A visual meditation on the political economy of Cannabis sativa.
A design for a float in a parade celebrating flowers.
A concern for the undermined position of art.
A concern for the undermined position of nature.
In bower and field he sought,
where any tuft of grove or garden plot more pleasant lay,
these tendance or Plantation for Delight.
Written one hundred and seventy-five years after Columbus embarked upon his grand tour westward, Milton's words return us to a world where the finding of a plantation in the countryside was the exception rather than the rule. The plantation of Milton's time was a scarcity, and when come across in the wilderness, was seen as a reason for gladness. Three hundred and twenty-five years later, PLANTATION becomes the title of my work for the 'Zuid Hollandse Bloemenparade'. We now live in a world, completely reversed, where everything is plantation; there are no longer exceptions to the rule, or if there are, they are only those that appear to us in dreams.
The planning of the Bloemenparade 1992 is just such an exception. For the first time in the history of the 'corsos' contemporary artists have been asked to produce designs for floats. The finished 'corsowagens'--realised by professional decor builders and flower arrangers--are to take part in the three day long parade through the cities, towns and countryside of South Holland.
Right in the middle of the parade: between the marching bands, the baton-twirling majorettes in their short skirts and white boots, between the notables waving from hired automobiles to imagined admirers; we see the ten artist entries, making up one half of the total number of floats. For the organisation, we represent innovation, the trying out of something new. Tradition is maintained with the other ten 'corsowagens', their designs stay steadfast within the well-established repertoire. The city of Den Haag is the principle motif for these other floats: its various attributes such as tourism, the beach, fishing, the 'Tweede Kamer', the Royal Family, and the popular television series 'Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden' etc. form the individual themes.
'Corsos' can be divided into two sorts: the 'Decor Corso', of which the Bloemenparade '92 is an example, and the 'Insteek Corso'. The difference between the two can be understood from observing the role the flower plays in each. In the 'Decor Corso' the float appears to be a rolling excuse to plaster a form--the decor--with complementary flower arrangements, usually large and extravagant. The decor and flower arrangements compete, vying with each other for attention. The other style, the 'Insteek Corso', presents a more unified picture. Form and flower are indistinguishable: the individual blossom disappears like a polyp in a coral reef, becoming part of the total material. Here the word 'float' lives up to its other English meaning: the form actually seems to float--rather than holding the flowers it is instead created by them, its painted shapes revealed as a brilliant carpet of petals. It is interesting to consider that the 'Insteek Corso' style arose through the utilisation of the otherwise wasted flowers of flower bulb production, whereas the 'Decor Corso' style seems to stem from a necessity to promote the sales of flower bouquets.
Looking at pictures of the 'praalwagens' in the first corsos--their roots can be traced to the period following the Second World War--I was struck by how much more actively than today they engaged contemporary political and social issues. 'Woningnood' (housing shortage), 'Kankerbestrijding' (fighting cancer), a thank--you note to Mr. Marshall for the Marshall plan, a whale to mark the Dutch re-entry into international whaling with the factory ship the Willem Barendsz: each provided a theme which was a direct expression of postwar hard times and the rising sense of hope and optimism felt with the rebuilding of the economy. They were floats designed by interested amateurs, expressing the concerns of the times without being hampered by convention. They functioned aesthetically as well as in a social sense. Today they still seem to us fresh and unashamed.
What happened? Why is it so different today? The corsos now seem so frivolous--so ugly. They are empty. And of the two styles, the Decor Corso is definitely the emptier and weaker. Perhaps the underlying aims of the Decor Corso--the promotion of the flower industry, and the determination to show off a product in an attractive light--ensures that the final impact of all the effort and money spent on making the floats remains trivial. Today we shall see no praalwagen commemorating the end of thirty-five years of Cold War or memorialising Vukovar...
Artists asked to design parade floats... We are reminded of the Russian agit-prop trains painted by artists after the revolution. Then it was a radical view of a radically changing world. Art was in the service of an ideology.
What if we were to examine the Bloemenparade as if it were a long sentence, looking at the praalwagens as separate words punctuated by marching bands and majorettes; if we first were to consider the grammar of the whole and then carefully dissect each word; what if, in other words, we were to establish this long sentence's context? If we determined the significance of this syntactical amalgamation of plaster and flowers? Then we might rightly ask--What place has serious art here? Who or what are we--the artists--serving?
Are we artists supposed to compete in this Corso? Or is it expected--in the spirit of the Ministry of Culture's 'Verruimend Opdrachtenbeleid'--that we enter again into market complicity as professional designers of trivialities suited for mass consumption? Proving that artists can make good praalwagens ? Fellow artists--comrades, there is good reason to be concerned. The invitation to participate in this game includes with it a standing set of rules, and whether we struggle against them or comply with them completely, the outcome will remain the same. The price of playing is to lose. No one escapes. The best we can expect in the situation is that art will provide a sharp enough answer to the artificial, to the context of decoration.
