The Language of Flowers

On July 1, 2016 by admin

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Michael Taussig

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Asked on a radio interview a couple of years back why he drew animals and not people, the great cartoonist Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner fame replied: “It’s easier to humanize animals than humanize humans.” Recently the Colombian artist Juan Manuel Echavarria gave this a twist. Reacting against the stupendous violence in his country, he humanized flowers by photographing them like botanical specimens, replacing the stems, leaves, flowers, and berries with what look like human bones. He called this series of thirty-two black-and-white photographs The Flower Vase Cut, referring to the name of one of the mutilations practiced in the Colombian violencia of the 1940s and 1950s in which the amputated limbs were stuffed, so it is said, into the thorax via the neck of the decapitated corpse.

In cartoons we laugh at distortions of the body, suggesting just how close violence is to humor. Indeed the human face when crying can seem very close if not identical to that same face laughing. It is, moreover, almost trite to observe that great comedians and clowns bear the burden of great tragedy as well. As for the cartoon quality in violence, hearken to Michael Herr’s reference to his experience in the Vietnam War; he goes to considerable effort to deny these two elements have anything in common: “No jive cartoon,” he says, “where the characters get smacked around and electrocuted and dropped from heights, flattened out and frizzed back and broken like a dish, then up again and whole and back in the game.”

No jive cartoon—indeed! So why bother to raise that specter, only to deny it? Why bother to come so close, only to draw back? Is it because the resemblance is too, too troubling, true but troubling, and by this maneuver we do precisely what is necessary, which is to catch a glimpse of the impossible unthinkable and then close it over again? Well, then, what is this impossible unthinkable that in equating war with a cartoon simultaneously heightens their stupendous difference? Did I say heighten, as does Herr when he refers us to the cartoonish move of being dropped from heights, flattened out, “then up again and whole and back in the game”?What emotional register, what law of aesthetics and logic is being transgressed by this heightened drop and even steeper fall into . . . well, into what? Not redemption. That’s for sure. Back into war, that’s what—“up again and whole and back in the game.” Is this not also what occurs when Echavarria humanizes not animals but flowers, meticulously duplicating the exactness and whimsy of botanical drawings with his bleached-out photographs of human bones?

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At one point in an interview, Echavarria says, “My purpose was to create something so beautiful that people would be attracted to it. The spectator would come near it, look at it, and then when he or she realizes that it is not a flower as it seemed, but actually a flower made of human bones— something must click in the head, or in the heart, I hope.” I myself do not see it that way. The flowers are so obviously not flowers. Instead it is the very clumsiness, the deliberateness of the artifice of posing bones as flowers, that perturbs one—and this is of the same order of artifice that makes the mutilation of the Corte del Florero so powerful, too. The flowers in Echavarria’s photographs have stems made of curving ribs or of the decayed long bones of arms. The petals are formed from what appear to be the human pelvis or spinal vertebrae. In some photographs, small bones like teeth or chips of bones lie to one side, thereby disturbing pretensions to symmetry or completeness. A vertebra hangs delicately off a rib, five of which are bunched together like plant stems emerging from a column of three vertebrae glued together, not as in the human spine, but separated from that, like a child’s building blocks, then stuck front to back, Lying on their bleached-out background, the flowers appear fragile, suspended in midair and ungrounded. They could be flying. The law of gravity no longer holds. There is a sense of a world on hold, a painful absence of sound. What we see is silence, the silence of something gone awfully wrong with the human world such that we are all, God included, holding our breath, which is probably what happens when you fall a long, long way.

To add to their strangeness, each photograph bears a title like the Latin names used in the plant illustrations of the famous botanical expedition to Colombia organized by the Spanish crown and led by Jose´ Celestino Mutis at the end of the eighteenth century. Echavarrı´a is very conscious of this genealogy. In fact he sees his flowers as its latest expression. The difference is that Echavarria’s latinate names are hybrids suggesting the grotesque, one pelvic bone flower being named Dracula Nosferatu, while another flower made of a curved rib with a bunch of metacarpals at one end, suggestive of petals, is called Dionaea Misera. Although these names are in small, discreet letters, names are of consuming importance to this work, beginning with the name of the mutilation—The Flower Vase Cut. The name is crucial because on viewing the mutilated body without the name, I doubt whether an observer would get the point—as we say of a joke—without the name. All the observer would see would be a bloody morass of hacked-off limbs and a limbless trunk.

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The mutilation would be incomplete, by which I mean it would lack the meaning that destroys meaning. I do not understand this. Perhaps I am not meant to. But what I do know is that what mutilation registers, what all mutilation registers, is this wave, this continuous wave-like motion of autosacrifice of meaning heightened then dissipated by the name in conjunction with the corpse as a work of art. I think it goes like this: that in attaching a commonplace name to a transgressive act the act is somehow completed, dignified with a meaning, we could say, only to shatter that name and that meaning. Herr’s story of the necklace made of amputated ears in Vietnam comes to mind. Love beads they were called.

