that these things bring up. From Emergence of After was shot in what Duffy describes as a “lab-studio,” a setting which at once isolates the flower (and other organic material) from its usual habitat, but also poses as an invitation to all manner of other creatures—mould, fungi, bacteria—all of whom are so used to being banished from the domestic realm—to frolic and thrive.12
The results allow for surprise, or at least a suspension of the agency or foreknowledge of the artist. They may even prove harmful to humans who find themselves in proximity. They also tend to be disgusting. And it’s this disgust—the feeling of aversion, but also all the culturally embedded feelings and languages it brings up that provides Duffy with her material. The vocabulary of disgust—and with it pollution, toxicity, contagion, corruption—brings up accusations historically levelled at queers, Indigenous folk, migrants, sex workers, difficult women—anyone who fails to remain within the confines of the obedient, hard-wording, family-oriented human. But Duffy’s work isn’t necessarily redemptive. It avoids an argument for a more capacious definition of humanity that leaves existing binaries between culture and nature intact. And it’s not necessarily a matter of making a case for the “naturalness” of queerness. We might see it as an experiment in staying with what’s disgusting, and pondering what of it—of the waste and mould and fungi and rot—might constitute something generative in imagining new possibilities for kinship, intimacy, or cycles of care upon a damaged planet. Donna Haraway calls such a process “composting,” encouraging us to dwell with critters, human, non-human and everything between in the hot, stinky, slimy heap of the present, “compos[ing] and decompos[ing] each other, “worlding and unworlding.”13 But I like it better when Duffy says to me, “it’s more honest to play with the rubbish,” than to stray into utopian thinking or run away from what’s gross, “to play with the shit, the mess of now.”14
1 1 The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (London: R. Tyas, 1841), 105. The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (London: R. Tyas, 1841), 105.
2 Matthew Galloway, “Constructions & Reconstructions: A conversation with Ayesha Green,” PAN 3, December 2021, https://pan-publication.org/3/constructions-reconstructions
3 Ayesha Green, Conversation with the author, 9 January 2023.
4 Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 4.
5 The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora, 31.
6 The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora, 31.
7 The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora, 75-76.
8 Alicia Frankovich, “After Blue Marble: Affirmation, rhythm and pathos,” PhD. thesis, (Monash University, Naarm Melbourne, 2022), 119.
9 The Sentiment of Flowers, 229.
10 From Emergence of After has previously been exhibited in two slightly different forms, first in July 2022 at Paludal, Ōtautahi Christchurch, and at Massey University, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, as part of Duffy’s MFA graduation exhibition, November 2022.
11 Laura Duffy, Phone conversation with the author, 10 January 2023.
12 Laura Duffy, Spawning Ecodeviance, MFA exegesis (Massey University, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, 2022), 40.
13 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 92.
14 Laura Duffy, Phone conversation with the author, 10 January 2023.
This essay response was commissioned by Gus Fisher Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition The sentiment of flowers, 2023.
Gus Fisher Gallery
74 Shortland Street
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Central 1010
Tuesday – Friday:
10am – 5pm
10am – 4pm