FLOWERS OF OUR LAND
Human contemplation of flora has always been twofold. On the one hand, there is the sense of wonder when faced with the natural world, and on the other – the innate drive to utilize nature, to consume and market it, to transfer its products from place to place and control its growth. This instrumental attitude towards nature is interwoven into the fabric of relations between humans and is also tied to various forms of community settlement.
The exhibition Flowers of Our Land offers a renewed look at flora generally, and at certain plants specifically (olive tree, spiderwort, cyclamen, willow, tumble thistle, and others). It examines the use of plants as a form of communication between groups, as well as a conduit to mediate and separate between groups and the individuals that comprise them – and finally, between these individuals and themselves.
In a much broader context, the exhibition examines the gaping differences between "plants" (meaning the actual organic plant substance) and the "botanical" (meaning the human view of plants, research on their uses, and use of related socio-political imagery). These differences encapsulate the inherent tension between the human attempt to dominate nature and the threat posed by nature's wild and ungovernable elements.
Throughout human history, the natural world and the plants within it have always been associated to issues of community and nationality. Plants appear in mythologies and folklore, frequently conscripted to serve as national and community symbols. For example, in the Jewish culture, plants appear in Bible stories about the nation's founding. Some are depicted as wonderous (the divine manifestation in the form of a burning bush appearing to Moses, the olive branch in the story of Noah's Ark), while others are natural indicators of ancestral lands (the return of the twelve spies: "And they told him, and said, We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it" - Numbers 13:27). Later, in the Zionist ethos, nature in its entirety was regarded as something to be conquered and controlled by settling the land and building the nation (such as by drying the swamps using eucalyptus trees during the early days of the Zionist movement). This process led to the emergence of the Tzabar (prickly pear) – the new Jew symbolized by a natural tool used by the Palestinian natives to demarcate and protect plots of land (today such cacti hedges function as markers only).
The link between plants and politics can be divided into three general categories: symbolic – whereby a certain plant is associated with a particular community/nationality or defines a characteristic of that group; mediatory – when plants establish a tangible tie to a land or place (such as providing a food source); and economic – as when plants serve as produce by which a community manages itself and its relations with other communities.
There is an overlap between these categories, at times partial and at times complete. Spiderwort, for instance, colloquially called the "Wandering Jew", was thus named because of its ability to easily adapt to new habitats and its connection to a Christian legend that tells of the Jew Ahasuerus, doomed to wander until Judgement Day after refusing Jesus, burdened with the cross he carried, as he sought a place to rest on the way to his crucifixion. In this story, the plant is symbolically related to the Jewish nationality, but the symbolic link stems from a mediatory logic and economic attitude.
This categorization allows us to ascertain the ways in which plants are interlaced into the community story; it helps in the understanding of how communities define themselves and set their affairs in order and – alternatively – how factors external to the community talk about it through the plant's mediation.
This use of plants often becomes a bone of contention between communities, even providing a direct or indirect screening method that distinguishes between community members and outsiders – such as who can identify certain plants, who's allergic, who may use plants and in what manner.
The works in this exhibition deal primarily in Israeli culture but also in many others. All depict plants as part of their community story, central elements in that group's self-perception and self-determination – whether symbolic, economic, or mediatory.
And so, what stories do plants tell us about the life and culture of Israel? How do we use plants to draw the boundaries of our community and areas of involvement in it? And how can this become a form of communication?
Ella Littwitz, Uproot, 2014
A series of drawings based on the book "The Weeds of Palestine and their Control" by Dr. Michael Zohary, one of the first botanists in the Land of Israel. Published in 1941, the book includes a map of harmful weeds. Littwitz's drawings reconstruct parts of each plant presented in Zohary's notes. Over the years, several of the plants defined by him as "harmful" are now considered "cultivated", while others were replaced entirely.
Tamar Latzman, Photograms, 2015; Habitat, 2014
In a series of photograms of the wandering Jew plant, Latzman offers a pseudo-scientific look at the plant and the Jewish identity associated with it. The outcome is a kind of research experiment in terms of analysis and reflection that reveals far more than just the features and components of the studied object. More than anything, this experiment exposes the gaze of the researcher, seeking to ascertain the uniqueness of the Jew, characterizing him and the possible ways to address him, implementing scientific practices and skills upon his image, extracting his secrets and his connection to the land and its place.
The plants depicted in the photograms are cut up, detached from the land and presented for observation and study. They are living-dead plants. In the video "Habitat", the wandering Jew gets no rest. He finds no place to settle down. For him, movement seems safer. His journey brings to mind an old joke by the comedy duo Dzigan and Shumacher about looking at oneself and the world from a distance. The soundtrack is taken from the movie "The Dybbuk" (The Possession) and marks the replication of the persecution/persecuted relation. What began with Latzman's investigation into the role of the Jew and her own place in the diverging and enduring world of artistic endeavor - also a research field – consolidates into a figure that fails to take root, restlessly nomadic. The obsession for place becomes an obsession centered on the search itself. A Dybbuk.
Anat Barzilai, Extinct Plants, 2019
In this work, Barzilai collaborated with the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens to examine local endangered plants, focusing also on the eroding sand dunes. Attempts to develop a protected habitat that will enable plant conservation are an ongoing struggle in a reality of geographic and economic changes threatening the natural world and memory of it. From her personal home desk, Barzilai studies the delicate qualities imperiled by extinction, trying to preserve and nurture an environment unusually not natural to the plants.
