Plants occupy a curious space in Los Angeles, along our endless boulevards, the slippery wild spaces, in our pragmatic urban gardens. Dressed in their rugged army and sour greens, saps and dusty forests, they feel heavy here, as if enduring an unfortunate reassignment from a primordial and pleasant film set to the present catastrophe-in-waiting. They hover, necessarily detached from a place that, despite its force, can’t match their slow power. Their mystical authority resounds elsewhere. Here they seem provisional occupants, their majesty unhinged. We need them and rush by them. Without a clear right to existence, they seem, like the rest of us, touched, agitated, leaning toward the bygone.
When an artist works with plant life as her primary material, she risks capitalizing on the pathos of the plant in an environment governed by reaction and speed. Their insistent presences, their fragility, are easy plots in a city in love with heroes who reaffirm life’s unalterable brutality. For Lara Bank, whose major recent projects include Tree and Space, The Portable Forest, and the beloved Sea and Space Explorations, plants are raw material, conscripts in a larger concern about power and the right to existence.
Lara Bank founded and directed Sea and Space Explorations, an exhibition space that
asked straightforward questions about the relationship between the artist and the art gallery. The project treated the art space as less a privileged enclave than a hub of connection and exchange. In the short span of two years, Bank hosted over 300 artists in an array of inventive, intelligent exhibitions, situated largely in conceptual or relational practice. Bank’s integrity and adamant fostering of artists working outside of the art market made Sea and Space Explorations one of the sunniest and most productive spaces in LA, a magic bubble for those whose work grew there and for its audiences.
Since Sea and Space, Bank has furthered her interest in the relationship between space, being, and power in a series of surprisingly perverse works with spruces, firs, air plants, and succulents in The Portable Forest, an expansive, deceptively friendly series. The project takes on many forms, from one-person mobile shows in which Bank wheels potted plants around town in a mini-trailer hitched to her tidy green Echo to large scale performances in which plants are the primary actors.
At Monte Vista Projects, The Portable Forest Tree Library (2011) became something of a cross between plant bordello and hip Christmas tree lot. Seventy potted evergreens from all over the world filled the gallery, a tense cluster of tall trees at the center, a ring of saplings along the walls. Each potted plant stood on a keenly designed floor label by Nicole Antebi displaying its name and vulnerability to extinction. Grow lights saturated the space a sickly yellow. In the glow, trees and people looked wan, faintly radiated. A live fern rotated eerily on a disco ball above the exhibition in a work by Bianca D’Amico’s called make love plant a garden / excuse me, i planted /planting a party.
It was Christmas season. Rather than buy a cut tree visitors were invited to check one out for free, assuming responsibility for its care and safe return. Perusing the forest of young firs and spruces, I had the sensation of being watched. Maybe it was the lurid lighting; or Amy Blount Lay’s sweetly grotesque miniature seal sculptures clustered in the needles; or maybe it was Bank’s anxious hovering as I deliberated. Finally, I settled on a tiny fir with just enough weakness to mirror mine, and just enough moxie to make it through the rental period, sort of a Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree with a little more pluck. Once I had my plant, Lara placed a red heart-shaped sticker on the wall, as if I’d bought a painting. I signed a limited contract and left. I felt the rush of “getting something”—in this case a living being—a thrill soon followed by the thud of responsibility knowing that I actually had to return to the gallery to pick the plant up and lug it back to my apartment. The tree spent a month alternately shivering and sweating on my balcony, and as winter passed, it occurred to me that I might have taken part in a dubious exchange.
On the surface, The Portable Forest Tree Library is cheery, soft, family-friendly even. Beneath, it appears the plants are sacrificed to a subtle critique of relational practice on the one hand and an experiment in human tenderness on the other. The trees were rented indiscriminately. Outside a contractual promise to care for the tree according to instructions, there were no controls on who could take one home. Albeit hardy subjects, these mobile trees were still vulnerable to human recklessness. When I asked Lara if people were concerned that the plants might die in the experiment, she shook her head, aware, “No, not really.” “Do you think people ought to have objected to the piece in some way?” I asked. “Yeah, I do.” “Do you think you should have been protested?” “Yeah, that would be great,” Lara stated flatly. So, then, I asked myself, why this gentle subterfuge?
At the heart of the work is our tense and fragile relationship with being-ness, made resonant by the plant’s speechlessness. In the plant’s seeming passivity and our use of its nature, we become aware of the precarious nature of being, power, and the ease with which we play with both. Inside the human-plant relationship is a complicated I/Thou dialogue, inconvenient to ponder. We have an obvious need for plant lives. They give us food, oxygen, energy, power, identity. We find them beautiful or noxious; they sustain or poison us; we fear and idealize the wide spread of their field. Do they need us? Love us? Fear us? They don’t say.
