The Secret Life of Plants
Desire & Destruction; Shadow & Light; Living & Dying

Maya Kóvskaya, PhD

Essay by curator Maya Kovskaya for the comprehensive exhibition 'The Secret Life of Plants', Perspectives from India, China and Iran, at Exhibit 320, New Delhi

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

- Pablo Neruda, from Sonnet XVII

Green grass curls and twists into what appear to be letters of the English alphabet, but what it spells out one cannot quite discern. The box adorns the space in front of the Delhi-based gallery, Exhibit 320, where my exhibition of artists from India, China and Iran is being hosted. Inside the gallery, depicted on four postcard sized photographs printed on handmade paper, hangs the artist Hema Upadhyay’s original environmental intervention, The Space Between You and Me (2002), that was the basis for the planter box outside. In that piece, the artist poignantly examines how words can unify and connect people across disparate spaces and places. Here in the midst of Delhi monsoon season, Upadhyay’s latest letter home, written in grass, has already morphed into its next incarnation. It has gone from neat green letters into near illegibility, and yet this illegibility brilliantly illuminates the exhibition’s inquiry into “the secret life of plants.”

While the letters were carved into the soil with human hands intent on conveying meaning, and the seeds were sewn into the shapes meant to make nature conform to human desires, the unruly power of nature and its refusal to be so easily contained and constrained expresses itself profoundly here. Upadhyay’s intervention demonstrates how both the powerful possibilities, but also the emphemerality, contingency and fragility of communication. While the text started to grow with promising clarity, the life-cycle of the grass contains its own contingencies that first facilitate, then obfuscate the conveyance of meaning. Once the grass grows to a certain length, the words disappear into the riot of sprawling green blades splayed in all directions, transgressing the boundaries of letters and overwhelming meaning with a robust chaos of greenery. The repeated lashings and floodings of Delhi monsoon rains fed into this cycle of desire (to communicate) and destruction (of the words’ fleeting clarity) that swept the seeds from their intended locations into new places, as nature confounded our attempts to use it as a medium for our message.

In Upadhyay’s piece, the “secret life of plants” proves to be something beyond our ken; something that moves according to a will of its own, rather than bending to our bidding. The inevitable outcome in the lifecycle of this dynamic artwork, then, speaks about antimonies: sense and non-sense, location and dislocation, and the frailty of our attempts to inscribe our will upon the natural world. Muteness becomes a message in itself that perhaps tells us more about the true “secret life of plants” themselves than our more anthropocentric metaphorical sallies into imagining ourselves through plants can ever achieve.

The exhibition I curated around the theme of The Secret Life of Plants first drew its inspiration from a verse by Pablo Neruda in which plants are taken as metaphorical messengers carrying the "hidden flowers" of profound human emotions—intimate associations that "live darkly" in our bodies—and ways in which we make sense of our world and our lives. Through a dialogue among a diverse body of works that span the disciplines of painting, photography, performance art, sculpture, video installation and mixed media approaches, the show explores the way in which the natural world—exemplified metonymically through plants—comes to be invested with profound personal, social and cultural significance. In other words, the show is less about what art can say about plants themselves than it is about how the way we invoke plants in our ordinary discourse as metaphors for ourselves and our world.

In the works of artists Ravi Agarwal, Sonia Mehra Chawla, Neha Choksi, Anita Dube, Han Bing, GR Iranna, Sathyanand Mohan, Muktinath Mondal, Parvathi Nayar, Neda Razavipour, Shine Shivan, Sumakshi Singh, and Hema Upadhyay, plants speak a secret language that unfolds in a temporality different from our own, and tells us as much about ourselves in relation to our world, and the ways we make sense of our own lives and the human condition, as it does about the playful surface subject—plants.

