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Superconversations Day 28: Siwin Lo responds to Hu Fang, “Why We Look at Plants, in a Corrupted World.”


I am running in Brooklyn. I am moving, unlike Fang’s vegetative friend. The trees that line the parkway reach over me, protecting me from the mid-day sun and forming a perforated tunnel towards Prospect Park.

On Washington Avenue, the roots of these trees grow defiant, pushing the pavement up and cracking it. All through the city plants hold a silent rebellion; grasses peek through broken sidewalks and branches reach through gaps in fencing. On Flatbush the pavement is cracked lengthwise, as though a giant serpent tunnels below. I run between the Prospect Park Zoo and the Botanical gardens, legacies of the Enlightenment urge to collect, classify, and contain the elements that compose the unruly world around us.

For Fang, both are “proof of humanity’s collective corruption,” and set diametrically opposite the “green assembly line” of industrial agriculture that brings plant products to consumers. Fang describes a root system in the Earth’s core, “reclaiming the aridity of the Earth,” but it seems that these plants have already ruptured the surface. Fang ultimately argues that by turning towards plants—becoming like plants, or taking inspiration from plants—humanity could find a means of co-existing with the world. I take a less anthropocentric view: Plants own this earth, and we are only visitors.

Long before humans built cities—3.5 billion years before—cyanobacteria grew in layers from the ocean floor, eventually raising themselves above the ocean surface. They were the first to grow on what we now call Land. These single-celled photosynthesizing organisms trapped carbon dioxide and pumped out oxygen, slowly transforming the Earth’s atmosphere into one that could support breathing organisms.

Plants precede us, and they will continue on after we’ve passed. This is not a denial of the destruction that humans have wrought on the planet, but rather, a speculation of what may come after the Anthropocene. The Otolith Group’s Radiant (2012), presented at dOCUMENTA (13), examines the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The evacuated villages testify to the presence of radiation—toxic to humans but seemingly ignored by plants, which grow unfettered in our absence. They play the long game, one in which neither tortoise nor hare have a chance.

Perhaps it is because plants seem ever present that we use plant metaphors to mark the passage of time, or the passage of thought. The individual cut-out images that compose Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass (2012), also presented at dOCUMENTA (13), flutter on reed-like stems. Removed from the pages of TIME magazine yet maintaining their chronological sequence, Farmer’s “leaves” nonetheless march forward in unison. A flattening of the time recorded in the source pages occurs. In addition to operating as a reference to Walt Whitman’s poem and as a more straightforward comparison between the composition of the work and a bed of grasses, the leaves of Leaves of Grass seem to refer the organic matter used to produce the paper leaves of the magazines themselves, and beyond that, the books that hold so much of modern history and literature.

Fang discusses the proliferation of representations of plants in the marketing of plant products, but this tautology can go much further. Take, for instance, the adhesive labels on packaged goods. If paper, the “green assembly line” can be followed to the pulp mills and forests used for the production of paper goods; if plastic, the assembly line starts with the remains of fossilized plants.

With this ubiquity in mind, I keep moving.

Underfoot, a root system flexes.

Siwin lo is a New York-based writer from Vancouver. She holds a MA in art history from the University of British Columbia and is currently pursuing a PhD in art history at City University of New York.


The Society for Parallel Botany studies imaginary plants with a focus on commercial and decorative uses of plant imagery. They have an exhibition up now dedicated to foliage: http://parallelherbarium.tumblr.com/about