Art Forms in Nature

The striking plant illustrations of the eighteenth-century Mutis expedition, many in full color, are well known today both inside and outside of Colombia, where they are now virtually icons of the nation, all the more powerful for being natural symbols. They stand for something at once modest and sublime, the humble plant on the one hand, the greatness that is the nation, on the other. They capture the wonder the New World had for the savants of Europe as a truly new world in which scientific curiosity and conquest existed side by side. How much of their beauty is due to this conflation? Mutis provokes another question as well: Is there an art in nature as well as an art of nature? This is the same question implicit in Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 Art Forms in Nature as well as in the plant photography of a celebrated modernist, Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932), who “believed that the best human art was modeled on forms preexisting in nature.”

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How curious it is, then, that Blossfeldt’s images, faithfully reproducing nature but on an enlarged scale and with carefully controlled lighting, should illuminate the pages of that great surrealist magazine, Documents, edited by Georges Bataille and used by him to illustrate his essay “The Language of Flowers.” When I first look at Mutis I see what I take to be an art in nature and am thrilled by what I call the book of nature opening before my eyes. But then a little later I become self-conscious and aware of the artist arranging the flowers and stems so they conform to an aesthetic as much as a need on the part of the botanist for visual information. I had the same sensation as a medical student studying human anatomy. There was the corpse spreadeagled on its table in various shades of gray and blue with shards of yellowing fat and an insufferable odor of formaldehyde; by its side was my textbook displaying the body in shimmering symmetries of reds and blues and all the more accurate, not to mention beautiful, for being thus rendered.

So what has happened? The art in nature turns out to be an art of nature! It is like treason, the same as when a child realizes Santa Claus is a man dressed up. But who is to blame, myself for being so naive or the artist for being so clever? What is so silly is that every time I go back to look at these plant paintings of Mutis, which now strike me as pure kitsch, I run through the same sequence of delight and disappointment, of concealment and revelation, as the engagement with the art in nature is followed by its conversion into an art of nature. Why would this be, this now-you-see-it now-you-don’t phenomenon? Is this what lies behind the sur of surrealism as in Bataille’s use of Blossfeldt? For while Blossfeldt with his magnifying lenses was pursuing the art in nature, Bataille was enchanted by the rupture his images thereby created. Bataille’s point, surely, was not the elementary one that representation trumps nature, but rather that Blossfeldt’s images are like magic tricks in which you suspect sleight of hand but are nevertheless filled with wonder as the rabbit is extracted from the top hat. You are left suspended, unable to decide what is art and what is nature, temporarily stripped of your common sense with its assumptions as to the nature of nature let alone the nature of art. When it comes to the human body, that arbiter of the nature/culture divide, this becomes all the more pronounced.

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It is this that underlies all mutilation, whether of the corpse or the living body Bone Art. What is fascinating to me is the absence of the human skull, that wicked, grinning fellow centering death in the baroque and our various childhood fantasies of death, but nowhere to be found in Echavarria’s work nor, apparently, in the mutilation itself. What did those mutilating Colombians do with the head, you wonder? Why can’t we see the face of death? “Alas poor Yorick.” Certainly in other forms of human bone art—to designate a category—the skull takes pride of place, its hollow eyes a dark reminder of what once was. In the pirate flag of skull and crossbones, loved by children of all ages and many nations, it is the idea that is paramount, the actual execution of the design often woefully imperfect—but who cares so long as the wind is up and the flag flutters, bringing the animating force of nature into play.

There is another reason for not caring; this flag is also an antiflag—not merely a sign of belonging to no nation but a sign of refusal of all signs and hence of representation, too, as nature unfurls its own nation.6 Miles removed from this anarchic sign are the images Bataille displayed in Documents (August 1930) of Capuchin catacombs in Rome with their skulls and bones from more than 4,000 brothers who died between 1528 and 1870. What jaw-dropping images! Skulls are carefully arranged one next to the other yet in numbers so vast they lose all individuality to become like white dimples on seawalls in underworlds at the far edge of dreams.

No doubt about it, this is art. With its mix of showbiz and heartfelt religious sentiments, Sedlec ossuary in the Czech Republic carries this bone art a stage further, converting it into pure kitsch, draining the bones of whatever reverential and religious potential they might possess and completely evacuating the effect that so fascinated Bataille, namely, the oscillation from repulsion to attraction, the movement that I think lies behind mutilation, in general, and the Flower Vase Cut, taken up by Echavarria, specifically. As with cartoons and violence, the Sedlec kitsch demonstrates how fine the line is between the somber face of death and its comic qualities, a line that Bataille crossed again and again in his investigations into the sacred surplus harvested by the transformation of saints’ bones from the vile status of the corpse to their glowing destination under the stones of church or altar, a transformation enacted on a lesser scale with everybody buried in the church cemetery. Mutilation is this same movement, in reverse, yet no less religious.

But the headlessness?