The Secrets Plants Tell

After encountering Hema Upadhyay’s letter home written in grass outside the gallery, our first gaze inside the space reiterates the dominant subthemes of the show—“desire and destruction; shadow and light; living and dying”—in the work of GR Iranna. Throughout his practice, Iranna often explores heterotopic spaces between life and death. His work in this exhibition extends elements of this preoccupation along metaphorical lines that relate the way modern technological “progress” (often symbolized by the airplane), seems to take us forward by leaving ecological carnage in its wake. The blood red brittle branches protruding from a gray fighter jet embodies the message that technological development is a pyrrhic victory, if it is a victory at all. The red, dead tree branches that substitute for the plume of exhaust emitted from the plane, also iconically resemble arteries, as if to suggest that our lifeblood is nevertheless fully entangled with development, even if (even as) in many ways it is killing us. The tail plume tree casts eerie shadows on the wall, creating a trajectory of motion.

While Iranna’s work uses technological and biological imagery combined with light and shadow to hook into subthemes of desire and destruction in relation to the brutalities of living and dying of human societies and the ecosystem, Parvathi Nayar uses a distinctively delicate visual language and highly aestheticised mode of rendering her subjects to subtly explore the ultimate signifier of life force—sexuality.

In Sex, Cinema, and Pollen Grains (2012), Nayar’s dimensional box paintings are like multifaceted little jewels that refract light in different directions on the various interlocking issues. Nayar treats her artworks “as a site of dialogue where different elements—the scientific, the historical and the contemporary” intersect. Her exquisitely rendered grains of pollen appear as a quintessential symbol of sexual desire and attraction that Nayar explores through botanical and biological imagery. Nayar writes: “Pollen speaks of the latent sexuality of plants and the secret life of flowers. The purpose of pollen is procreation - it is the male sperm-carrying unit of a flowering plant - yet it is so miniscule it is practically hidden from sight, yet when viewed under a microscope it reveals strange structures and curious functions.”

To tie to gather the natural history of pollen, Nayar invokes Charles Darwin and the famous orchid that he noted greatly resembled female genitalia. These are paired with a Bollywood love scene, an abstracted close-up of the eye of a honey bee—our great pollinator—and scenes from the lifecycles of the bee, bringing these disparate images together to visually explore the relationship between sexual attraction and evolution through pollen. Nayar examines how flowers not only conventionally symbolize sex for this reason, but also iconically embody those relations with their phallic stamen and pollen (which is essentially plant sperm) injected into the “female parts” of flowers, and the symbiosis with pollinators, and ties these musings in with the popular culture of Bollywood imagery, in which flowers are often used to represent love, romance and sex as well.

In his striking painting Lakshman Rekha (2010), Muktinath Mondal’s use of the round frame to depict his home village makes the work iconically resemble a Petri dish growing a culture, even as he is exploring a culture that is dying. A typical rural West Bengali vegetable garden thorn fence is used to frame the circular canvas. The way of living of the village, with its traditional agriculture and systems of knowledge are being threatened by the violence of modernisation, urbanisation and the onslaught of desires for material things, commodities, consumer products and comforts that displace an old way of life with promises that may not deliver the unequivocal paradise of progress propagandised. The strength of this work lies in the way Mondal depicts rural culture undergoing change. Although such thorns protect the gardens humans rely on for food from pests, it cannot keep out the encroachment of “the road”—a classic indexical sign for development. The violence of the road is understated but undeniable as it bisects the piece, turning the image of a protective fence into a crown of thorns.

Han Bing, like Mondal, hails from a village (this time in Jiangsu, China, rather than West Bengal, India). He too has personally witnessed the vicissitudes of urbanisation and its impact on the environment, as well as the differences in the way rural and city people relate to nature, and the changes in his native Chinese culture of food, and consumer practices attendant to State-driven “modernisation.” His decade-plus long Walking the Cabbage Project (2000-present) is a series of social intervention performance, video and photography works. In his Diary of Chinese Cabbage Walker (2000-2008) performance documentary video, the “secret life of plants” is refracted through the changing culture of the cabbage in China.

