I went to the MoMA PS1 on Sunday to catch the book release of artist Heide Hatry’s Not a Rose, a volume of essays on our relationship with animals by a merry bunch of philosophers, poets, and intellectuals, accompanied by photographs of Heide Hatry’s “flowers.” I put that in quotes because she uses animal offal and sex organs to form the sculptures, which, after looking at for a while, is pretty horrific. As most of the speakers noted, the fabrication of something that almost always connotes beauty out of something that almost always evokes disgust creates an interesting union and confusion of what we consider pretty and ugly.
As an art piece, however, it’s more a point of interest than a particularly well-executed work of sculpture or photography. It’s conceptual art; it is not the content, but rather the materials that Hatry uses that we react to and what sparks conversation. The fact that it is presented as a book–without looking through it thoroughly, it might end up on your mother’s coffee table–makes the deeper implications of the piece well apparent, as the essays that form the philosophical centerpiece of the artwork seem to be in conversation with each other. The images are merely a starting point. The sculptures themselves, while stunning, aren’t immediately disgusting; it takes thought–a sort of intangible, internal audience interaction–to really have the piece do something.
The panel discussion was a nice way to bring that interaction to light for those that had not yet read the essays (or have the book. I love art books, but I’m also a poor college student and $50 sort of means food for the week), and while it wasn’t entirely a discussion, nor entirely well-moderated, the speakers brought up a few good points, mainly about the role of violence in our relationship with animals. However, I feel there is a conversation about the flower industry that some of the panelists, as well as the artist herself, entirely skirted.
One of the first to speak was Linda Weintraub, who has recently written To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. She spoke a bit about her personal experience in killing animals, detailing the process of evisceration and the effect that that had on her appreciation of animals. She mentioned the beauty of the animal’s organ architecture; her kind of beauty was different from Heide’s in that she found beauty in functionality, whereas Heide created something aesthetically beautiful that has absolutely no functional use.
That’s the point that I like to dwell on: there is no functional human use for flowers. Heide created something that parallels the meat market; the flowers are nice to look at in the same way a good steak is nice to eat, especially when the entire process of selecting the cow, killing it, eviscerating it, butchering it, etc. is so separated from the consumer. Her sculptures, as are fancy, meaty meals, are in the realm of unnecessary flourishes. And they’re self-critical in that sense, as they make the grossness of the meat process readily apparent. Hatry elucidates this fact in the introduction to her book: “the flowers with which we normally surround ourselves are dead sex organs from living things, bred explicitly to serve our pleasure, not our sustenance.” But rather than speaking to the meat market–something already tackled rather extensively by Jonathan Safran Foer–I’d like to turn it around and take the art as a conversation piece about the flower industry.
Yes, meat is pretty gross. The meat industry is easy to criticize–even the phrase “meat industry” leaves a bad taste in my mouth–and it’s wholly unsustainable as it stands. But if anything needs more attention here, it’s the seemingly harmless culture of flower giving. I found myself guilty of the practice only a few weeks ago, when I called a California florist to send a vocalist friend a bouquet for her thesis recital. It was a sincere gesture–the inside joke enclosed in the accompanying card sent that message across–but it was only that: a gesture. As a friend that only cared about the gesture, I didn’t even know what kind of flowers were in the bouquet. And she loved it, but they all died just a few days later.
After the talk, and thinking about my own life a bit more, Heide’s artwork more and more brought the complete absurdity of our obsession with flowers to light. I became more and more disgusted with the completely unnecessary cult of the flower. Dale Jamieson (director of NYU’s Environmental Studies program) was also on the panel, and gave a brief history lesson in flower business. How in 1637, flowers were so in demand that they became a currency in the Netherlands. How today, floriculture suffers the same fate as corn crops in the United States, as many flower gardens are pesticide-ridden monocultures. I’ve followed up with my own research since Sunday, and I’ve found that a single rose takes 7-13 liters of water before it is ready to harvest. Further, several sites in African countries exhibit deteriorating biodiversity due to flower harvesting, and the amount of irrigated area set aside for flowers exceeds the area dedicated to vegetables by about 100 hectares (source). That fact alone is completely absurd to me, given the international food crisis. Then there’s the whole problem of mass exportation and oil usage, which could take up an entire blog post.
Flowers are thought of a non-issue, unlike meat and vegetables, because we don’t consume them. We don’t really need to think of how they’re grown because it doesn’t directly affect our bodies. But that’s precisely my point: flower industries are in some ways worse than meat industries because they are both unsustainably managed AND only briefly enjoyed. Some might argue that we evolved to need meat, which is a valid argument. It’s impossible to argue that our health would be compromised by not receiving roses after a performance, or on our birthdays.
Looking back, Heide was wearing a floral dress, and brought a bouquet of roses to set on the table. She probably threw them away afterwards, the equivalent of dumping 100 liters of fresh, drinkable water into the sewer. It was enjoyably quirky at the time, to make some visual statement about her work. But was it the right one?
The good news: