Artist Heidi Norton and philosopher Michael Marder discuss the ethics of plants and differentiate between "nature" and "ecology."
Chicago-based sculptor and photographer Heidi Norton's current show at Monique Meloche Gallery is titled to Threptikon—Aristotle's concept of the vegetative soul of plants. Norton's work almost always includes plants as formal and thematic elements; she's deeply drawn to the strange ways we preserve and present plant life. But in this body of work she was also specifically influenced by arguably the closest contemporary figure we have to a canonical plant philosopher: Michael Marder, professor of philosophy at the University of the Basque Country and author of a number of recent books and articles on the intricate lives of plants and the challenges they present both to the discipline of philosophy and to contemporary culture at large. Tracing their parallel practices of re-imagining our inherited relationship to plant life, I spoke with Marder and Norton about, among other things, the so-called turn to the question of the animal (and how it doesn't go far enough); what could potentially constitute a plant ethics; and what the etymological differences between nature and ecology tell us about our mythologies of origin and decay in the natural world.
Monica Westin I want to start out by getting the back-story from each of you about how you came to these questions. Michael, were there any particular philosophical texts or questions that led you directly to your work on plants as a philosophical problem? And Heidi, was your practice of working with plants as formal elements what brought you to these more philosophical questions, or have you always been interested thematically in our relationship to plant life?
Michael Marder My work on plants does not arise from a purely academic concern. True: the thought that plants have been largely neglected in Western philosophy came to me as, in 2008, I was reading a book of commentaries on Aristotle. It particularly occurred to me that the recent philosophical turn to the so-called question of the animal did not go deep enough into the thickets of the Aristotelian notion of the soul, which starts with the vegetative acts of nourishment and reproduction. And, as plants have been commodified or transformed into barely living things, many of these features have been attributed to them, too, so it was relatively easy to make the leap in that direction. But that is, of course, not the whole story. Much of my theoretical interest in plants is tied to some moments of my autobiography, which I recount in a book on plant life which I am now writing together with Luce Irigaray, titled Through Plant Being. It all begins with the simple fact that plants are rooted in the soil, while I have been in a more or less constant state of uprootedness for much of my life. In each of the places I have lived, plants have become the keepsakes of my memories, the mnemonic centers of gravity that evoke the events and even the atmosphere of my life at the time down to minute details. Allotting to the vegetal world a place close to the center of psychic life gave me a certain sense of security; the plants stayed, while I left. Henceforth, all I had to do was to admit them to the core of my philosophical life, as well.
Heidi Norton Like Michael, my initial interest in plants grew out of a more personal narrative, far away from the time in which I started using them as a material. Unlike Michael, who grew up more nomadically, I was raised by homesteaders on ten acres of forest that bumped up to a quarry, our swimming pool. My attachment to, and my roots with, this landscape ran deep and would haunt me the rest of my life. As I grew older and we grew away from that home and that land, my parents began to separate from that identity. The idea of living off the land became a distant past time, a myth. One summer in my studio, I painted a plant white to be included in a still life photograph (the New Age Still Life series). When I returned it had grown out of the paint. The resilience of the plant floored me. How could this living thing, subjected entirely to such a toxic substance (I had hand painted every square inch) and blocked from receiving light, still be alive? And that was it. That was the beginning. At that point I knew that the plant was my material and I would search for ways in which to preserve it. The simplicity of their needs, their strength, their inherent ability to succumb—plants have been wired for centuries to withstand anything nature and time have handed to it, even ice ages.
MW I'd like to ask more about plants as a formal problem in each of your work. Michael, is there a way in which using an alternative hybrid form of writing about plants and philosophy is a deliberate choice to rethink plants as subjects, as living beings? Could there exist, whether or not you're doing it here, a sort of "new writing" that can speak about plants better than those that we have? (I'm thinking about Irigaray's famous work on women's writing.) And Heidi, in describing that moment when you knew that plants were going to be central materials for you, you listed their formal properties: their adaptability, their strength, their simplicity. Can you say more about how they have posed formal issues to in your practice?