Throughout the project, Han Bing walks a Chinese cabbage on a leash in public places, inverting an ordinary practice to provoke debate and critical thinking about food culture and contemporary value structures. Walking the Cabbage is a playful twist on a serious subject—the way our everyday practices serve to constitute "normalcy" and our identities are often constituted by the act of claiming objects as our possessions. A quintessentially Chinese symbol of sustenance and comfort for poor Chinese, turned upside down, Han Bing's cabbage on a leash offers a visual interrogation of contemporary social values. If a full stock of cabbage for the winter was once a symbol of material well-being in China, nowadays the nouveau riche have cast aside modest (monotonous) winters of cabbage in favour of ostentatious gluttony in fancy restaurants where waste signifies status. They flaunt "name brand" pooches, demonstrating how they no longer rely on the lowly cabbage, and can not only fatten themselves to obesity, but also pamper a pedigreed pet. Yet, for the poor and struggling, the realities of cabbage as a subsistence bottom line have not changed—what's changed is the value structure that dictates what—and who—is valuable or worthless in Chinese society. This social intervention performance art practice has been conducted in a vast array in public spaces and quotidian social settings ranging from tiny rural villages to cosmopolitan metropolises across the globe; from flourishing downtown bastions of the white-collar consumer elite to the agricultural fields of the salt-of-the-earth rural labourers; from the Great Wall to the Mississippi River; from Miami Beach to the Champs Elysees; from Harajuku to Haight-Ashbury; from Tiananmen to Times Square. While the context of this video is specific and local, the larger message about changing values and possessive individualism is global.

Ravi Agarwal is known for his environmentally sensitive art and activist interventions. His practice is permeated by concerns about how “ecology has become an ornament,” and nature “is shaped by contemporary relationships of capital and power.” Moreover, he reflects, “Nature,” once seen as a site of “solace,’ is now implicated in the violence…[and] Capital, ambition, power, inhabit all moments and spaces around. There is no utopia left and escape is no longer possible.”

In his photography work, Forest Morning (2010), we see a “secret life of plants” in which the subtle violence seen in Iranna, Mondal, and Han Bing’s works is visibly “echoed” by the stiff legs of a white mannequin sticking out from under a cloth draped over what resembles the body of a rape and murder victim that has been amputated from the waist down.

If Nayar looks at the soft sensuality of bees and pollen, and the erotic power of the sexual organs of flowers, the mannequin in Agarwal’s work reminds us of the sexualised body’s vulnerability and the rape of nature, often personified as feminine.

The “body” dumped in a meadow hints at the sexually dominating quality of the violence we humans commit against Nature, but by presenting us with the sign of a symbolically human “victim” abandoned to Nature, we are also forced to confront the logic of the victimisation proposition. In this otherwise peaceful meadow scene, there is no sign of a protagonist here, which begs us to question who is the protagonist of the violence and who or what is the actual victim. Is Nature a passive witness to the violence humans commit against one another? Is the murdered mannequin Nature’s fantasy of retribution against the human species, or is the mannequin simply yet another piece of non-biodegradable trash; a symbol of just how incompatible the human animal has become with its natural environment? Has Nature become a site of violence and violation so immense that we must acknowledge that to violate Nature is to violate ourselves?

The covered, stiff mannequin legs don’t offer an answer, but they leave us thinking about the complicated relationship between the fundamentally violent human desire for “dominion” of the land, our ruthless, ongoing rape of Nature, and the destruction we wreak on the plant world we rely on to live and breathe.

While Agarwal’s work features an absent protagonist, Neha Choksi’s work takes relations of absence and presence to the level of theatre of light and shadow, and where antinomies of desire and destruction are played out in her own striking visual language. In a stark black and white room that has been annotated with her poetic scrawl, two sets of images mirror each other. In these palladium prints, Choksi has used the sun to create images of shadow, which she “describes as an exercise in diminished returns,” because she is photographing almost completely denuded, leafless plants (which have been made the object of violence as their leaves are stripped for our visual pleasure and conceptual titillation) with little in the way of “positive body” left to photograph. In this series of works, Choksi creates what she describes as a “visual grammar, a syntax if you will, relating a plant's shadow to the photographic process. A plant is a light seeker. A photo is a light holder.” Grammar is necessarily relational and syntax is itself structural. The politics of desire are destructive and the ability to be seen (and hence loved) is filtered through loss. Relations of constraint and impairment are the conditions under which the object emerges as a recognizable quantity, at once stripped of its being by the very process through which its being is rendered visible. The work begs the question: Does the gaze necessarily involve violence? Is being seen, always a measure of violation and loss, even as it is the precondition of being loved?

