other artist who share a weedy or plant interest:
Starting first with some contemporary artist, before I move down the ‘my artist whakapapa’ to some earlier artist.
The first artist is Michael Landy and in particular his portfolio Nourishment , made in 2002. This portfolio contains etchings of “life-sized studies of individual weeds the artist found growing in the streets of London” (Stallabrass).
The etchings are delicate detailed life size studies of each weed and each weed has been given presented as one single image on paper.
These images show the great amount of time and energy Landy has spend studying each plant. The way the leaf attaches to the stem and how stems attach to the main stem, they are very reminiscent of a botanical artist ensuring all detail is botanically correct.
Landy sees these weeds as ‘street flowers’, he described them as ‘marvelous, optimistic things that you find in inner London... They occupy an urban landscape which is very hostile and they have to be adaptable and find little bits of soil to prosper” (Stallabrass)
The ability of a weed to grow and prosper in inhospitable spaces is the strength and tenacity of these plants. Weed seeds can lie dormant for many seasons, before sprouting when the right amount of rain has fallen or the temperature is right.
This same strength comes across in these etchings - time spent watching, observing and recording this in the most honest way. Through this process Landy has allowed each plant to prosper and flourish on the pages.
Landy created this work after his most famous Break Down work 2001. (For this Landy recorded, numbered and classified his 7,227 possession at the time and had these disassembled, cut up and then ground into powder. Nourishment was his first series after he was left with nothing). The start of these etchings was like going back to the start for him.
These etchings are described as finely rendered prints, recording every twist of a root, every bristle on a stem or capillary hair on a leaf (Tate). Viewing the work from a distance gives you the overall shape & structure of the plant, while close up these works show each weed’s defences, grubbiness and even decay, as the detail Landy has added into the works is extraordinary. As each weed started to die and decay much of this Landy added to the etchings
The detail within these works are similar to Botanical illustrations and nature prints (Tate), but they lack the extra details of flowers, seeds etc, that often accompanies botanical illustrations.
What interests me from this work is that weeds rarely grow on their own as single specimens. Unlike chosen garden plants, which can be selected for certain characteristics and through that are elevated into prominent positions.
Weeds are rarely treated this way, they mostly grow in bunches, always with many ‘friends’ around them. As not one single seed will fall into a space, but many, it is survival of the fittest.
This work singles out each weeds, giving each preferential treatment, making special something we rarely elevate to this level from such a group.
By doing this Landy, for me, has removed the barrier of undesirable plants and allowed us to focus on the uniqueness of each plant. How it grows and spreads. The gentle & delicate beauty that even these plant have.
Stallabras describes the different views, from which you can observe this work, as “the view from a distance suggests Ruskin’s (an art critic of the 19th century) moral and ordered view of nature, while up close one’s nose is in uncomfortable proximity to a pavement or backlot in Bethnal Green”.
This comment that a collection of weeds is ordered and moral is interesting. As weeds can only be ordered, as this group of etchings, when they have been removed from their context. Neatly lined up along a wall, where thought has been given to how to arrange them so there is an aesthetically pleasing end result for the viewer to enjoy. An ordered line up, which is in total contrast to how these plants grow.
Ruskin’s view on what art should do is well reflected in this portfolio by Landy. According to Ruskin ‘art should communicate truth above all things. He believed that all great art should communicate an understanding and appreciation of nature....Only by means of direct observation can an artist, through form and colour, represent nature in art” (Wikipedia. John Ruskin). Landy has faithfully observed and then represented nature as he saw it, the truth only.
Weeds are not just weeds for Landy, they maybe common but are certainly overlooked objects. For Landy they have interest; their names, neglected histories, supposed medicinal qualities and the meaning that people attach to them are all aspects that fascinate him.
Stallabras goes on to say that even though these etchings are close to what you can see, in reality the depicted weed act metaphorically, standing in for the urban underclass, similarly mobile, mongrel and diasporic and also the subject of prolonged neglect and spasmodic measures of control or weeding. Or they can be seen in a positive light as survivors, Immigrants who put their roots down and thrive (this is tomorrow contemporary art magazine).
Weeds are seen as the underclass of the plant world, but they really are a construct of our human world. Weeds follow in our footsteps, where ever we disturb the ground, they will flourish. They are mobile and yes they spread (diaspora), but through our help. Human’s have always been mobile, spreading their wings when ever they could, this is not a trait of the underclass. As it was the rich and well to do who had the boats to explore the world, it was through them, and these explorative actions, that most of the plants (now considered weeds) spread. Would this group be also seen as mongrel’s? (A question not be answered here in this space)
The more positive light is one that speaks to me more, as they are survivors and can thrive with little attention. The fact that Landy gave the plants he selected much of attention (replanted them in pots & watered them) was to ensure their survival while he could observe them closely.
It is interesting to think that attention was lavished on these plants so they would last until they were documented. Then what happened to them? Dumped in the rubbish or on the compost? Treated again like they did not matter. While the resulting etchings are admired and elevated to something unique.
These etchings also have a double character, they are conventional, decorative and salable, but they are also a conceptual piece, as the prints depicts a private performance, a romantic homage to that which is trodden underfoot (Stallabrass).
A perfect balance for any artist to achieve, I believe. Salability means food and a roof over your head as an artist, combining this with the wider concept of the private performance and a romantic homage means you have also tapped into the fine arts world.
If a work can straddle both parts then the work has many strengths. Landy has very cleverly combined a skills set and a deeper understanding of where the work can sit, even by removing the content form its context.
The title of this series also has several layers, as the plants themselves can provide nourishment, so does the sale of each etch, as this helps Landy recover some of the cost for his Break Down project and each plants needs little nourishment to survive. (Stallabrass)
These works have a ghostly, even spiritual air about them and in the act of representation, of creating beautiful prints, the eternal price was paid by the plant itself in death. You could argue that this is inevitable for plants such as these. (Stallabrass)
Through the treatment these plants received, they became important. A single plant on a single sheet, means as a single artefact they demand attention. The detail with which they have been represented speaks of time and close attention paid to them. Through this they were elevated from underclass to upperclass.
They could also be seen as spiritual, because when Landy singled each plant out he set each one apart from the other. Maybe Landy himself needed time and space within his art practice to find what set him apart, after destroying all his worldly goods. This was his spiritual search.
I believe as plants they could be seen as ghosts, because more often than not we do not notice them as we go about our daily lives. They are not interesting enough in their right context for us to take notice. Removing them from their context and elevating each plant to their own space they are ghosts of who they really are.
The discovery of this portfolio of weeds has provided me with a lot of valuable insights, such as;
- How the treatment/representation method used influences the reading of the work.
- How this reading can be in total contrast to the content of the work.
- The many layers of meaning a work can have that can be contradicting.
- The use of simple content within a work can create a wide conversation, beyond the simple boundaries from which the content was removed.
Julian Stallabras - Michael Landy, Nourishment
this is tomorrow contemporary art magazine;
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street Cambridge, CB2 1RB, 17 Jul 2012
Edgelands: Prints by George Shaw and Michael Landy review by Phoebe Dickerson
accessed on 23rd April