MM Indeed, plant-thinking had to free itself from a purely theoretical approach to plants in order to explore the intersecting trajectories of living, growing beings, both human and vegetal. Some of these changes happened as I was working on The Philosopher’s Plant, where I re-narrate the history of Western philosophy through plants. In that book, each of the twelve thinkers I discuss, from Greek antiquity to the twenty-first century, is represented by a tree, flower, cereal, and so on, which was in one way or another featured in her or his thought. Each chapter begins with a biographical anecdote that puts plants on the center-stage and continues in a more theoretical key, explaining the key concepts and notions of that philosopher through vegetal processes, images, and metaphors. The idea is that plants play a much more important role in the formation of our thinking, “personality,” and life story than we realize.
In terms of Western thought, this is far from an innocuous observation, as it goes against one of the fundamental tenets of metaphysics, namely that being is unchangeable, non-generated, eternal, or, in a word, not at all plant-like. As I note in the introduction,
The history of what ideally does not grow, namely metaphysics, is told here from the perspective of what grows, including the very plants that have surreptitiously germinated within this history.
For me, then, it was a logical next step to rethink some aspects of my autobiography in the same light.
In the meanwhile, in the course of our correspondence, Luce Irigaray suggested that we co-author a book where our theoretical and lived experiences of the plant world would serve as a basis for an encounter—with plants themselves, with the readers, and with each other. From the start, we have been aware of the challenges of such a project, some of which you have alluded to in your questions. First, an experience with plants is hardly communicable. In any event, it is very difficult to render in words. That is why we deemed it necessary to invent an alternative form of writing about plants, which is still a work in progress. The more ways of approaching plants one admits into one’s thinking and writing, the better. In combination, philosophy, art, literature, and science can hope to touch upon something of vegetal being. So, I am pleased to be doing this interview together with Heidi!
Second, plants themselves do not speak, of course, even though we can theorize the language—or better, the languages of plants— that have to do with their biochemical communication, spatial expression, etc. In this sense, the parallel with women’s writing falters, because women have been historically silenced, in contrast to the absolute silence of plants. Still, sexual difference is quite significant for the joint endeavor we have undertaken. Just as we can fully become human not in isolation but by sharing our differences, so we can encounter—perhaps for the first time—the world of plants and, through it, the rest of nature only provided that we do so together.
HN The experienced I described—returning to my studio to find a white painted dieffenbachia plant alive with new growth—created the idea of using the plant as a canvas, a form of aestheticizing it. I was completely seduced by the white plant: something living that has been voided of color and life, the chlorophyll sucked from its veins, whose resilience, the new sprout, was only visible through its contrast to the stark white. But the leaves that had dropped were shells of death—chip the paint and there was brown dead plant.
For years, I spent days upon days rushing to my studio to water the plants, to save them from decay. I became anxiety-ridden. Saving them was significant, but keeping them “green” was essential. I enjoyed juxtaposing the green colors of “life” against other colors of nature (light, water, and minerals) and those of modernity, like synthetic pinks, blacks and whites. In 2011 I began making sculptures of large domestic tropical plants literally pressed against panes of glass and adhered with resin. The resin had an utilitarian purpose, but it also referenced herbariums, pressed flowers/plants, as well as paintings, and most importantly for me, photographs. Green leaves smashed against the glass with the resin formed pockets of air, connoting plants being pressed under a slide.I made these pieces for a while, but at times the dimensionality of the plant did not lend itself to the complete resin encasement. Additionally, they were becoming too flat. I appreciated the flatness on the glass side, but I also enjoyed the explosiveness of the other side. With this explosiveness of life ultimately came death.
The brown and yellow color of decay was initially something that seemed in contrast to the voice of my work at the time. I wasn't interested in dead plants or in killing plants for art. However, this act was inescapable, and I realized my work was more intellectually dimensional when it presented life, regeneration, and death. Cycles of ecology, symbiosis, and the interdependence of nature became more prominent in my work and process, culminating in late 2012 when I mounted a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I had gained access to Liam Gillick’s glass vitrines, which he exhibited in 2010. His interest in social systems and relational aesthetics interested me. The using of another person’s material, as well as the reuse of mine, was evident in the show. Plants that were given to me by mentors and artists, deconstructed art works, and decayed material were all conceptual drivers of the exhibition. I was also interested in the Museum as a place of creating, displaying and preserving.