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Flowers and Death

Might it be that flowers are in effect human bones? For what the mutilation of the flower-vase cut draws upon is that flowers and death go together in the Christian world, with a long history of use on graves and in funerals. Yet flowers salute not only death but also life, as with birthdays. Could it be that flowers frequent death because they are seen as bearers of life and that this “mix” is what enters so naturally into our everyday life-rituals as something superbly sardonic, savage, cruel, and uplifting—like the fall into nothingness expressed by the disturbing collusion of cartoons and violence. “There are no black flowers,” writes Jean Genet in reference to transgression, “yet at the end of his crushed finger, that black fingernail looked like nothing so much as a flower.” In Colombia this mix is heightened by the beauty and abundance of the gardenias and roses exported from the savannah of Bogota´ these past thirty years, alongside the death dealing, fortune making cocaine and heroin processed from the coca plants in the lowlands and the beautiful poppies in the mountains. This intertwinement of life in death in flowers is what Herr is getting at when he describes Saigon during the Vietnam War: “Sitting in Saigon was like sitting inside the folded petals of a poisonous flower, the poison history, fucked in its root no matter how far back you wanted to run your trace.”

Like life, only more so, flowers are beautiful and fragile, and this may be why many people consider them appropriate for death and even more so for disaster. This message comes across strongly in an article in the New York Times by Barbara Stewart, 22 September 2001, with reference to the attack on the World Trade Center. She notes the abundance of flowers, bunches of them, four and five layers deep, laid at the doorsteps of fire stations, churches, and impromptu shrines on park lawns, stoops, windows, and sidewalks. This turns her attention to the presence of flowers cultivated in little gardens throughout the city in the past decade. Against the backdrop of the city, these flowers strike her as incongruous: “heartbreakingly bright and fragile.” “What’s more fragile than a flower?” asks her informant, the aptly named Michael Pollan, whom she describes as a writer on botany and a philosopher and goes on to quote with regards to the value of flowers as lying with their being useless. “‘Flowers are a luxury,’ Mr. Pollan said. ‘They’re not useful. . . . You don’t worry about flowers until you’ve solved a lot of other problems in life.’” Even his question—“What’s more fragile than a flower?”—can be thought of as a flower, a rhetorical question, we say.

But, when disaster strikes, the useless becomes useful.

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Postscript

Despite many visits to Colombia since 1969, I myself had never once heard of the Flower-Vase Cut until Echavarria’s artwork, and I found myself wondering about its frequency. Echavarria cites as his source a 1978 book concerned with massacres during the violencia of 1948–1964 in just one, albeit heavily afflicted, region, that of Tolima. To ensure that the reader understands the different mutilations, this book presents eleven full-page diagrams of the human form like those used in target practice, providing what at first sight seems like a cross between the egg-and-sausage figures that children draw and diagrams meant to exude clinical detachment. I imagine police or people responsible for autopsy reports may have diagrams similar to these, which I find frightening and destabilizing, indeed. Could it be that just as cartoons have a vexed and alarming connection to violence, so adults’ appropriation of children’s drawings of the human form has a similarly disturbing overlap with the police and autopsies? Or is it because these forms are so detached from reality, so clearly, so strenuously unreal, yet nevertheless terribly real—as in their use in clinical settings—that they acquire the haunting power of ghosts? Being so utterly without life, these diagrams of the outline of the human form create an emptiness that no mutilation or cartoon ever did. Here the art in nature and the art of nature coalesce and collapse the one in the other with a final phut.

Thomas Hobbes presents us with the same conundrum. He claimed that violence was the state of nature and, thanks to the famous contract, violence became the nature of the state. When I look at Mutis and see the flowers metamorphose from an art in nature to an art of nature, I am in my way replaying Hobbes’s metamorphosis, too. Hobbes’s contract is a fiction. It never happened as such. Yet everything conspires to occur as if it happened, and it is the mighty reed from which the rule of law is suspended (as I read Rawls), which is why we call it not a fiction but a necessary fiction, the realm, after all, of great art. Thus what might be called one of humanity’s greatest inventions and institutions, namely the state, can honestly lay claim to being great art, too, precisely where the art in nature and the art of nature coalesce in the permanent threat of violence against the person. What then is capital punishment? Is it not exemplary of the law of mutilation? In his critique of violence,

Walter Benjamin said it was the reenactment of the state’s “founding violence.” Actually the title of this essay, “Kritik der Gewalt,” can mean both a critique of violence and a critique of authority, the one word, Gewalt, collapsing the two meanings into the one unsteady mix like Mutis/Echavarria. In other words we can think of this founding violence as an actual physical human conflict, of which there was much in Hobbes’s time, including bloody violence against the king. But we can also think more precisely of founding violence as this unsteady mix of an art in nature with an art of nature wherein violence becomes authority. Thus is the mystery solved—how might becomes right. A singular, if not exactly solid, achievement.

This is what Echavarria’s flowers mean to me and why Chuck Jones finds it easier to humanize animals than humanize humans.

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Taussig

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