CHICAGO — A poison ivy leaf is scary, if not panic-inducing. There’s the fear of being careless, triggering a phantom itch from the thought of the red, bubbling skin that can occur with the slightest of exposure. Another fear stems from not knowing the plant’s intention. Does it choose to hurt us? Can we really blame the plant at all? Lindsey French’s piece, ”some alteration of the one who feels” (2015) contains two ½ oz. vials of poison ivy’s inner matter urushiol, extracted by the artist in her attempt to understand the plant by allowing it to infect her. These vials rest on a wooden shelf near the back of Sector 2337’s Imperceptibly and Slowly Moving, a plant-based exhibition that seeks to explore human relationships with the mysteriously evolving and growing other — species often ignored or relegated to the backdrop, seen as environment rather than subject.
In an attempt to understand the poison ivy plant as an individual, French experimented intimately with the plant in her studio, making herself vulnerable to its poison. Her research was presented in a symposium, associated with the exhibit, of artist lectures and performances aimed at highlighting the detailed existences of plants and expanding our often singularly aesthetic understanding of the nonhuman kind. Exploring these after-hours lectures was an opportunity to activate the work within the show, French giving a necessary and captivating background to the urushiol vials in her talk “Proposals for Practicing Unsafe Communication,” and Giovanni Aloi’s “Why Look at Plants?” explaining the human tendency to easily dismiss things that cannot return our gaze — living things that do not move at nearly the same speed in which we traverse the earth.
The strength of the exhibition lies in how artists attempt to understand plants’ reactions to us, rather than our own reaction to them. French’s “phytovision“ (2015) digitally alters the horror films “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Day of the Triffids” with hazy blobs of blue and red to mimic how a plant might “see” each of the films. Essi Kausalainen’s series of three short films “Transverberate” (2015) invited three middle school girls to act as collaborators in odd performances on a nearly empty stage using dirt and palm leaves as props. The girls do not act as dispassionate volunteers, but as active performers, one slowly spinning as she purposely drops dirt around her, another waving the palm leaves gently, but earnestly, as she dances to an unheard beat. Observing the girls as they attempt to mimic plants’ slow movements makes one wonder how a plant might move if sped up to match the fast pace of humans, its slow and purposeful logic expedited but probably still incomprehensible.
This expedited movement is considered in Wilfredo Prieto’s “Walk” (2012), a plant housed in a wheelbarrow, with instructions from the artist that it must be taken on a two-mile walk before it can be installed within the gallery as “art.” Did the plant happen to bond with its human compatriots as it swiftly moved alongside them? The installation in the exhibition is like that of a caged bird, the wheelbarrow sadly stationed just beyond the glass separating the gallery from its grass-filled courtyard out back.
Although pieces like Linda Tegg’s large, brightly-lit grass installation “Terrain (Prairie Grass)” (2015), and Sri Chowdhury’s set-like arrangement of plants and light gels “Affected Painting” (2015) are visually intriguing, each lacks the communicative aspect of other pieces, resisting the exploration of how one might interact with the plant beyond its properties of shape, color, and height. I first dismissed Steve Ruiz’s “Money Tree” (2014) — a comic-like watercolor depicting the eponymous plant — however, after revisiting the piece’s text “Give me money!” I realized how it perfectly articulates the relationship we have when plants enter the home, demanding fulfillment from their objecthood and placing them in arrangements that highlight the patterns in our IKEA furniture.
The exhibition’s insistence on the slow movement of plants is most blatantly represented in Andrew Yang’s “New Economies of Anachronistic Fruit” (2015), an installation that explains the existence of the Kentucky Coffeetree, a plant that produced fruit for the consumption of mammoths and giant sloths, which both disappeared over 13,000 years ago. Clocked for extinction due to earth’s lack of animals equipped to spread its seed, the tree, Yang suggests, should now cater to humans. His suggestion is humorously backed by a gumball machine filled with the tree’s seeds — a way for the gallery’s audience to help the tree to keep up with its slow-moving evolution. Like Yang’s installation, Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening gives each of the plants featured within the exhibition an individual spotlight, allowing the audience a chance to explore their own phytocentric perspective with plants that have been temporarily moved out from the background.
Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening continues at Sector 2337 (2337 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago) through November 21.