My current show, to Threptikon is similar to Marder’s book The Philosopher’s Plant. I also put four plants on center stage. The plants were photographed by other institutions and cultural contributors and then printed directly onto glass. Two of the images, botanical glass replicas of plants, were loaned to me by the Ware Collection at Harvard. Here we see the plants being used as didactic material, as well as referencing the aesthetics of slides and specimens. This aestheticization is also evident with the glass cast sculptures in which the plant material, minerals, and film are encased/trapped. There is a lot of play between the inside and outside, micro and macro, and visibility and invisibility of plants and natural systems. All of this aligns with modes of vision and how that may or may not be recorded, particularly on film.
MW I'd like to know more about each of your current understanding of, or strongest ideas about, plant ethics. Can you condense such a philosophy to a paragraph or maxim?
MM It is very difficult to talk about plant ethics in general or in the abstract, first of all because such an ethics demands extreme attention to the singularity of its subjects. I make this especially clear in the small essay titled “Is It Ethical to Eat Plants?” that I contributed to a special issue of the journal Parallax last year. For me, plant ethics is not a set of general precepts or guidelines, as those fall within the purview of morality. Rather, it is rooted in respect for each species or each plant, which is renewed and experienced differently in our encounters with them. If I were pressed to say something general on the subject, I would stress the fact that, like plants, animals and humans are “growing beings.” Plant ethics would be an ethics of growth, animated by the desire to promote vegetal, cross-species, and cross-kingdoms communities, to let them thrive on their own accord, and to affirm life throbbing in the shared trajectories of plant, animal, and human flourishing. So, it would have be an ethics of the singular (infra-personal) existence and of the universal (supra-personal) conjunction of growing beings.
HN I feel plants have been long reduced to objects of consumption—whether for eating, gazing upon, gardening, etcetera. Plants are thought of as passive, things that merely sit there and absorb sunlight and grow and then die. Perhaps I am over simplifying, but the fact remains that people who can’t care for people or animals are told to get a plant. Much of what they do goes unseen; their perceived “stillness” objectifies them. My job as an artist is to point at the issues, to expose them, and provoke questions. Unlike a scientist, I do not work within set parameters, and I am not looking for empirical answers. My work uses plants to speak to instability and liminality.
I often feel confused and anxious about my work. The sacrificing of a plant makes me uncomfortable. The initial point of contact the plant has with the toxic substance or heat jars me. Am I setting myself up for failure? Utopia and the desire to commune with nature will never happen. When pressed on the glass or frozen in a photo, active looking occurs. There is an exchange of energy between the objects and the viewer: a kind of Bewegung, or channeling of organic energy that points at the unseen elements, systems, and forces of the natural environment upon and all around us. This anxiety drives me to make. I like being confused and uncomfortable.
MM (to Norton) Does your practice encapsulate a critique of the prevailing attitudes toward plants, point toward an alternative relation to our "green cousins," or combines elements of both approaches? I am especially interested in your practice of preservation with regard to plants. How do you deal with the (productive) contradiction of preserving something that keeps changing—the plant that, according to Goethe, for instance, is defined by its constant metamorphosis? Working with plants, are you exploring the very limits of the desire to congeal, freeze, maintain something the same, or preserve? If so, then how does growth, as a disruptive force, enter the frame of such a project?