If lion and lamb are going to lie together in one bed, what are we going to call the children?
By inviting artists to participate in the Zuid Hollandse Bloemenparade a challenge has been placed before art, a gauntlet thrown down, but the challenge conceals a trap. The organisers maintain this is a chance to show what art can do--to show the quality inherent in today's artists. And indeed, one or two of the participating artists seem to have been selected on the basis of their past success producing decorative work for public spaces. Not everyone, thankfully, finds work of this spirit acceptable. Not because the work is carried out in the Public space, but because the sole requirement--from both those who commission it and those who make it--is that it be decorative. The Bloemenparade poses a trap for us because it proposes a chance to show what art can do. Hold your horses! We would do better by first pulling those assumptions back a bit. Pray tell: Can art do anything today with itself? Why is it so difficult for it to shrug off its impotence in the public eye, the complacency it engenders amongst its artists, Smithson's entropy? If art is required to do something within the grammar of a Corso, it cannot do other than immediately start down the self defeating path of proving itself. But why does art have to prove anything?
Is art on trial?
Now, I would like to get into an area of let's say, the problems of waste. It seems that when one is talking about preserving the environment or conserving energy or recycling one inevitably gets to the question of waste and I would postulate that waste and enjoyment are in a sense coupled. There's a certain kind of pleasure principle that comes out of a preoccupation with waste. Like if we want to have a bigger and better car we are going to have bigger and better waste productions. So there's a kind of equation there between the enjoyment of life and waste.
PLANTATION is the title of my work, my praalwagen--and in spite of all the forebodings and cautions I've expressed concerning the project, it seems I'm going to open the gate and walk straight down the garden path after all. For what is a plantation but an estate on which cotton, tobacco, coffee etc. are cultivated--work that is always done by slaves? The best we can expect in the situation is that art will provide a sharp enough answer to the artificial, to the context of decoration. Okay. Given our freedom here is restricted, there still are a few things that I find interesting. For one there is a material that I have been curious about for a long time...
The actual construction details of the praalwagen are extremely simple. A base must be built from plywood, nothing more is necessary. It will be a float without a decor, a flat surface made from good quality unpainted plywood sheets, a wooden slab measuring the standard three meters by twelve meters. The sides --which cover the wheels--to be at right angles to the top surface and about forty centimeters wide.
Over the plywood surface is spread an even grid of marijuana plants in red clay pots.
Concerning the pulling vehicle, I present two different options: either it can be left the way it is--unconcealed--or it can be turned into a stone by covering it with ferro-cement. In either case it could be built into the plywood surface, a narrow border of wood extending around the sides and front...
It is not too difficult to visualise. A float without a decor. A straight geometric grid of regular rows and columns--marijuana plants in pots resting on a long low wooden surface. The plants: not too high, not too many. The impression left by the float both moving and standing still: a flat-bed trailer, a railway flat car. Rising at the head of this trailer: either an automobile or a stone.
PLANTATION engages--at least on the surface--some of the attitudes of Ikebana, particularly those of Moribana, a sub-style of Japanese flower arranging. Like in Moribana, where the flowers are literally 'heaped up' in a long shallow dish, the plywood base in PLANTATION is the vase or container for the arrangement. The dish is usually carefully chosen; it not only holds but partly determines the character of the miniature landscape.
In case the shape of the vessel is forceful and sharply defined, the flower form has to be forceful as well. It is sometimes advisable, however, to use a vessel of weak shape and feeling for a forceful flower-form so as to bring out the contrast. If the container is too long or too large its force may be reduced by covering a part of it with the flower material. On the other hand, if the vessel is somewhat lacking in force, the flower-form may be disposed with many open spaces in order to make the most of the vessel and so harmonise the two elements.
The flowers in the Moribana arrangement are composed to reflect the unpremeditated juxtapositions that man finds in nature. Ideally nature--as the poet Basho put it, the ultimate artless art--is not thereby imitated, but exposed. Similarly PLANTATION reflects an attempt not to imitate forms but to expose them. And while Moribana allows complete freedom of choice in the materials to be arranged, in practice this choice is restricted to one flowering and one non-flowering material:
There are so many beautiful flowers at the florist's that you will want to arrange everyone of them. To choose too many would, however, mean that you would lose sight of the flower which is to be the central theme and thus sacrifice the sense of unity. To grasp one mood or atmosphere, no more than two varieties of flower are necessary. Diffusion and waste are avoided in this way and it becomes easier to express the one atmosphere.
...so in PLANTATION the choice of plant material has been severely reduced to one, non-flowering material. For while the marijuana plant--Cannabis sativa--readily flowers, a collection of such flowering plants, especially females, poses a potential difficulty. Showing the flowers, in this case, could be interpreted as breaking the law. For it is illegal in Nederland to raise Cannabis to the point of flowering--when the potency of the plant reaches its peak--especially when the sexes have been segregated.
