42. Blooming Reliquary
For this month’s newsletter, among tragic news and scary headlines, let’s poke up from the darkness of the soil and unfurl gently to take in the warmth of spring.
On the first day of May, I drove with some friends to a farm in Upstate New York to go dandelion-picking. It was one of the first days of the year where the grass electric green under the sun’s glow, bees did their little pollination dance around us, and the occasional breeze rippled across the field, letting the dandelions shake their little golden heads at us before we plucked them. By the end of the day, with hands and bags stained yellow, we watched as bounty after bounty got dumped into massive bins that would later be driven back to Brooklyn and brewed into dandelion wine.
We think of flowers as pretty things, a marker of a new season, accents for our home decor, gifts we give to celebrate new life or to mourn lives lost, yet they’re more than just something to look at. I think of my grandma’s teas made from dried flowers sitting in our pantry, of buds pressed into oils for perfumes or boiled into syrups to drink, medicinal or even poisonous with their beauty.
So, for this month’s newsletter, among tragic news and scary headlines, let’s poke up from the darkness of the soil and unfurl gently to take in the warmth of spring.
Last Christmas, I finally read Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Growing up, orchids were a staple of our household. Both my mom and dad collected them, and I still remember living among them when we’d bring the plants inside before hurricanes. Reading Orlean’s book reminded me of walking through one of Florida’s many orchid shows, seeing the colorful chromatics of elaborate cross-bred plants and their ostentatious competition displays, stopping to smell the opened buds (including one that had notes of chocolate). Orlean’s book is one about obsession, beginning with a court case in Florida after a man gets caught poaching a rare ghost orchid from the Everglades and going back to some of the earliest botanical collectors who, in their colonial conquest, would wipe out species or meet their own doomed fates in the orchids’ native ecosystems. This book is a reminder that nature is not something easily controlled, and that obsessive consumption comes at a cost.
A coworker recently asked me if I had a favorite science exhibition and, without hesitation, I said the Glass Flower collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Predating modern microscopy, this unique collection of 4,300 glass models comprises 780 planet species in various stages of growth and decay. They were produced by father and son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschaka over 50 years. It’s such a marvel to see and the gallery is always so quiet as visitors walk around in silent reverence. I always pair my visit with a reading of “Passing” by Noah Baldino.
Henry Rose’s fragrance, Flora Carnivora, smells like the seductive elements of a Venus flytrap, luring you in with the gentle soft of perfume of jasmine before delivering a sweet bite of orange flower. It feels like walking through a garden at nighttime, the blooms and trees turning sinister as the moon casts their elongated shadows while a gentle breeze kicks their fragrant pollen up into darkness of the sky.
I’ll end this section with two living floral installations I’ve experience in recent years:
The first is Daniel Lie’s Unnamed Entities at the New Museum. When I opened the door to the gallery, I was struck by the deep smell of soil radiating from this monumental sculpture of dirt, grass, clay, and flowers. It took all my willpower not to reach out and sink my fingers into this earthy piece. Lie’s work is rooted in life cycles, with parts of the sculpture decaying or sprouting beyond human design. Plants, bacteria, and fungi take on the role of artist within this living work, turning botanical materials into an interdependent dance of decomposition and regeneration.
Back in 2018, I saw Katherine Bauer’s show “Cinematic Death Moon Return: Impact Phase” at Microscope Gallery not once, but twice. Bauer’s project, a mix of photography, sculpture, and film, was inspired by the closure of a movie theater in upstate New York. Bauer created works from what she could salvage, like celluloid film strips, projectors, and 35mm film platters. The show’s centerpiece featured live moon flowers woven among these materials, tapping into rich histories of spiritual healing, alchemy, and lunar mythologies. I saw the show at its start, when the vining moon flowers were still fresh and blooming. By the time I went again, days before closing, the gallery had a soft, sickly sweet smell of rot in the air as the flowers met their end entangled in film strips from an era of cinema which too was ending.
Rachel Youn’s flower installations are delightfully unsettling. Attached oftentimes to mechanical massagers, their chosen artificial specimens shake, thrash, and spin like dancers. There’s a playful whimsy to their movement, a sense that these animated plants are trying (and failing) to adopt humanoid movements. As awkward or silly these kinetic sculptures are, they tap into bigger questions of being in the world, particularly notions of queerness, of life’s messiness and embracing failure. I love this observation from Youn in a 2021 interview: “I became interested in fake flowers and plants as objects we purchase to present the idea of fresh cut flowers or nature or bounty, yet inside we know they are plastic and manufactured.”
Walead Beshty’s 2005 photography series, Island Flora, would have you think that you’re encountering a pristine wilderness or an overgrown garden. In reality, this greenery can be found planted in the traffic islands and medias along Los Angeles’s highways. Beshty became fascinated with these visible (yet invisible) ecosystems of vegetation when he first moved to the city, noting how they would be seen by drivers yet grew in inaccessible isolation thanks to their proximity to car traffic.
Firelei Báez’s creative practice reckons with colonial histories and cultural exchanges, seeking out healing and resistance in the in-between spaces of identity and placemaking. Having grown up in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and Haitian father, Báez uses motifs like maps (evoking histories of colonization in the region) and symbols like feathers and flowers to share histories and mythologies from the region. I was particularly struck by her 2021 painting, Untitled (A Map of the British Empire in America). Here, she denies the map’s functionality, transforming it into a beautiful scene of blooming flora, its churning seas not yet marked by conquest.
