A BRIEF ENCOUNTER WITH 'PLANTS'
The Courtauld Institute of Art
Amidst the vast expanse of any grand exhibition, the magnetic pull of a beanbag’s embrace is all but irresistible. In Hayward Gallery’s summer exhibition ‘Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis’, a duo of beanbags and a long bench occupied the back of the gallery room for Hito Steyerl’s newly commissioned installation ‘Green Screen’ – a respite within the dim, well-air-conditioned space, allowing visitors like me to relax and partake of the artwork. Steyerl’s creation features an LED wall constructed from recycled crates, where every vacant bottle functions as a single pixel. On the flip side of this luminous screen unfurls a vertical tapestry of potted plants. The bioelectrical signals generated by these green denizens, as explained in the caption, were translated into an eerie soundscape on-site and heavily pixelated animations of blossoms. Yet, a lingering enigma surrounds whether this conversion represents a live performance orchestrated by the machine-plant combo or merely a pre-recorded video.
Sinking into a beanbag, I witnessed a few people strolling past the verdant screen. Some of them paused, their attention split between wiping their smartphones and reading the caption on the concrete wall. Occasionally, the staff member monitoring this room would amble to the rear of this screen, his gaze resting upon the ferns bathed in the surreal overhead purple lighting.
I asked, ‘Is the lighting specifically for the plants?’
The guard replied, ‘Yeah, I think so. There’s no natural light in here.’
Curious, I enquired further, ‘Did the artist provide any care instructions for the plants?’
‘I’m not responsible for that. It’s our tech team. I saw water droplets on the leaves this morning, so it seems they haven’t been forgotten.’
I scrutinised the botanical wall more closely, discerning at least two, possibly three distinct varieties of ferns based on the shapes of their fronds. Yet, the caption simply read ‘plants’, leaving me eager for more information about these creatures.
The staff kindly suggested: ‘In the museum shop, they sell whole plants of the same kinds. I believe you can find their names there.’
Emerging from the pitch-dark room, the museum shop welcomed me with a burst of brightness, its glass walls shielding me from the scorching June heat outdoors. There, casually arranged on shelves for sale, were several fern plants. If not for the price tags, they’d easily be mistaken for stylish decor. I carefully extracted the tiny product tags from the midst of the dense foliage, hoping to decipher their lengthy Latin names. However, upon comparing these potted ferns with the photos on my camera, I soon realised that the three or four fern varieties available in the shop were different from the ones serving in ‘Green Screen’. My name hunt ended in an embarrassingly awkward conclusion.
Could my determination to unearth the names of those plants in the installation, or my discontent with the lack of information on the exhibition labels, be considered somewhat obsessive? Perhaps properly labelling the plants is no more than a hypocritical and wishful idea, given that Linnaean taxonomy, if not their ‘Indigenous names’, has endured criticism for its colonial and anthropocentric leanings. So, is there a more genuine means by which to truly acknowledge the role of these ferns in the artwork, as they bestow not only their bioelectrical signals but also their physical presence in a poorly lit space, effectively turning the title of the piece, ‘Green Screen’, into a witty enough pun?
As the exhibition’s introduction underscores its goal of ‘rekindl[ing] our bond with the natural world’ through visible ‘forms of care’ such as ‘tending to plants’, and as the catalogue frames ‘both sides of the [green] bottle/plant screen’ as foregrounding ‘the interconnectedness of the climate crisis and the tech world’ – hitting on all the buzzwords in contemporary art world, it struck me as paradoxical that these numerous living plants were placed within the exhibition hall in a manner that exuded detachment and alienation. While spectators can of course lean closer, their faces brushing against the outstretched foliage, in an attempt to evoke the concealed, indelible scent, they find themselves shrouded in ignorance regarding these plants’ origins and destinies, remaining unacquainted with their predilections and habits. I just can’t fathom an anchoring point to forge an authentic bond with them.