Serving the Human King
Most people immediately associate the marijuana plant with the drug marijuana and the drug sub-culture. This sub-culture has succeeded in emblematicising the plant's distinctly formed leaf into what might be called today's most widespread botanically-derived heraldic device--a sign readily recognised by both insider and layman alike. Besides signifying the availability of the drug, the presence of the leaf emblem indicates a particular life-style, a certain attitude, a characteristic world view.
That the marijuana plant possesses narcotic qualities has been known and exploited by humankind for thousands of years. During the 19th century, for example, Cannabis extract made up more than half of all the medicines sold. Some say that the reason it became so badly maligned and subsequently prohibited in the 1920's and 1930's can be traced to racism--through its association with the black jazz musicians, who habitually smoked it. What ever the reason, most recognise that much of the taboo surrounding the drug is the result of hysterical propaganda and that the current prohibition is largely hypocritical. That the Dutch government entertains a policy of 'tolerance' towards marijuana drug use is not especially praiseworthy. The substance remains illicit and marginalised, while representing a major--and increasing--black market economic force.
The newspapers report that the drug is currently the 6th highest cash crop in Nederland. Studies done in 1988 set the global figure in sales for that year at 41.5 billion dollars.
So much money? The numbers seem only to express: more and bigger, the same and less. For we shouldn't overlook the fact that Cannabis, as a source of fiber for textiles, rope and paper, has throughout recorded history been man's most important cash crop. A principle commodity for thousands of years, until early in the last century, when the position of Cannabis was usurped--a revolution occurred on the plantation--by mechanised advances in the processing of cotton.
Historically, the earliest known woven fabric was of Cannabis... it began to be worked in primitive communities around 8000 B.C.... For the 3000 years leading up to this century Cannabis was our planet's largest agricultural crop, producing the overall majority of earth's fabric, lighting oil, paper, and medicines...
Beneath its narcotic façade, it would seem that the marijuana plant is also a--largely forgotten--natural resource. A resource which might yet be turned to mankind's benefit.
As a material, Cannabis offers tremendous potential as a renewable organic resource... One acre of Cannabis produces as much cellulose fiber pulp as 4.1 acres of trees. Even plastics like PVC pipe can be manufactured using hemp cellulose instead of non-renewable petroleum based chemicals...
As a practical replacement for dwindling fossil fuel reserves Cannabis provides one the best sources of biomass energy. An acre of Cannabis yielding 1000 gallons of methanol in about 4 months...
In his book 'The Emperor Wears No Clothes', Jack Herer, a strident advocate for re-instituting the American Cannabis crop, presents Cannabis as a plant which could easily solve a lot of the world's problems. The plant's characteristic long fibers, its easiness on the soil--it could be thought of as a non-depleting soil crop--and its rapid growth rate make it extremely well suited as a replacement for the trees we are cutting down for pulp. Such a pulp alternative would be an improvement environmentally as well as economically; the world's demand for paper being insatiable and on the rise, so many beginning to complain about the cost of destroying the planet's forests...
At this moment in Nederland, the Hennep Onderzoekprogramma, the Hemp Research Program--a government sponsored, two year project, jointly conducted by a number of the institutes associated with the Agricultural University in Wageningen--is investigating the economic potential of Cannabis raised as a fiber crop. Their research is specifically directed at investigating the feasibility of Cannabis as a cash crop to replace the problematic potato production in the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe. Equally interested in the potential raising of the public consciousness concerning his work and in the aesthetic endeavour of mine, Mr. H. M. G. van der Werff, of the Center for Agrobiological Research, has agreed in principle to provide the Cannabis specimens--fiber varieties--for PLANTATION.
I must make a confession: PLANTATION is an allegory about the trampling of flowers. A concern for the undermined position of art. A concern for the undermined position of nature.
Question: Who serves the Human King?
Answer (shouted): Everything in nature serves the Human King!
Question: Where can we find the Human King?
Answer (shouted): On top of the totem--as usual!
Carefully she untied the bundle, thoughtfully examining the branches or flowers until she had found the ones that seemed most suitable to her, and she began to give them the form they would have to assume according to their role in the total picture. Sunk deep in herself, she sought to attain that state of mind in which it is possible to become one with the heart of the flower; for she knew from long experience and practice that this was not just a figure of speech. For only when this union of her own heart with the flower's heart was established, did she rest in that unmoved stillness from which creation proceeds as if of itself, entirely without human purpose. She quietly completed the arrangement and sat back, not trusting the emotions that arose within, instead confident that her work reflected, to the expert eye of the Master, whether this union had been attained or was but a deceptive illusion.
Paul Michael Perry
February 1992, Groningen
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