Its conceptual power lies, in part, in the paradox and irony that runs throughout the work from its conceptual underpinnings to practice of production. The very method that allows a content to emerge itself constructs and shapes that content; the very process of photosynthesis that requires the presence of leaves to function and give life not only to the plant but to us (by way of the oxygen it produces) is appropriated (perhaps expropriated), as photosynthesis is “converted into a play of dark and light on paper,” using palladium salts and direct sunlight to make the prints from contact negatives. In doing so, Choksi creates a kind of “photosyntax;” a process that creates the visual preconditions of legibility “under erasure,” to paraphrase Derrida. It is telling that “photosyntax” was the alternate term used by Charles Barnes, who also proposed in 1893…to describe the primary energy conversion processes of living plants” that we now know as “photosynthesis.”

In her spare, theatre-like space where positive and negative, light and shadow interplay, Choksi displays an infinitely repeating video loop that has no end and no beginning. We simply see a painted plant in the cyclical throes of living and dying – a thematic that permeates many of the works in the show. Choksi’s works often raising ontological questions about what is real and what is not, what is present and what is absent, and epistemological questions about how we are to know the being of another and how our ways of knowing also constitute that Other in ways the may smother, as the paint that appears to be the surface of the plant becomes the fatal barrier between leaf and light; a denial of photosynthesis, so to speak.

Of the video work, Choksi poetically writes: “Is the plant blushing? Blanching? What is the skin, what are the bones? Where is the boundary, where is the ingested?...Blindfolding a plant / blinded to the sun, blinded like death; murder as creative effort versus martyr. Projection of the death-wish and the seer-like truth seeking impulse…Landscape as the ultimate 'treachery of the image'. (An idea of Thomas Demand.) Leans towards the body, not merely optical, the plant functions as the material support sustaining a precise sensation. Record the sensation.” Choksi characterises the work as a “refusal to concede a distance between what is real and what is ideal.”

Neda Razavipour’s site specific incarnation of her video installation, The Willow Tree (2001/2012) also uses the interplay of light and shadow, cast by plants and people, to create a spatiotemporal site where past and present intersect. The work uses panels of glass that reflect the video projection of an old willow tree that carries associations of the artist’s childhood and family, and old “Super8” family movie footage onto each other. The tree spins and spirals, dizzying us as it takes us back into a past that could be anyone’s; a past onto which we are asked to project our own meanings. This is literally embodied in the way the installation becomes interactive as it incorporates the viewer’s moving shadow into the moving picture, just as the viewer layers associations of individual memory onto a site that is as commonly shared as it is intimately personal. From behind the other panel of glass, a small TV sitting atop an aged suitcase, reflects the imagery of childhood. Here, as in Choksi’s piece, and many others, the artist uses the interplay of light and shadow to meditates on the relationship between absence and presence. It is embodied in past and present, as well as the subject’s current and former selves, in relation to various meaningful others, such as family, and to places of shared significance and memories.

