On POST-INTERNET FOLIAGE and Other Capitalist Monsterosa
Marie-Ève Lafontaine is a curator at Schinkel Pavillion, Berlin
“In order to circulate in art, to function as an artist, there is a law: one has to be dressed in the fashion of one’s time.”
– Marcel Broodthaers, 1974
In 2016, Pantone declared that their ‘Color of the Year’ pick for 2017 would be a shade known according to the official Pantone catalogue as ‘Greenery 15-0343.’ Predictably enough, the statement was announced alongside the release of a slick promotional video complete with cheery xylophone music, happy young adults, and an array of potted houseplants better known to indoor garden enthusiasts as philodendrons, butterfly palms, and succulents.
Seen in the light of recent political events and climate change, the announcement was laughably naive. However, it’s undeniable that the use of plants as an aesthetic accessory in both the virtual and real world has exploded in the past few years. In the age of hyper-connected sharing, broad-leaved plants like philodendrons and fig trees lend a sculptural quality and an eye-watering pop of color to those aspirational interiors posted by thousands of people on Instagram, a platform whose formatting and presentation generally favors over-lightened images. Naturally, the calmly clinical interiors of galleries and museums also fall victim to this arrangement, a telling sign as the primary method of interaction with a work of art increasingly takes place online.
However, the current appeal of indoor plants in contemporary art owes their popularity not just to the power of the internet; a multiplicity of factors, conscious and unconscious, play into the imagery of any particular Zeitgeist. As much as some might argue to the contrary, none of these choices are neutral — a fact merely substantiated by the sheer number of jungle print wallpapers, textiles and leaf motifs on view at your local cafe or design store. In hindsight, Pantone’s selection of 15-0343 was an inevitable choice that emerged from several years of ‘mindful consumption’ and ‘personal wellness’ movements which have been gaining in popularity since 2010. By observing media trends, the company was merely tapping into several years of market research in order to capitalize on them through paid partnerships and licensing in various product categories.
Color, after all, is big business, and colors, like clothes can be discarded just as quickly as any other consumable good.
In terms of consumerism, palms and other indoor plants have a long history of being associated with the ruling classes more than any other social group. Their increasing presence in contemporary art is largely satirical: they speak just as strongly for the societies of their production as the aspirational directions of the hierarchies which they mock. Take, for example, Marcel Broodthaers’ Un Jardin d’Hiver (1974). The potted palm tree—once an exotic symbol of power—had become the most commonly-available type of decoration used by the mid-1970s. In placing multitudes of them within the site-specific context of a gallery, Broodthaers simultaneously played with Duchamp’s concept of the readymade while criticizing the role of colonial history in the hierarchies of Western museums. The fact that this work was re-exhibited at the Venice Biennial in 2015 was a tongue-in-cheek testament to the trendiness of its very elements.
Fast forward to 2011, when designer Phoebe Philo hired German photographer Juergen Teller to shoot the Autumn/Winter ad campaign of the French fashion brand Céline. Teller, already a well established name in the contemporary art world, shot the campaign in his trademark style and included philodendron leaves (the name play here is just another marker of the notoriously ironic photographer) in his candid, over-lit shots. The swift rise of Philo’s luxurious take on refined minimalism was boosted by an ardent fan base of millennials who rapidly adopted to visual social platforms, such as Tumblr and Pinterest, which in turn ensured a brushfire-like publication of similar advertising campaigns by fast fashion houses like Zara. Shortly thereafter, the trend trickled down to interior design, where minimalism and loft-living became a welcome respite from the overstuffed armchairs and granite countertops of suburbia.
Today, a quick scroll confirms that no #instafashion post is complete without a strategically placed pop of green.
Enter #vaporwave, shortly thereafter, as part of a more broadly defined subculture of internet art employing what can be only described as a Tumblr aesthetic. One of the most dominant and enduring micro-trends to emerge from the early twenty-tens, vaporwave began as an obsession with 80’s subculture using early video game design, Japanese typology, and a fascination with neon tropical landscapes. Themes of globalization and capitalist culture were satirized by the aesthetic trappings of wealth exemplified in part by Roman busts and (you guessed it) potted palms.
Like most youth trends, vaporwave went on to become an entirely distinct aesthetic and music marker of its own, coopted most recently in Nicki Minaj’s music video ‘Motorsport’ (2017) which, at the time of printing, has racked up almost two-hundred and sixty million views on YouTube.
As vaporwave gained in popularity, its distinctive visuals were gleefully seized by artists as a counterpoint to the accelerating rise of a wholesome faux-nostalgia trend. Vaporwave was shallow in meaning and production quality, but that was the point. It was meant to represent the remnants of a sort of dystopian techno-capitalism, reframed within the aesthetics of the rampant consumerism of the 80’s. Predictably enough, around the same time, more plants began to pop up in contemporary art. These works drew subconsciously on the heritage of installations, such as Broodthaers’ Jardin d’Hiver, inherently mocking the spread of a nondescript spirituality (think #soblessed) and white-washed authenticity which was promoted in mainstream corners of the internet by first-world millennials (Céline, anyone?). This very movement also coincided with the rise of a new aesthetic in the form of Post-Internet Art, best characterized by the 9th Berlin Biennial in which the majority of artworks shown seemed to imitate and satirize mass-produced internet culture. Artists such as Débora Delmar — personified as the Debora Delmar Corp.— further lampooned art world elitism with her site-specific installation MINT (2016) where she actually sold bottles of green sludge on the grounds of the Biennial. Purchased with real money by members of the ‘creative classes’ in cafes constructed out of reclaimed palettes that were obsessively shared on Instagram, the surreal chain came full circle.
In less than 10 years of mass-adoption, social media has come to replace the museum’s historical function as a location of primary visual stimulation.
In another work exhibited at the Biennial, A Reflected Landscape (2016), artist Timur Si-Qin installed a mixture of real and artificial greenery and rocks while a LED video loop played content featured thematically around the landscape itself, a “post-anthropocentric diorama in which nature has gained the capacity for self-understanding” according to the press release. In playing with the separation between digital and physical space, as well as the infinite reproducibility of digital materials in the physical world, Si-Qin pointed out that the psychological impact of data floods leads to a desire to return to a quasi-spiritual aesthetic. Consequentially, the wellness trend—so conveniently identifiable with abstract spiritualism and natural health—was ripe for lampooning. Then, it was doomed to die in a pit of irony and cynicism.
Hence, our humble houseplant is linked to far more political and aesthetic movements than one might realize at first sight. Seen within the framework of luxury brands like Céline, it’s easy to realize how certain signifiers are adopted by the art world in order to scoff at the qualities of the very culture that produced them. As social and economic forces impel aesthetics into form, at some point in time colors and objects take on the shape of a generally accepted vocabulary. If the primary method of creative expression in Western society is consumerism, then it’s only natural that the Western world’s way of responding to a heavily politicized time of crisis and war is to look in the other direction. Pantone’s cooptation of its Greenery 15-0343 can be seen as just another play in the symbolic warfare between official and unofficial culture, between the socially acceptable and socially unacceptable. In other words, if neo-liberalism is the death of critical thinking, then insincerity (and a good houseplant) is the only way out.