Indrė Šerpytytė, Monument for the Eternal Pursuit of the Ideal, 2019; Toppled, 2016
Throughout the 19th century, the red carnation became the official symbol of the international labor movement. During the 20th century, these flowers were displayed as the emblems of the socialist ideology in the USSR and East Europe. They were used during ceremonies and events, placed on soldiers' gravestones and at the foot of war monuments. In the work Monument for the Eternal Pursuit of the Ideal, Šerpytytė investigates the history and importance of the red carnation during the Soviet period, considering the mechanisms that transformed this flower into a symbol of power and political clout, and the status of this flower today.
In the sound installation Toppled that accompanies the monument, Šerpytytė collaborated with a professional narrator who specializes in cinematic and television narrations for the sight impaired. In the work, the narrator describes historical photographs edited by the artist, depictions of civilians dismantling monuments after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The vocal account portrays the events that transformed these monuments from powerful ideological symbols into shameful and weird sculptures currently presented in a controversial playground.
Droit Bialer, The Botanical Series, 2014-2018
Bialer uses the ancient format of school maps and presents a series of botanical-didactic charts. The plants that appear there are familiar, but their genetic codes have been instilled with the symbolic power and collective memories that appear as biological components of the plants themselves.
The schulkarte – study charts – were invented in 19th century Germany. Initially used as study aids for teaching the exact sciences, they were later employed to teach theories of evolution, colonialism, and scientific racism. This propaganda tool, so closely identified with the world of science, is a deliberate combination that raises questions regarding our perceptions of science and geography as objective and absolutely valid disciplines. In this series, the taxonomy exceeds biological classifications to go further, into the realms of emotion, and thus fulfils and reasserts the ambition to categorize values, emotions, and memories.
Relli De Vries, The Whisperer, 2016-2019
De Vries tracks the tumble weed - Akkub (Gundelia tournefortii) in a series of concurrent and contradictory narratives. The akkub is a plant known for becoming easily uprooted from the ground, allowing it to roll about and scatter its seeds. In recent years, the akkub has also played a prominent role in a national conflict. Considered a staple of Palestinian diet for ages, it was declared a protected species and added to the Israeli list of endangered plants 15 years ago. This announcement came after decades in which the Ministry of Agriculture had considered akkub to be a pernicious weed that harmed habitats of other plant varieties.
At the center of The Whisperer stands a video installation comprised of three screens. The first presents a television programme about the efforts being made by Israeli authorities to prevent old Palestinian women from picking akkub (the artist has inserted scientific information in the news bulletins). Another screen shows an akkub leaf blowing in the wind. The third presents a text of competing and conflicting narratives, messages designed to undermine the scientific validity and news worthiness of the piece.
Alongside the video installation is a series of wood rulers, representing numerous possibilities of scale employed to understand natural concepts and the human interpretations they have been given by society. A listening/talking booth also stands nearby, where viewers are invited to sit and face the tumbling weed, listening to its personal song.
Effi and Amir, The Vanishing Vanishing-Point, 2014
The Vanishing Vanishing-Point is a video work that opens with a random encounter with an abandoned olive tree in Leopold Park, Brussels, located at the foot of the European Parliament building and near the new home of this artist duo. They first saw the tree several weeks after arriving in the city. Alien to its surroundings, it reflects the alienness of these artists in a European city. Effi and Amir returned regularly to visit the tree, and for seven years documented its slow demise as changing climate and weather conditions finally brought about its death and removal. A year later, a trace of its existence could be found on the Google Street View app. This discovery led to an investigative and contemplative review of the parallel universe of the app – a journey about the experience of foreignness in general, and the place of these two artists in their environment particularly.
Hadas Ophrat, Cyclamen Grafting – A tribute to Moshe Gershuni, 2019
The video installation by Ophrat presents a laboratory-like setting for deconstruction of a performance the artist created as a tribute to the artist Moshe Gershuni after his death. In that work, Ophrat grafted cyclamen tubers onto his body. This scientific-meditative process involved making the plant an extension of himself, and then planting himself in the soil – possibly as an alternative lifeform, or possibly as an experimentation into the experience of death.
The new installation features the deconstruction of the performance into many, often split, perspectives, re-establishing it in a new, human-botanical laboratory.
Noa Giniger, The Sorrow the Joy Brings, 2010-2013
Giniger's exhibition works are part of a greater project, including a film, collage series, and blog (http://the-sorrow-the-joy-brings.tumblr.com). The project raises the possibility of cheering a weeping willow (salix babylonica). Is it possible to formulate an action that leads an existing tree to change its very nature?
The materials used to make the various collages are images from myriad sources, each containing a fragment of landscape featuring a weeping willow. With minimal intervention by the artist, the tree branches, typically heavy and drooping towards the ground, have been cut and upended to now reach upwards.
The video work in the next room presents the attempts to lift the willow canopy in its natural environment using wind generated by industrial fans. As the last fan is turned off, the weeping willow recedes to its original stance.
The exhibition Flowers of Our Land constitutes one part of ongoing research and investigation by the IPP (Institute for Public Presence) of the Israeli Center for Digital Art on matters relating to art and action in the public sphere, as well the ways in which communities are established and then operate in relation to their surroundings. The exhibition was sponsored by Mifal HaPais, the Lithuanian Culture Institute, and the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.