In her characteristic oeuvre, Anita Dube’s new commission, Way to Blue (2012) brings to life an ethereal form that evokes a plethora of visual references. The object embodies metaphor through iconic resemblance, as well as conventional associations. The found Sheesham branch that Dube has covered in a lush, vivid shade of blue velvet, floats in space. Bathed in light, it casts eerie and erotic shadows. The lines from the Neruda poem that inspired this exhibition, come crawling up the branches, interweaving and offering a structural, perspectival polyvalence of possible readings; depending on the angle of the viewer’s engaged eye, the words can combine in a variety of ways. The branches seem to reach out into space, as if seeking to grasp something, and yet are delicately constrained in a blue net cloth that evokes a spider web, a membrane, an amniotic sac. The work meditates on how we invest the world with meaning and affect; it plays language games, and it breaches the boundaries between plant, animal, artefact and organ. It could be a womb of language ripe with multiple meanings, or a primordial ancestor evolving from the sea, pregnant with the possibilities of multiple life forms into which its growth and development could branch.

Sathyanand Mohan is a conceptual artist using aesthetic allegories to connect strands of post-modern and critical theory, literature and philosophy. In his duo of still life of jewel-toned photographs, each element is an intentionally symbolic or metaphorical reference. Both plant and animal life break the “still,” and add a non-static dimension to the work. Shards references Agamben’s notion of “messianic time, - i.e., a moment that is pregnant with (revolutionary) potential.” The tableau shows a figurine of Ambedkar (who Mohan describes as the Indian “equivalent of Malcolm X, or perhaps a combination of him and Martin Luther King”). Glass shards visually replicate the sundering of intent and outcome and “destruction that is inevitably part of any revolutionary moment, and which is a prerequisite for the calling forth of the New. Unlike the TV in Razavipour’s work, here the screen is blank, as if “waiting for the signal.” If signifies the “potentiality” (another present absence) implied in the concept of messianic time, but also concedes that “any revolutionary rupture is a wager on the future.” In these works plants are decorative like funeral wreathes or the props of courtship. While flowers symbolised sex in Nayar’s references to Bollywood, here they seem to stand for death and decorum. They bear silent witness human folly, desire for power and the failures of the flesh to make ideal into real.

Mohan’s Delta of Venus is of course a reference to the book of erotica by feminist writer Anaïs Nin, and pairs the destruction and desire of political revolution with “that of the sexual revolution in the first half of the 20th century,” when the book was written. Desire is expressed in the pursuit of “carnal pleasure,” and Mohan hints at the revolutionary potential inherent in that, especially for women, whose desire and carnality has been stigmatized historically all the way back to the Myth of Eden and beyond.

In her mixed media work, Exiting Eden (2012), Sumakshi Singh uses multiple micro-interventions on paper to create the appearance of a peeling wall, or “deteriorating fresco,” out of which tiny tendrils of curious, mutant plant-life are growing. Referencing what she describes as a “3D Morris Lewis” look, she treats her canvas an “object” of intervention rather than a surface of representation. Very little of the imagery in the work is figurative. Instead, she uses scraps of paper, splashes of colour and bit of polymer clay to make shapes resembling “an organic, parasitic growth emerging from the frontal part of the canvas.” The few figurative elements of the work are collage-like additions, and a short animation playing from a tiny flat screen embedded in a shredded hole in the canvas, where “famous characters from Fra-Angelico, Giotto and Botticelli paintings” engage with built and natural environments.

In this work, Singh references the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, and the said power of a forbidden fruit to invest its consumers with the awesome Knowledge of Good and Evil. Is it a “secret life” that plants have in a post-lapsarian Eden, where humans are no longer admitted after their subsequent exodus from the mythical Garden, where human beings had a purportedly innocent relationship with nature. In the traditional Myth of Eden, it is “Nature” (in the form of an apple, a serpent and a woman, whose gender is also often traditionally depicted with an animal corporeality and seductive sensuality) that gets both blamed for corrupting “man” and also destroying “Nature,” which becomes “Paradise Lost” once human beings are expelled from its cradle of idyllic unknowing.

