In the last post, I wrote about a conversation between Randy Malamud (2021) author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers and Giovanni Aloi as part of Aloi’s Botanical Speculations series, which began in 2017 as a symposium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where Aloi teaches courses in art history and visual culture. A collection of essays resulted (Aloi, 2018), presentations continued, and with covid they became virtual. Aloi is involved in a number of other projects in what is called critical plant studies (CPS), that is looking at plant-human interactions from the viewpoints of literature, art, and philosophy.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have not delved deeply into this area in part because I don’t have a grounding in these fields, particularly literature and philosophy. My one serious foray into literature occurred 25 years ago when I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at Vassar College on “The Environmental Imagination: Issues and Problems in American Nature Writing.” There I learned to read in an entirely new way (Flannery, 1997). Before that, I read like a scientist: absorbing content, not paying much attention to word choice as long as it was understandable. I knew something about mitochondria, so that word conjured up a particular image and set of attributes. To me, this was not a nuanced word with metaphorical meanings, the thing literary scholars look for. Many of the words in the essays, stories, and poems we were asked to read had such nuances. It took a while for me to catch on and appreciate that such reading is slow and ruminative, with a lot of moving back and forth, revisiting earlier passages in the light of later ones.
Doing this for six weeks was a wonderful experience, and I have never read anything—literature or science—in quite the same way since. Words and their layers of meaning have become more important to me. But I never came close to appreciating more theoretical discussions of post-structuralism, which questions many cultural structures and assumptions, including the idea of plants being less alive, complex, and responsive than animals. The philosopher Michael Marder have contributed much to this conversation on critical plant studies, as has Aloi from the art history perspective and many from the literary side, including two colleagues of mine Tina Gianquitto and Lauren La Fauci, who recently published an article (2022) on the Herbarium 3.0 project we worked on several years ago with support from Linköping University in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines.
Critical plant studies deserves attention from those in the life sciences. It is quite a large field in part because it involves researchers from several disciplines. Essentially it looks at plants through different lenses that illuminate them in ways that scientists should not ignore. A favorite quote of mine from Richard Mabey (2015) is relevant here: “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27). This field plumbs depths of the plant world where botanists seldom venture: into the many relationships with humans as well as among plants and animals, investigating cultural meanings and the consequences of long-entrenched practices. Those in plant studies get to know plants in many different ways, and these often border on the scientific in approaches that might be a surprise to those in botany and ecology. Some examples will be the topic of my next post.
Right now I want to spend a little more time on Aloi’s work in art criticism. I first encountered his writing several years ago when I read an article about Greg Pryor, an Australian artist who had done a body of work related to herbaria (Aloi, 2011). In one project, Flora Nullius (2005), he spent months at the Vienna Natural History Museum studying specimens that had been collected in Australia and given scientific names, while the original indigenous names were not recorded. He then took old herbarium papers, discarded when the specimens were remounted, to create an artwork that presented them as blank remnants of what they had held. In Iron Ball Taxonomy (2007), he displayed a row of specimens in a glass case, with an iron ball-and-chain running across the top to signify the indigenous labor that had been used to clear the land where these native plants were collected. My favorite work of Pryor’s is Black Solander (2005), referencing Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist who collected in Australia with Joseph Banks on Captain James Cook’s first voyage there. Pryor made drawings of specimens with black ink on black sugar paper. They represent of the 10,500 plant species known in Western Australia, suggesting the hidden toll of colonization on plants and indigenous people.
Finally, I want to mention one of Aloi’s books that I’ve written about before (see earlier post). Lucian Freud Herbarium (2019) is an example of where the word herbarium is used metaphorically. To my knowledge the painter, who is noted for his portraits of often less-than-beautiful people, never had a collection of pressed plants. However, he painted plants throughout his career, sometimes including them in portraits, and in other cases focusing on them alone. As Aloi writes: “The book’s title comes from Renaissance dried plant collections as well as illustrated herbals. It ultimately summons a desire to see more deeply into the essence of plants. In contrast to the classical tradition, Freud painted not precious cultivars, but weeds, undervalued survivors of the botanical world. Like his human sitters, his plants are never perfected, or idealized; they are what they are” (p. 14).
Aloi, G. (2011). Gregory Pryor: Postcolonial botany. Antennae, 18, 24–36.
Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.
Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich: Prestel.
Flannery, M. C. (1997). Learning to read in Poughkeepsie. The American Biology Teacher, 59(8), 528–532. https://doi.org/10.2307/4450371
Gianquitto, T., & Lafauci, L. (2022). A case study in citizen environmental humanities: Creating a participatory plant story website. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-021-00744-8
Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York: Norton.
Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.
Marder, M. (2013). Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.