The 73 photographic plates in Robert Voit’s The Alphabet of New Plants each frame a different floral detail, from bursting blooms to twisting branches. But all is not as it seems, as on closer inspection those petals are frayed fabric, the stems stiff plastic. Voit’s series is inspired by another German photographer’s work — Karl Blossfeldt’s 1928 The Alphabet of Plants — and considers the uncanny nature of our fake plants.
“In hundreds of photographs of plants that have not been retouched or artificially manipulated, Mr. Robert Voit from Munich has provided proof of the peculiar yearnings for a form created equally by the human spirit and by the natural processes of vegetal growth,” writes author and curator Christoph Schaden in an introduction to The Alphabet of New Plants, which was recently published in English and German by Hatje Cantz.
The black-and-white photographs of the plastic plants follow Voit’s New Trees series. Since 2003, he’s captured large-format images of cell phone towers around the world disguised as trees, such as a faux cactus in the desert of Arizona, or an oversized palm tree-shaped mast dwarfing the real palm trees in Las Vegas. Like the New Trees, the New Plants have a playful absurdity, showing the viewer at once something that’s beautiful for the natural forms they borrow, but cheapened by the rough, human-made edges. As simulacra, the plants only pass for the real thing at a glance, and often seem to be imaginary flora entirely, yet they still show the diversity of nature in this reflection, with cacti, succulents, lotus flowers, pine branches, and other forms among the mass-produced replicas.
Blossfeldt himself was more interested in recording these shapes and patterns than creating a straightforward scientific text, the unusual details he documented catching the attention of Surrealist artists and fans like Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille. Using a handmade camera, Blossfeldt magnified the symmetry of a single blossom or the curl of a tendril into something monumental. The cover of New Plants has a winding Blossfeldt tribute, albeit with a synthetic fuzz coating this tendril.
Steffen Siegel of Folkwang Universität der Künste writes in his essay: “A doubled play with mimicry unfolds in Voit’s twofold appropriation — on the one hand, photographic style from Blossfeldt and, on the other, an entire world of artificial flowers — and does so with an effect that is as curious as it is remarkable.” It’s also slightly dystopic, methodically presenting the 21st-century decorative plant as an alien substitute for nature.