Bank’s Tree Library focuses on the moment when the plant is transferred to the participant, an event in which the plant loses its imaginary potential for freedom and becomes a patently vulnerable “thing,” a bundle of information. Receiving the plant, the participant moves from spectator to arbiter. She can do what she likes with the plant. She can nourish it or toss it off a roof. She’s required only to return the results. She may be aware of her destructive instincts, suspicious of others’ delinquencies. The fear is mild, a strain. It’s Christmas after all. The trees are gifts to an entitled public, who are perhaps expected to use them like any other toy. And given the season, the piece could easily slip into other contexts, such as the charitable festivity or the educational event, and we might miss seeing it as an artwork. The piece resists categorization, yet its critique is clearly within art practice.
With tree as performer, Bank looks at the seesawing balance of power between the participant/observer, artist/performer, and their mutual relation to the art object and art exchanges. Polite society, or more properly, the continual possibility of transaction around art works makes artists cautious. To protest an artwork risks moving the primary players (usually artists, sometimes an obeisant public) outside the tensile system of relationships that buoys our work and the languages that cradle it. Although artists and audience may have a tacit agreement of complicity with any given art action, the action is always accompanied by a threat of disruption. Only occasionally will the threat become real. To disrupt an art work by oneself is to move oneself into a potentially unpopular political position, to risk breaking the spell of Art and the hoped for union of artists; to deny art its function as safe, hermetic laboratory wherein transgression serves a broader personal and social good; and perhaps worse, to violate the suspense of judgment and ultimately risk being wrong about an idea. On the other hand, silence about an artwork that one finds objectionable risks marking that artwork as irrelevant. Either art doesn’t matter or ethics do. And the question is always, “Whose ethics?”
This question cannot be answered without peril. Thus, we often find ourselves in a kind of intellectual paralysis in the face of a possible objectionable action. I recall Marilyn Arsem’s recent piece at Human Resources wherein she systematically picked apart a potted tree in front of an audience that grew increasingly emotional, even hostile, with the fall of each leaf. In the face of artistic violence, a few stood and looked angry; a few left, but most of us, including me, stayed. Had Arsem made a salad things might have been different. Amazing things happen when you call them art.
Arsem’s violence and the subtle potential for violence in The Portable Forest further recall the violence done the performer who is looked at and the participant who is looking. We confront each other silently. We let feelings come up, voicelessly. There can be disappointment from a sourness that arises in the artist’s aggressive desire, from a lack of deference to the witnesses’ need for control, or from the unmet, unanticipated desires of artist and witness. And there are presences around performative events, ghosts: those who are not present, not invited, not aware, not encountered in the mutual gaze of performer and viewer in the privileged sphere of the art action. Plants bear a likeness to those ghosts, cropping up along the edges of human business.
But the plant bodies in these pieces are not willing performers. They are made to experience. They are watched, held, moved, taken places, fed or not fed, watered or not watered, left, returned. They stand in for other vulnerable bodies. In The Portable Forest Tree Library, it may be that the artist avoided the threat to her own body by using tree substitutes. Her earlier work speaks to an interest in the marred or disfigured body, its vulnerability to nature by way of accident, disease, or chance. As a young artist, she made performative sculptural works wherein parts of the body—a leg, a butt cheek, a hand–were marked or decorated with protrusions, doubled with prostheses, made bombastically weird with attached appendages in different fashionable colors.
In The Portable Forest with Human Pots at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Summer Salon Series, the tendency to distort, celebrate or humble the body reemerges. The opening moment of the piece was magnificent. Tall evergreens ringed the rotunda of the museum, nobly, as in a Roman garden, symbols of beauty as order. Juxtaposed were crafted shelves on which toys were displayed: wearable foliage in hard hats and succulent armbands meant to adorn. Visitors were invited to play. Families swarmed the installation, trying on hats, drinking beer, posing for photos. Dudes posed in beer hats festooned with spidery String of Bananas and spiky Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, warmly inebriated. Women tried on air plant earrings like stylish Princess Leas. Bank’s assistants made anonymous in spooky military ghillie suits helped people try on the armband succulents. Everyone had a good time, and the museum drew in thousands of participants/observers. The piece is endearing, but unsettling. I can’t help wonder about the nature of relational practice in the museum, even though I’ve made and loved such pieces. We, the public, seem to gobble up these generous works like cotton candy, moving to the next and the next entertainment. We are trying to feel, to connect; the artist is trying to help us. The artist is uncertain. “Is this valuable? Is this anything?” I’ve asked myself many times as both an artist and participant,“What are we trying to make happen?”