HN I am deeply interested in plants, and gaining a better understanding of them and sharing that with the viewer. But ultimately the plants are analogues to larger concepts of ecology, life, growth, change and death. Highlighting or displaying their mutability makes it palpable for the viewer. It is a slow, beautiful death that twists and turns in unpredictable directions. These works become representational samples of the physical laws of ecology. As Hans Haccke wrote in 1968,
A “sculpture” that physically reacts to its environment is no longer to be regarded as an object. The range of outside factors affecting it, as well as its own radius of action, reach beyond the space it materially occupies. It thus merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a “system” of interdependent processes. These processes evolve without the viewer’s empathy. He becomes a witness. A system is not imagined, it is real.*
Regarding the second question: When we preserve things, we arrest growth and age. In the case of the latex plant, the toxicity of the material in contact with the plant material caused those parts of the plant to die. Perhaps the new sprout was fed from anabolic energies produced by the dead parts. The growth is not disrupting the preservation but instead is highlighting it, accentuating it. Part of the metamorphosis of the plant is the entropic processes at work during the evolution of the plant. The ultimate preservation of life is something that is never attainable. These are futile attempts to preserve time. The introduction of the resin, latex paint, or wax material to the plant marks a moment in which the plant is displaced; toxic material meets with the natural, paralyzing and interrupting growth. That moment of arrest occurs in a fraction of a second. This is similar to pushing the button of the shutter and capturing a fraction of time. There the plant is frozen in a state, escaping time. With the sculptures, the material attempts to stop time, and therefore growth. Regeneration may occur but death is inevitable.
(to Marder) What is the difference between concepts of nature and ecology for you, and where does the plant fit into these places? What is a utopia according to a plant?
MM It’s curious that we say nature and ecology in two different languages, even though both words are, of course, in English. Nature is derived from the Latin natura which, essentially, means “birth.” The Greek word—phusis—that it translates to is richer than that. Phusis is everything that springs up into existence, the total movement of growth, in which plants, animals, humans, and perhaps even mineral formations participate after their own fashion. What is at stake both in phusis and in natura is the question of beginnings, of origination, and a relation to the origin. As for ecology, here we have two words combined into one, again going back to Greek. Eco-logy refers to the logos of the oikos, or the inner articulation (you could say, the inherent reason or “logic”) of the dwelling place. In this case, the stress shifts from the question of origins to that of how things work, how they develop in and of themselves. When we let our dwelling place, the environment, take care of itself, how does it organize itself?Since living beings are finite, so is their growth, which, at a certain point, gives place to decay, or, as often happens in the vegetal world, coexists with decay in the same plant (a branch of a tree can be decaying while the rest is thriving; the fallen leaves and fruits decay around the trunk, providing the roots with further mineral nourishment, and so on).
“What is a utopia according to a plant?” This is a very difficult question, and I will not pretend that I can give a satisfactory response to it, least of all “according to a plant.” All I can do is offer a very preliminary reflection.
At first blush, utopia and vegetal life are absolutely incompatible. Plants are living beings rooted in the earth; utopia is a kind of non-existent place. So, we seem to dream up our utopias in moments when we are least plant-like, that is, least attached to the places where we live or move between. At the same time, my philosophy of vegetal life has been sometimes accused of containing utopian elements, such as the peaceful coexistence of different forms of growth, for instance. This idea is utopian only if we continue to deny the vegetal heritage of our existence and adopt a purely animalistic notion of human nature as oppositional, where homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man) and where we find ourselves in a “dog eat dog” world. As for the plants themselves, I think that their utopian moment is that of throwing their seeds or pollen to the wind or to the wings of insects. They entrust their future to chance, moving their potential offspring (more crudely put, their “genetic material”) elsewhere. Perhaps plants dream up their elsewhere in this throw of the dice. But here I must stop because it is impossible to speculate any further on this theme, without disrespecting the way the world appears (or doesn’t appear) solely from their unique living perspective.
Heidi Norton is a Chicago-based artist and professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she received her MFA in 2002. Her work has been exhibited widely, including a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Michael Marder is the Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is an editorial associate of the critical theory journal Telos. The author of many books on philosophy and plant life, he is currently co-authoring a book with Luce Irigaray on plant life titled Through Plant Being.
Monica Westin is an arts writer, a PhD candidate in the history of rhetoric at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and a current visiting student researcher at the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.
*Hans Haacke, exhibition catalog, January 1968. New York: Howard Wise Gallery.