A self-described “alien plant artist,” Hai Ihwa’s floral design pushes plants into the realm of otherworldly. Now building sets for some of the world’s biggest K-pop idols, I’m struck by the science fictional elements of their work. Blossoming flowers, exploding bouquets of grasses, and fragile orchids are propped up by metal and machines, sometimes illuminated by neon, reminding us of flowers’ strange beauty.
Sam Goku’s EP Flowery Rave Tales sounds like what I imagine photosynthesis feels like. Think: the tinkling and hum of cellular generation, roots stretching out their tiny tendrils, flowers turning their petal faces to the warm glow of the sun. Within this lush soundscape “Fungi Spin” and “Breaking Through The Soil” are my favorites.
Listening Florence + The Machine’s music is always a holy experience. Her newest album, Dance Fever, doesn’t disappoint with its folkloric ecstasy. Her song “Daffodil” radiates feral divinity. There’s this coupling of beauty and mourning, trying to make sense of the madness of the world. She sings: “English sun, she has come / To kiss my face and tell me that I’m that chosen one / A generation soaked in grief / We’re drying out and hanging on / by the skin of our teeth.”
Jana Winderen’s Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone considers a different kind of blooming, that of the plankton and the emergence of marine life in the Barents Sea near the North Pole. We think of these landscapes as being cold and inhospitable, yet Winderden’s project challenges these notions through a rich soundscape. Immersed in the crackling sounds of melting ice and vocalizations by whales and seals, the listener reflects on this precarious ecosystem now threatened by warming waters.
One of my favorite parts of perfumery has got to be enfleurage. This technique, one of the oldest in the world, relies on fats to extract the fragrant compounds of plants. It’s a time-consuming process, with collected flowers repeatedly removed and added as the fat becomes saturated. It was a process reserved for more delicate botanicals like jasmine, lilac, or tuberose, common perfume ingredients whose fragrance would not have been able to survive the high heat of other extraction methods. If you’re curious about what this looks like in practice, there’s plenty of tutorials floating around.
Curated by Iris Diane Palma, flowersincinema is an Instagram account dedicated to sharing stills from TV and film with scene-stealing blooms. If you’ve ever craved watching something rich with floral beauty, you’ll certainly find your next fave scrolling through this cinematic archive.
I adore the music video for Avalon Emerson’s track, “One More Fluorescent Rush.” Playing with 3D graphics and interfaces reminiscent of facial-recognition software, the bubbly tune gets a botanical accompaniment with flashing images of flowers and butterflies as her synthetic sounds mingle with the alien parts of the natural world.
One of my favorite TikTok accounts as of late has been that of John Verdery, a cactus grower based here in NYC. While I have yet to visit the Lower East Side Cactus & Succulent Society now open for the summer season, I’ve been so engrossed in John’s video series about ‘strange xerophytes.’ As someone who grew up in the tropical humidity of South Florida, I’ve always been fascinated by cacti’s resilient, alien beauty and peculiar forms. It’s amazing to see what Verdery’s keeping in his collection.
The NYBG’s digital exhibition “Poetic Botany” considers how art and science came together to grow botanical knowledge in the 18th century. This use of poetics to explore the natural world wasn’t just about creating pretty language, but offer insights on a species’s history, like its name and function within ecologies, and how this reflected bigger changes in philosophy, medicine, and politics at the time with particular attention to race and gender. It’s a fascinating read, and I love how you can learn more about the plant specimens and the people who shaped these ideas.
As you begin to feel the sun’s heat more sharply on our skin, begin turning on our air conditioning, begin craving a trip to the beach, consider Marge Piercy’s poem “More Than Enough.” It captures that moment spring slips into summer, her lyricism taking us on a walk along grass fields finding fruit and flowers. Piercy writes, “Rich fresh wine / of June, we stagger into you smeared / with pollen…”
Hanif Abdurraqib’s poem, “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This,” was published back in 2018, yet what it reckons with lingers today. This piece came about after Abdurraqib heard a white woman complain about a black poet reading poems with floral imagery, and became interested in what flowers symbolize both with their beauty and their eventual decay. Abdurraqib observes, “you might tell me something / about the dandelion & how it is not a flower itself / but a plant made up of several small flowers at its crown / & lord knows I have been called by what I look like / more than I have been called by what I actually am…”
Sarah Nicole Prickett’s essay, “Free The Roses,” considers the flower and all of its social, cultural, and political afterlives. From a spur-of-the-moment tattoo of thorny bloom to observations from gardeners about seasonal changes impacting their bounty, Prickett picks apart the motif petal by petal. There’s an anecdote of Jackie Kennedy receiving red roses when her and her husband made their fatal trip to Texas since there was a shortage of yellow ones, and a brief history of Rosa Luxemburg’s nickname “Red Rosa.” Contradictions punctuate this bloom, eroticism mixing with horror, violence and delicate femininity. She concludes, “I would love to buy roses to watch them die. I don’t buy them. I would never be able to throw them out.”
I’ll end this where I began: with orchids. Kaveh Akbar’s “Orchids Are Sprouting From the Floorboards” took my breath away the first time I read it, and continues to do so each re-read. There’s something about this image of flowers spilling into our artificial, manmade spaces, filling up every corner of what we see, taste, and feel with the sharp green of their leaves and electric-hued blooms. I love this line: “Teenagers are texting each other pictures of orchids on their phones, which are also orchids.” Don’t be fooled by the blossoming beauty. This is a poem about grief, that ache you get in mourning and all you want is to plug up the holes in your heart with flowers.
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Until next time.