The stunning sculptural installation Empty Spaces Between Desire and Fantasy (2009) is made in Shine Shivan’s characteristically sensuous visual language. The use of natural objects sedulously gathered by the artist – palm thorns, dried bottle gourd, dried pumpkin – create ambiguous forms that are simultaneously erotic and charged with hints of danger; organic but also suggest the traces of human intervention. Shivan combines these with organismic-looking objects sewn together with cotton and thread to resemble a seed pod, or the membranous sac of an ovary or softly exposed testicle. Tenticular probing tendrils gracefully probe the spaces in between the plant and the animal, the passive and aggressive, the submissive and the dominating. The dried bottle gourd and pumpkin have a distinctively phallic quality, while the palm thorns evoke the erotic aura of BDSM tools of boundary-transgressing pleasure. The work offers an intricate interplay of light and dark, desire and discipline that plays along the knife’s edge of violence. Shivan’s deft use shadow and light gives the work a bristling, tremulous feeling of intense anticipation, like a plant on the verge of a sneeze, on the very of orgasm, a latent power that is being anxiously restrained but impossible to indefinitely contain.

Sonia Mehra Chawla’s contribution to the show is a mixed media painted triptych, The Core – Bifurcation, Proliferation, Assimilation (2012), that draws inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, The Sensitive Plant. The poem, which ends on the suggestive stanza – “for love, beauty and delight, there is no death or change: their might exceeds our organs which endure/ no light, being themselves obscure” – engages the possibility of redemption in a godless world of violence, chaos, and entropy. The artist uses hybrid forms taken from 17th an 18th century botanical and scientific drawings of “plant, flower, fruit, animal, and polyp that populate the surface and infuse a living vitalism, with the visual recitation of images that allude to plankton, algae, jellyfish, spirillae, protozoa,” as well as contemporary images, textures, photographic details, macros, cellular depictions, and other representations of natural life forms, to express the paradoxical relationship between “desire and decay, layers within the cyclical layers of life, forms within forms, worlds within worlds.”

Metaphors from the world of plants fill our everyday discourse. We speak of ‘life cycles’ and growth, seeds that contain their own latent telos (like the acorn and the oak), cultivating, and harvesting, blossoming and withering, pollination and fertilization. We speak of radical change in metaphors of root and branch, and problems as ‘thorny.’ We speak of consequences as ‘reaping what we sew.’ We talk about germinating ideas, and plans that may come to fruition, or ‘planting the seeds’ of doubt, destruction or new beginnings, and ‘kernels of wisdom.’ We rationalize the idea of dominion over nature as domesticating unruly wilderness and reclaiming fallow spaces though agriculture and landscaping, and depict laying waste as ‘slash and burn.’ We use metaphors of fecundity and fertility to describe possibilities; we talk of ‘putting down (or pulling up) roots’ to describe making a home. We describe cities as concrete jungles, and people as solid oaks, hothouse flowers, prickly cacti, bromeliads, and late-bloomers. Even our lexicon of love and romance is filled with floral metaphors.

Occupying the liminal space between seemingly inanimate object and possibly sentient life form, that both feeds human life and provides the air we breathe, plants offer a powerful, affective site in which the imagination can take root and blossom. The body of works in the exhibition explore The Secret Life of Plants for what these metaphors can tell us about ourselves from a variety of perspectives: from gendered signifiers of Eros, desire, and sexuality, to sources of life nurturing sustenance such as food and oxygen; from objects of labour and cultivation to mimetic vectors of biological and reproductive life systems more generally; from repositories of memory, affect and meaning, to symbols of the knowledge of good and evil; from reflections of socially constructed notions of urbanized order to inexorable, uncontrollable chaos, and spaces of silence and solitude. Most of all, they tell us how we imagine ourselves in relation to Nature, and how our imaginings of Nature are often allegories about ourselves and our world, as much as about Nature itself. Nature is always something far more vast and complex than our perceptive abilities and conceptual capacities can ever grasp. Perhaps with an attitude of humility before Nature’s unfathomable greatness, and a realisation that we are not separate from Nature, that dominion of Nature is a fantasy and its destruction is a species of self-mutilation, we may learn the secrets kept by plants and in doing so find ways to better live our own world as a part of it, rather than holding ourselves apart from it.

© sonia mehra chawla