Image: Lauren Bon, "Bldg 209: Garden Folly." Courtesy of the artist and Metabolic Studio.
HOW DO WE EXPERIENCE THE TIES, visible and invisible, that bind us to other creatures, to other beings, to other things? One late morning in Park La Brea, workers uprooted the peonies that adorned the flowerbed by an entrance to the Los Angeles housing complex and replaced them with fresh but otherwise identical-looking plants. The discarded peonies, some still in bloom, lay on the sidewalk, waiting to be gathered into large plastic tarps and, presumably, recycled: they had become industrial waste. The association of "flowers" with "waste" is an uneasy one; it does not come naturally. Imagining the plants in bloom as garbage might even seem profoundly unnatural, and perhaps make us feel a little sad for the peonies.
A short walk away, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the "Bldg 209: Garden Folly" project, staged in 2010 by L.A. artist Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, forced spectators to confront directly the question of their responsibilities, natural and otherwise, to other life forms, particularly those used up and thrown away in the course of their encounters with humans. This exhibit featured an intensive care unit for strawberry plants rescued and reclaimed from industrial farms that had no further use for them after they bore fruit. The discarded plants were hooked up to intravenous lines in order to restore their vitality. The display of the small yet fruitful strawberry plants, nestled amid the plastic tubing and bags of IV solution, brought together "beautiful" nature and "ugly" medical technology in a coupling that might seem counterintuitive. Ultimately, though, the exhibition's power derived not so much from the juxtaposition of natural and artificial objects as from the creation of an emotional bond between the museum's visitors and the plants themselves. As if in response to the scene of plants-as-garbage a few blocks away, "Bldg 209" took spectators into the world of plants-as-patients: subject to care as well as cultivation, the products of (medical) nurture as much as nature.
There is something uncannily anthropomorphic about an unwanted, damaged strawberry plant on life support; so much so that the spectacle evokes simultaneously the consumption of fruit by humans, our own implication in various modes of agricultural production (industrial or sustainable), and, most powerfully, our vulnerability as bodies to the technologies that both sustain us and use us up. Indeed, the "Garden Folly" installation grew out of a much larger experiential work titled "Strawberry Flag," an aquaponic farm where artists and war veterans cared for discarded strawberry plants. (The field, laid out like an American flag, also made use of salvaged water and fish.) Here our responsibility to depleted bodies, both human and vegetal, was underlined all the more forcefully. We are not just like the strawberry plants; they are part of us. Our vulnerabilities are theirs, in many senses.
But where might this compassion for flowers and fruit take us exactly, if not into a sentimental nostalgia for a natural past, more pristinely triumphant, less vulnerable to human manipulation — a nature that may in fact have ...read more