Wildflower, Wildfire

Suite! (2021)

Suite! (Aria Dean, 2021)

Wildflower, Wildfire

By Kate Rouhandeh

Samples From: Encounters Over Several Plants streams exclusively on Metrograph At Home through Tuesday, April 25.


Farmacopea (Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, 2013)

In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, I have a favorite pair of utility poles, located at the rear of two side-by-side lots along a wide boulevard. One of the lots houses a busy gas station, and the other a trendy, saccharinely designed fusion restaurant; both are bordered at the rear by a CVS. Though I don’t know precisely where the property lines for these businesses lay, to the naked eye the poles appear to stand on different lots: one on the gas station side, and one on the restaurant side. But the poles, which are covered in mounds of bright green overgrowth, refuse to be divided—the two masses have spawned a living bridge between them; or, as I like to see it, they are holding hands.

It’s easy to anthropomorphize these green ghosts, much like the animated kudzu plant-dancers in Aria Dean’s Suite! (2021), which appear simultaneously inhabited by both tender melancholy and acerbic self-consciousness. Kudzu, which the US Department of Agriculture characterizes as a “terrestrial invasive plant,” is a trope of the Southern Gothic, a creeper that crowds out all other plant life at such a pace that its growth is said to be audible to the human ear. Dean, who previously had to use a VPN to order kudzu seeds for a sculpture from Russia, receives the plant’s violent reputation with some hesitancy—a skepticism that runs throughout Samples From: Encounters Over Several Plants. Curated by Counter-Encounters Collective (made up of Onyeka Igwe, Laura Huertes Millán, and Rachael Rakes), the program, which comes to Metrograph from a larger series at the Tate Modern, features a selection of works by Dean, Lawrence Lek, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Shireen Seno, and Minia Biabiany, which collectively seek to unseat the deterministic hierarchies that artificially isolate and categorize plant life, gesturing towards the ways in which language, memory, and taxonomy fail when it comes to the plant kingdom.

Plants and movies share a sense of life but also death.

The vegetable encounters collected here are enigmatic, and resist the meager binaries of edible/inedible, toxic/non-toxic, flowers/weeds, native/non-native. In fact, this program suggests that it is a category error to anthropomorphize plants—to attribute their complexity or unexpectedness to something derivative of the human. In Lek’s Temple Lily (2021), the titular flower thrives in a post-human world, without need for sunlight, only sound; in Biabiany’s Musa (2020), fleshy plant matter does not stand in for the subjugated female body, but is body; Santiago Muñoz’s Farmacopea (2013) mourns the eradication of the fruit-baring Manzanilla tree—so poisonous that even sitting under it is hazardous. The tree’s fruit, “the little apple of death,” was part of the differentiated landscape of Puerto Rico, which has been pruned and tempered, made homogenous. (If we read the plant world through an anthropomorphic lens, then it’s the Manzanilla tree, not its human persecutors, that is full of bloodlust.)

At the end of Seno’s film essay To Pick a Flower (2021), made up of archival photographs from the American Colonial Era in the Philippines, the voiceover states, “There’s a tension to image-making that makes it so interesting, to keep moments of life with you, when in doing so, perhaps taking something away from it”—like picking a flower: “It’s beautiful and you want to take it, but you’re killing it at the same time.” One can’t really keep the flower, or the memory of it, but we try, often at great expense.


To Pick A Flower (Shireen Seno, 2021)

Together, borrowing from the forms of documentary, film ethnography, and speculative worlds, these works trouble the notion of the possibility of capture—in nature, and in memory or on film. In Dean’s second piece in the program, Studio Parasite (2022), she remembers and misremembers the origins of her kudzu project, comparing its lore to the red clay of the American South—which, she learned through a previous project, is actually not as prevalent as collective memory led her to believe. The actual landscape resists the human imaginary that has been extracted from it.

I think of this slippage as wildflower tourism season ramps up in California. In recent years, pilgrims to “superblooms,” the commodifying term for thick fields of wildflowers, have become popular targets for public shaming. While I support the preservation of the state’s fields of California Poppies, Bermuda Buttercups, and my number one, the Sky Lupine, the handwringing over them can feel like a cruel joke, while rampant destruction of the environment continues on a grand scale. Besides, I think that the best way to see the wildflowers is while cresting the on- and off-ramps of Los Angeles’s many freeways. I love how these neglected patches of land transform into gorgeous overgrowth each spring, despite all the trash and smog they endure. There’s nothing pure or protected about these blooms—but, like the utility poles holding hands with one another over the property line, these flowers seem far more sovereign than the panic over “superbloom” visitors might have you believe. They continue to grow, despite the degradation around them. Gifts from God, or whatever—something or someone we can’t understand.

Kate Rouhandeh is a writer, independent curator, and editor living in Los Angeles. She is managing editor at X-TRA Contemporary Art Journal.


Farmacopea (Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, 2013)