The Portable Forest with Human Pot’s accessibility is key to its success. When we translate plant limb to human limb, nature’s fragility to human weakness, we see our own clownish temporality in the spectator and participant. Art is ridiculous; people are ridiculous, trying to trump nature. Watching someone parade around in a cowboy hat draped with a String of Bananas is a relief. Idiocy is okay. Toughness is a charade. It’s okay to consume. There’s not much left to take anyway. We might as well dance. Then the sadness comes, then the awakening to the banality of our pleasures. Plants give us a moment of reunion with a world we are killing. Their presence puts the artwork in a protective green sphere. They are our patient friends for a moment. Right?
A sense of the murderously, poignantly absurd is taken to a high pitch in Bank’s current work, The Edible Portable Forest Cross Country Voyage, the culmination of her research. The work is a multi-part performative installation that begins in Los Angeles and ends in New York at the Dumbo Arts Festival. Lara Bank built a miniature, transportable greenhouse that tucks into her mini-trailer. Soon she will be driving this trailer, along with dozens of beautifully crafted sample bags, human salad hats, and utensils, and some lovely branding elements from LA to New York in the aforementioned green Echo, in what can only be a perilous journey. Her co-pilot will be Topiary Herb Corgi, a replica of her magical departed corgi dog Foxy. When she arrives in New York, Lara will be stationed among many at the busy Dumbo festival wearing a ghillie suit herbed with thyme, oregano, mint, sage, onions and chives. She’ll encourage people passing by to take clippings from the trailer and the little herbed corgi bearing a sign to that effect. She’ll then make salads in bowls strapped to visitors’ heads in a piece called Riot Head Salad while the formidable Chris Colthart and his band Gold Paint sing songs for The Portable Forest. Almost everyone’s in trouble: the plants that are moving at high speeds across variable climates, the driver, hell-bent on getting to New York in an old car she’ll donate at the end; the merry-makers who will be used as human salad bars. Gold Paint and Colthart may escape with their dignity…maybe. What’s beautiful in this work is the collective yielding, the groping toward a reconnection with the Earth’s potent care.
Lara Bank’s zeal, the complexity of these works wherein lies a deep love of nature and a distrust of human beings, a need for reckoning with the fact that living things die, and her questioning of who has a right to be here and under what circumstances, make these works so cumulatively powerful. The thin webbing between the will to live and the longing to die courses through artworks that are so giddy on the surface, so mournful underneath. Bank’s trip across country with her stunted green friends, her totem, and steel will are reminiscent of Bas Jan Ader’s last work, a heroic and timeless gesture towards defeat, not to death but toward a loss of connection to the world and its inhabitants that is always present in life. The “swan song” of a neglected earth is very much the leitmotif of our era. Why these works matter is not because they are educational or critical or clever, but because they reveal the artist’s conflicted desires, intense contrasts inside of which we can be revealed to ourselves. Human beings are on the edge, always pushing against the end of existence, waiting for it to push back. These works are little sparks from that experiment, in the middle, pushing, waiting, pushing.
If you would like to assist Lara on her Cross Country Greenhouse Journey to DUMBO, please feel encouraged to take advantage of her Kickstarter.
In December, 2011 Asher Hartman won in the Monte Vista Holiday Raffle a “post on Notes on Looking, size and content to be determined by the winner.” There is a baseline of generosity in the art community of Los Angeles, Asher Hartman eloquently expresses this in the act of focusing outside his own practice and by drawing attention to Lara Bank, an artist whose career has been one of reaching out to and drawing in other artists and the public. I’m proud that Notes on Looking is able to host Asher’s writing, and as a long time admirer of Lara Bank, I am thrilled to publish Asher’s discussion of her practice. Asher would like to thank Tom McKenzie for his creative and technical assistance (and inspiration) on this project. Geoff Tuck
Lara Bank website: http://www.larabank.com/run/
Asher Hartman website: http://www.asherhartman.com/index.html
Sea and Space Explorations: http://www.seaandspace.org/
Monte Vista Projects: http://www.montevistaprojects.com/
San Diego Museum of Art Summer Salon Series (ongoing): http://www.sdmart.org/programs-events/summer-salon-series-2012
DUMBO Arts Festival: http://dumboartsfestival.com/