The Subjective Herbarium

The event of flowering is a point in time when great potential exists. It is the culmination of past conditions manifesting as a procreative moment for future generations. As the crowning expression of genetic and circumstantial influences, the flower is also a revelation of the unique identity of a plant.

By pressing flowers, scientists can preserve this unique aspect as part of the documentation of plant species in herbaria. The body of the flower is dried by placing it between two sheets of absorbent paper and applying pressure to squeeze out the plant sap. The sample is then filed in a herbarium; the blemished paper is a by-product of the process.

The South African artist Lien Botha photographs the remains of what was once a flower in Moonflower stain from plant-press book, Betty’s Bay (Botha, 2009). The image is of a monochromatic mark on paper, the only remaining evidence of the flower’s existence. It is impossible to tell from this ghosted form what the physical flower used to look like. The stain is an abstracted flower that evokes subjective responses such as loss and nostalgia.

My series titled Subjektiewe Herbarium is a collection of ink paintings and stains reminiscent of a plant-press book. Instead of documenting the physical properties of the flowers, the books preserve subjective responses triggered by my journey with threatened indigenous plants. Each work consists of several pages making up a circular book without a starting or ending point. The paintings challenge the idea of linearity by bleeding through the pages to other moments in the book. This signals an in-between place where past remnants and future potential are simultaneously present.

It is unexpected to encounter so much pain on an expedition guided by flowers. One would think that a project in which one sets out to spend time with indigenous flowers in their natural habitat would be an experience of pure joy; instead it has been a pilgrimage through loss, albeit with some celebration.
The true value of my time with indigenous flowers lies in the relationships I formed through them: through this single connection so many others were made. These rare flowers seeded in an inner landscape and have become part of an understanding of my position in relation to other organisms and our shared environment.

Ecological writers such as Joanna Macy, Gregory Bateson and Arne Naess all advocate a new awareness of self which is situated in relation to a larger system. Macy claims that it is our ‘dysfunctional and pathological notion of a [separate] self’ that underpins the crisis threatening our planet (Vaughan-Lee, 2013: 149). Systems science offers a challenging perspective of self as an open, flow-through system, where ‘our very breathing, acting, and thinking arise in interaction with our shared world through the currents of matter, energy and information that move through us and sustain us’ (ibid.: 150).   

Naess describes this expanded perception of self as the ecological self. He explains that in traditional psychology the self is considered to develop from the ego self to the social self and finally the metaphysical self (which is considered to be the most mature form).  In this conception of self, nature is largely left out. The ecological self embraces the idea that from our beginning we are in and of nature (Drengson, 2008: 82).

The idea of relationship, this state of being connected, is further explored in Spore. This work is made up of two separate canvasses exhibited opposite each other. In seed plants spores develop internally into reproductive organs: female megaspores and male microspores. One canvass, titled Megaspore, is light in colour whereas the other, Microspore, is dark. Both paintings are based on a circle within a square. In Hindu and Buddhist belief the mandala is comprised of a circle within a square and is used to create a sacred space and aid meditation. In Jungian psychology a circle with a dot in the centre refers to the self; the unconscious and conscious parts of the self. The difference in this case is that the work concerns the space between two opposing circles. In other words, the space facilitates the experience of relationship. The experience is not static but one in process as both paintings continually shed burnt plant material, resulting in subtly transforming images.

I see this idea of the viewer standing between the transmuting canvasses as part of the underlying outcome of my theorising. In The Three Ecologies Felix Guattari suggests that we ‘escape the major crisis of our era’ by finding ‘new aesthetic and social practices, new practices of the self in relation to the other’ (Guattari, 2000: 45). This mandate prevailed as I used painting to move through various streams of research.  The outcome is a diverse series of paintings that are not necessarily flower portraits but that have threatened indigenous flowers as their subject matter.

Spore is an exhibition made up of individual pieces that stand in relation to one another and speak about a place. The place is a physical landscape, which also holds non-physical qualities such as socio-political systems, collective histories, individual memories, death and the potential for new life. These interwoven ‘ecologies’ are constantly mutating. Many of the works in Spore are created through shedding or subtraction to reveal form or colour. Reflective light as a symbol of hope shifts as the position of the viewer changes. Ultimately one could say that the viewer is standing in the spaces which connect things: the position of relationship.

By forming a deep relationship with the endemic plants of the Breede River Valley, I started to feel an intense sense of belonging in the world. I understood more about where I come from, and how and why the landscape came to look as it does today.  I listened, asked questions and found my place – not really a physical one but a non-physical place of relationship,[1] which somehow anchors me.

[1] On 1 November 2014, I was invited to give a talk and have a small exhibition of my paintings in a wine cellar, as part of an arts and culture route in the Breede River Valley. This event also sparked future possibilities to work with farmers who have joined the Biodiversity Wine Initiative in the valley.