I showed my work to George Szirtes who, as well as being a friend, is an award winning poet. He also trained as an artist and was Head of Art at a secondary school before going on to teach Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His comments are very thoughtful and go beyond the usual commentary of what people do or don’t like about a piece of work, instead posing a series of probing questions. I’ve highlighted his comments in blue below followed by my response to the questions that he raises.
The Cyanotypes are in some ways the simplest to deal with. The process produces a kind of lunar, haunted beauty, as if we could find moonflowers by moonlight. The process determines the product. It brings home the otherness of flowers.
It is satisfying that George considers that the series “brings home the otherness of flowers”. It is also interesting that he considers the images to have a kind of “lunar haunted beauty” given that they were produced from the effect of sunlight on the cyanotype chemicals. I can see, however, what he means; the predominant bluish hue from the cyanotype process is a colour more associated with moonlight and the hazy, diffused focus of the flowers is closer to less intense evening light than the harsh glare of sunlight. The question this poses for me is whether it affects my original intention of using the images to portray global heating and its consequent effects. Does the lunar beauty negate the intended portrayal of the dangers of a warming planet? I think that the cyanotype process still stands as a metaphor for global heating given that it uses the Ultraviolet rays of intense sunlight to produce the main image. The names of the coloured pigments used in the titles of the images (Baked Earth, Hot Red, Red Earth etc) are also intended to signify heating and some of the effects of climate change. Perhaps this shows that, when exhibited (physically or online) I should emphasise the associations between climate change and the cyanotype process and the image titles. As a consequence of this I have changed the Cyanotypes page of floremis.com website to place these associations first and foremost on the page.
The Pesticides make a more complex set in that the effects produced involve material that already has a significance. We have a natural (or is it learned?) distrust of pesticides. Whether the images – especially the runny images – might have been produced in another way has become secondary. We know it is pesticide so the irony of the image is an aspect of what we already know. The questions asked by the images are: Can we have beauty borne of poison? Must poison produce ugly images? Dannie Abse had a fine poem (‘Pathology of colours’) about the beautiful colours of tumours.
Given that the title of the series is Pesticides, George is correct in saying that “the irony of the image is an aspect of what we already know”. Personally I think that we probably have a learned distrust of pesticides rather than a natural one, in recent times pesticides were initially seen a saviour, enabling vastly increased food yields. But then the discovery of the negative effects of DDT and many other pesticides changed opinion significantly. While pesticides may still have a useful role to play, many people are drawn to organic produce, perhaps as a result of this distrust of pesticides. It is true that the indiscriminate use of pesticides can have a hugely damaging effect on plants (and us all) not least through the reduction in the numbers of pollinating insects. I do, therefore, therefore think that it is significant that the final image has been produced by the application of a pesticide on the print even though this may have become a secondary aspect to the viewer. The more challenging questions that George asks are “Can we have beauty borne of poison? Must poison produce ugly images?” He references Dannie Abse’s poem Pathology of Colours, the first stanza of which reads:
I know the colour rose, and it is lovely,
but not when it ripens in a tumour;
and healing greens, leaves and grass, so springlike,
in limbs that fester are not springlike.
I think that Abse goes some way to answering George’s question in that he is describing how colours can be beautiful in some settings but awful when associated with others. It is not the colour itself that is beautiful or ugly but its association with the setting or condition that renders it so. This is relevant to the Pesticides series in that the images may be seen as ugly by some or by others as beautiful. As with colours it is the association with pesticides that will perhaps determine the ugliness or beauty rather than the image itself. So it would seem to me that we can have beauty borne of poison, if the association with the cause of the beauty is lessened or discounted. If the association is over-emphasised, then perhaps poison will produce ugly images in the mind of those who concentrate on the poison side of the association rather than the image side.
To me it is not so important as to whether the images are regarded as beautiful or ugly, what is important is the impact that is made and the distortions caused by the application of the pesticides being symbolic of their indiscriminate use.
More complexity in Surinomo. Image and text are related of course but lead their separate lives. Anne’s poems are lovely both as poems and as texts arising out of quite specific views of certain flowers. The Surinomo tradition is itself culturally rooted so we are aware of adaptation. It is interesting to think how far – if at all – the Surinomo tradition can be visually related to Baroque still-life depictions of flowers. How do flowers appear when isolated against a very dark or very light background? How far do we consciously enter the realm of another culture and what does that entry involve? And, putting culture aside, how far does the text come to dominate, or determine, the visual reading of the image? These are huge questions of course but fascinating ones.
