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Becoming Plant

Rey Conquer

Victoria Adam, Julia Crabtree & William Evans, Ingela Ihrman, Paloma Proudfoot, André Romão, curated by Borbála Soós
Becoming Plant
Tenderpixel
11 July – 22 September 2018

Paloma Proudfoot, 2018

“Somebody told me that plants like it if you talk to them”, the exhibition text begins; and so Borbála Soós talks to her cheeseplant, who chides her for being “obsessed with things to come”. The question of what it might be for a plant to ‘like’ something, or what it is ‘like’ to be a plant, is sidestepped in Tenderpixel’s current group show: instead, human aspirations are variously grafted onto or provoked by the works, in which neurotic anthropocentrism and apocalyptic fears are played off against the unsettling nihilism of the desire, common in certain corners of the art world, to “become plant”.

A frequent point of reference is the nature documentary. This is the fourth show in Soós’s “Hangover” series, and in the first, Rowena Harris’s After Attenborough (2017) transformed the gallery into a virtual Eden Project, superimposing Attenborough’s footage of tropical foliage onto the floors and stairs. In the current show, the work takes aim at the way such documentaries resize the private lives of plants and animals to fit human narrative expectations. In her touchingly impractical costumes Ingela Ihrman acts out plant dramas on a human scale, making of them epic, or tragic, struggles to be followed at a human pace. Ihrman’s hands emerge from inside a giant waterlily and tug at its grotesquely stubbled calyx until the flower falls open unevenly. A spruce cone hobbles towards the sea across a rocky landscape as Nordic walkers stride around, barely showing their amusement or bafflement at this hopeless figure whose seed scales keep falling off in the wind and whose human feet, poking out at the bottom, can take steps of only a few centimetres. The cone pauses to look around or down, as if rethinking its journey, then totters valiantly on, its back now turned to the camera in a droll homage to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. This is not what it is like to be, or become, a plant.

Julia Crabtree and William Evans,
Swell, 2018. Glass, uranium glass,
pond life, rebar, jesmonite, sausage
casing, pigment

A more ambivalent scenario is taking place next door, where the glass vessels of Julia Crabtree and William Evans’s installation are either swinging and playing on the ropes and bars that suspend them or clinging on for dear life; if this is a picture of the “mutual reliance” described by Soós’s cheeseplant then it seems to suggest squishing and distortion on all sides, and everything is poised between collapse and proliferation. Pondweed, imperceptibly teeming, fills the bellies of the containers, whose mouths gape like round, jolly leeches, and long pastel turds of jesmonite in sausage casing strive languidly upwards, ready to strike.

The show begins with a collection of collections (sea glass, Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds, a restaurant reservation sign), a somewhat superfluous statement on curation, categorisation and the human enjoyment of things neither fully natural nor fully made. The things in the show proper, however, are for the most part healthily defiant of the dead end of taxonomy, such as Paloma Proudfoot’s eel-like seedpods which have escaped their baskets and split into juicy smirks, oozing berries and showergel. Next to these, Victoria Adam’s mannered assemblies of desiccated orange peel, cherry stalks and cuttlefish, part bird-table and part product display, seem unfortunately lacking in nerve, as do their religious or ritualistic undercurrents, most explicit in Wholemeal breeze (2018), in which a sponge soaked in vinegar strains against the bars of a cement air freshener (poignantly, this too dries out and needs regular top-ups).

André Romão’s haikus, while insipid, point nonetheless to the difficulties in narrating struggles that are not ours, or that seem, in some deep sense, to be against us: “Barberini bees | Hide in flowers and ripe fruit, | plotting as we speak”. Proudfoot’s Gauntlet (2018), a bench-like installation, belongs to a world in which confident plants-become-animals have rebuilt things to their measure, the glossy pink fronds of its anti-vandal fencing waving in cheery menace. If we have created a world, as Soós states in her text, to which humans cannot adapt, the new beings imagined here might be able to take up the mantle, in a future more fleshy and jubilant than the dour ruins and lichen that Soós seems to fear; but is it mutuality that these works celebrate, or is it rather, as in the title of one of Proudfoot’s works, “the anthropophagous stage”?

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Rey Conquer is a Stipendiary Lecturer at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.