At the pinnacle of 17th-century Dutch tulip mania – often cited as history’s first speculative bubble – otherwise conservative Calvinists dropped gobs of money on promissory notes for next season’s bulbs. Tulips, by their sheer beauty and singularity, inspired mad spending and rash acts of thievery. The rarest sort, a crimson and white streaked beauty called Semper augustus, was so expensive and elusive that some, according to Michael Pollan in his book The Botany of Desire (2001), had to settle for the next best thing: they commissioned paintings of it.
That episode – coupled with the fact that the Semper augustus soon died out and is known today only through those contemporary depictions – may have been the impetus for ‘Implant’, organized by the Horticultural Society of New York. The show was inspired by Botany of Desire’s thesis: that plants control us, rather than the other way around. In his book Pollan speculates that throughout evolutionary history plants have capitalized on human desires – for food, for beauty, for intoxication – to guarantee themselves a perpetual spot on the planet. The most domesticated, such as the apple and the potato, he writes, are really nature’s wildest success stories.
Curator Jodie Vicenta Jacobson suggests that perhaps a corollary can be found in artistic production, that when an artist depicts nature it is in fact the plant that has impelled the act to immortalize itself. A novel curatorial premise but – assuming vanity is not part of the Darwinian mandate – ultimately a flippant way of approaching the interesting and often surprising works on display. ‘Implant’ is nothing so much as a controlled study of human impulses and fears, using plants as a constant muse across time, media and artistic temperament. As befits an exhibition in the corporate lobby of a midtown Manhattan office building, a hothouse spirit coursed through the show, which had as many genres and mood shifts as a biennial. The 19th-century British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and the contemporary American artist Peter Coffin must have little in common beyond their inclusion here and their desire to commune with nature. Coffin’s Untitled (Greenhouse) (2002) offers a band a setting in which to noodle around on instruments in the densely fecund company of houseplants, while the four wild-haired Pre-Raphaelites in Cameron’s The Rose Bud Garden of Girls (1868) drift off into blank-eyed reverie in a grotto of antique rose vines.
Encroaching vines, it seems, capture many an artist’s imagination. Gabriel Orozco’s set-up photographs La oficina and Mi oficina II (The Office and My Office II, both 1992) show two views of an abandoned office overgrown by leggy, leafy shoots, while William Eggleston’s Untitled (Back of Black Car in Green Vines) from his ‘Los Alamos Project’ (1965–74) depicts a rusted-out wreck amid a sea of climbing weeds. A restless mood of abandonment and decay permeates both works, staged or not. Dennis Oppenheim’s Compression – Fern (Hand) (1970) and Roman Signer’s Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree, 1993), in contrast, are drily comic micro-conquests of man over nature. In Oppenheim’s short, looped film a resilient little fern is ultimately no match for the artist’s groping, crushing hand, while Signer pitches a Christmas tree like a javelin from a balcony into the lawn below.
Carol Bove and Simon Starling distil nature in Tantra Yoga (2005) and Weeding Aralia (Chaise Lounge) (2007–8) respectively, adorning Modernist home furniture with botanical elements in decorative ways that suggest refined containment. Other artists, such as the watercolourist Carol Woodin and the woodworker Jim Sams, are sticklers for botanical accuracy in their immaculate renderings of wildflowers. The stylized blooms in Jane Freilicher’s trio of cheerful Fauvist-flavoured paintings of domestic interiors fall somewhere in between.
The most moving and mysterious work is Francesca Woodman’s series of sweet and sombre photographs, ‘Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire’ (1980) in which she poses in a stand of birches, her forearms camouflaged with curls of bark and lifted above her head so that simply and seamlessly she seems to merge with her wooded background, like Daphne into the laurel bush. Robert Gober’s untitled cartoon (1988–2008) of a winsome frock hanging on a dying tree covers similar psychic and thematic terrain.
Of all the works in the show, only one radiated with a passionate, ‘the-plant-made-me-do-it’ spirit on a par with the old Semper augustus portraits: Ian Campbell’s Tongue Tied (2006), a pair of long, dangling garlands made of thousands of tiny cherry stems, each knotted by the artist with his tongue and threaded together. But if it was the cherries that put him up to it, this couldn’t have been the outcome they were hoping for.