There are a number of interesting points here. First of all, the question as to whether the Surimono tradition can be visually related to Baroque still-life depictions of flowers. I think that George is referring here to my images in the Surimono series rather than the Japanese traditional series. I hadn’t thought of this comparison when I first took the photographs, but can see some similarity, mainly the use of the black background. George must be referring to Dutch and Flemish still-life painters of the Baroque period, where floral still lifes were popular.
An example of such painting is Jacob Vosmaer’s A Vase with Flowers which dates from around 1613. Vosmaer was “an early if not pioneering specialist in the painting of flower pictures” (Liedtke 2003).
The similarity with some of my photographs in the Surimono series is with the highlighted blooms against a dark background (although, as with my own images, Dutch still-life pictures were also set against lighter backgrounds). I think that the similarity ends there though, the Dutch floral still lifes presented as bouquets where “the artists, although portraying genuine flowers, depicted them in impossible arrangements: blooms from all four seasons were shown at once” (Making, Meaning and Market s.d.). This contrasts with my images of single blooms and where there is no arrangement or holding vase.
To me the more intriguing question is around entering the realm of another culture and what does the entry involve. My Surimono series stems from my Research project which looked at the influence of Japanese art on the floral images of Vincent Van Gogh, Odilon Redon and Edna Boies Hopkins. Studying Japanese art, and particularly woodblock printing, I came across Surimono, an art form that combined poetry with an image in a single print. Working with a published poet I produced a combined image of photograph and poem into a single image. This was undoubtedly an appropriation of the Japanese art form. But cultural appropriation has been happening for centuries, Millington (2018) considers that “many of the world’s most celebrated art movements and objects are the result of it”. Young (2008) sets out five distinct types of cultural appropriation: object, content, style, motif and subject appropriation. In my Surimono series I have appropriated the style of Surimono but produced an image that is culturally and aesthetically very different from the original. It is at this point, therefore, that George’s questions “How far do we consciously enter the realm of another culture and what does that entry involve?” become pertinent. The title of the series, Surimono, is culturally distinctive, but I prefer to think of the images as influenced by the concept of Surimono (combined picture and poem in a single image) rather than a simple copy of a culturally distinctive genre. To continue with the title Surimono does perhaps infer unnecessary cultural appropriation, but I believe that it gives due recognition to the inspiration behind the series and , hopefully, encourage people to find out more about a fascinating Japanese art form.
The Grave Flowers group is chiefly about the relationship of real to artificial flowers in the specific circumstances of mourning and memorial. This could take us back to Baroque art in its depictions of mortal or ephemeral things as a kind of moral lesson, as in the Vanitas tradition (bubbles, butterflies, flowers). The question would seem to be whether we should employ flowers by gravesides as emblems of mortality, and, if so, should we keep refreshing them as emblems of renewal or resurrection, or whether we may regard artificial flowers as an extension of the stone monument as an emblem of permanence. Certainly there is something a little gaudy about most artificial flowers but one might argue that gaudiness is an aspect of celebration to put beside the gravity of stone.
The main question here asks whether we employ flowers by gravesides as a symbol of mortality (fresh flowers symbolising transience and perhaps renewal) or as an emblem of permanence (artificial flowers) in a similar way to the monument or headstone. My series explores this and I have written on it in more detail as I explore the iconography of the images (Coe 2020). From that work I note how Barkham (2011) quotes the The Rev Geoff Stickland “The metaphor of flowers is the beauty that weathers and decays. That is why we always put real flowers in the churchyard where they are associated with funerals. Plastic ones don’t decay, so the metaphor gets lost”.
This is one view of the function of flowers at a graveside and is not a view that everyone would agree with. I believe, however, that my Grave Flowers series explores this issue
Abse, D. (1968) A Small Desperation: Poems. London: Hutchinson.
Barkham, P. (2011) ‘Should fake flowers be banned from cemeteries?’ In: The Guardian 12/01/2011 At: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jan/12/cemetery-ban-for-fake-flowers (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Liedtke, A. W. (2003) Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600–1800. At: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm (Accessed 19/02/2021).
Making, Meaning and Market (s.d.) At: https://dutch.arts.gla.ac.uk/still_life.htm (Accessed 19/02/2021).
Millington, R. (2018) Art History | Cultural appropriation & the art of the steal. At: https://ruthmillington.co.uk/the-art-of-the-steal-cultural-appropriation-art-history/ (Accessed 18/11/2020).
Young, J. O. (2008) Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Oxford: Blackwell.