January 24, 2019

Still Life in Transformation

Anatomie is the Berlin based duo Amandine Cheveau & Jean-Christian Pullin who want to create a dialogue between flowers, art and space.

Photos Atilla Fidan

Words Nora Hagdahl

Photo Assistant Moritz Knierim

Against a peach colored satin curtain a white bench, looking to be from the turn of the century, is placed. The bench is surrounded with two spectacular bouquets with a wide range of flowers such as rosehips, hydrangeas and cloves placed in a pair of white, neoclassical vases on pedestals. The flowers reach in and over the scene and frames it with curved branches and greenery. The vases are carefully ornamented with simplistic details in gold. The parts are like props, creating a romantic scenography connoting to a French rococo environment that commute between some kind of aphrodisiac divine garden and kitsch.

The installation, created by the duo Anatomie in their project space at Strausberger platz in Berlin, is based on Jean François de Troy’s “Declaration of Love” and proposes a reinterpretation of the “Tableau de Mode” whose main theme are gallant activities of young knights and high-ranking women. The spectator is invited to take a seat on a bench, evoking the image of gardens where such meetings took place. Each of the bouquets framing the bench represents one part of the archetypal discursive, sexual relationship. When looking closely the stereotypes of gender is scrambled, by subtitle gestures such as using phallic shapes in the the feminine representation the bouquets also intrude conservative ideas of sexuality and gender. The installation functions as an interactive and breathing still-life, with components such as the pedestals, flowers and the draped curtain – all giving reference to the paintings in history with similar motives.

Still life painting has its roots far back in the history of art, starting from the Middle Ages and Ancient Greco-Roman art. During the 16th and 17th century it formed as a distinct category of paintings, but was then regarded as being lowest in rung in the hierarchy of genres. History painting, portraiture and even paintings of animals were seen as more noble motives at the time. Holland was one of the countries where still life painting developed the most during 17th century, and thus had a lot of prominent still life painters such as Rachel Ruysch or Peter Claesz. Ruysch was especially known for her “flower pieces”, and became during her lifetime one of the most sought-after and highest-paid painters in Europe.

Still life paintings often had symbolic meaning hidden behind detailed realism, and just as Antomies bouquets, played with the iconography of flowers. Due to the reformism imagery with religious subjects were forbidden in the north of Europe. Instead of the former biblical motives, still lifes now depicted subjects of deeper meaning and the artworks were often called memento mori (“mementos of mortality”) or vanitas (“emptiness”), featuring skulls to signify death, hourglasses to indicate the passing of time, and wilting flowers to symbolize the ephemeral.

Anatomie is the Berlin based duo Amandine Cheveau & Jean-Christian Pullin who wants to create a dialogue between flowers, art and space. Working not merely as florists they instead use flowers as their medium for a practice that lies in the junction between art and decoration with the aim to broaden our conception of flowers, to more than just beautification of the domestic space. Flowers are in constant change, from fresh to wither. Their transience is challenging an idea of the eternal art object. On one note is the use of a decaying material is in contrast with the ossified still-lives through history, paintings that captured the moment of beauty. On another note these momentary still lifes are taking up the long tradition of vanitas, in an even more direct and honest way. There is something poetic making flower arrangements work as installations.

" Flowers are in constant change, from fresh to wither"

 

The use of nature as the medium of art creates a situation where the work slowly transforms in front of the spectator’s eye, due to the live material being in constant change and movement. A work like that seems to lack the stability we so often connote to the traditional expressions in the visual art. How can we read art in continual transformation, and practices who use this method? It appears that the mutating artworks gives us hints on time passing. The ever changing works, buds to blossom, blossom to wither let the installation be not purely in space, but also take place in time. As the time passes the flowers in Anatomies bouquets wilt. By giving a work not only a spatial dimension but also a temporal dimension makes the art form more connected to video and performance art, with a structure of progression. It also refers to kinetic art that let spatial structures unfold in time by movement. All these art forms also play on change to create these temporal dimensions.

But these floral installations seem to differ in one significant way in the flow of time that it creates in previous examples, it lacks direction. Both video and performance art seem to have more narrative tendencies than nature can accomplish by itself. They often hold a beginning and end, and though we often see video art play with the notion of eternity by using loops or performance art often use a situation based context to let the work play out it is still directed by human minds. Works using live material seem to unfold a time without knowing what how the work will progress.

In 1992, the American artist Jeff Koons debuted Puppy, a 43-foot-tall sculpture of a dog covered in a colorful carpet of over 60,000 flowering plants. “It’s such a pleasant experience to give up control,” Koons explained, “to let nature take its course.” – which is somehow what an artist does when working with living material. Instead of being part of a depiction from start to end, the artist is here more of a primus motor, creating the conditions to then let the work have its own course. This process is noted in Anatomies performance “From 7 days to 7 minutes” or how to accelerate the decay of flowers in the domestic use, where the visitor’s action is meant to succeed the natural crumble of plants.

If not interrupted by visitors, the time in these types of works seem to move along undirected, which associate it more to temporal experience of life. Nor the artist or the spectator can be aware of how the work will proceed which creates this universal unwitting of what to come, which resonate with how time play out in the human life. In that way these installations seem to lay their practice closer to land artists, that in the 1950s occupied real places in nature for their art.

However, there is also something really appealing working with flowers as a medium in art, because of its history as decoration in a domestic space. We often connote floral arrangements with a decoration or beauty, a concept that most of us have a prior relationship to. We bring flowers into our homes to beautify while art in many cases is excluding and demands prior knowledge. Without the keys to the iconography of flowers it is impossible to find the underlying meaning in the 17th century’s still lifes. By creating a practice that lies in the fore between art and decoration and not excluding either of the aspects, Anatomies works can be appreciated and understood with both those things in mind. Maybe the reason why you feel that their rococo garden has an aspect of kitsch derives from the preconceptions on “high” and “low” art, art or craft or art vs. decoration. By making works with flowers and not suspend that domestic aspect you open up for judgment only considering looks, which is uncommon for contemporary expressions in the art-scene. This aspect is what makes Anatomies oeuvre approachable and embracing, and makes it speak on several levels to several types of beholders. As these still life resembling installations hold implicit dictum about time itself, it also communicates by flower iconography, or talks to us purely with being beautiful and stunning.