Flowers are the ultimate symbol. (1) Georgia O’Keeffe painted them constantly using jimson weed, lilacs, irises, orchids and sunflowers. And she was interested in the flowers, not in vaginas. Yet still today her paintings are interpreted as sexual organs. It was a Freudian interpretation of her gallerist – and later husband – Alfred Stieglitz - that did wonders for the marketing of her work and career, but at the same time became something of a prison for her. “You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think … and I don’t,” she wrote in 1939 in a catalogue accompanying one of her New York shows.

Over the course of history flowers have had their own interpretations, associations and connotations, forming a system of meaning all of their own. The transience of flowers is associated with fragility, but their roots penetrate the earth. Unimpressed by asphalt, stone and concrete, they continue to grow tirelessly. They spread in collaboration with other biotic forces: bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, birds and bats assist in cross-pollination. Some flowers have either a stamen or a pistil, but the vast majority of flowers are hermaphrodites, contrary to what the Swedish physician and botanist Carl Linnaeus once led us to believe. In his book Systema Naturae (1735) he presented a new taxonomy in which he arranged the plant kingdom into 24 categories or species. His classification system simplified the study of botany by giving the same Latinate name to all plants everywhere in the world (whether they already had a name or not). Partly because of this simplification, his taxonomy took off and has remained popular for a long time. Linnaeus based his system on the reproductive organs (the stamens and ovaries) of plants, which he believed formed the essence of the plant. Here, however, he soon ran into some unsolvable issues. His observations that plants reproduced in different ways clashed with the narrow scope of his thought. For example, his manner of thinking prescribed a strict hierarchy in which human beings were at the top and where there was only room for male-female reproduction: any other possibility was unimaginable.

In 1892, the English writer Oscar Wilde employed green carnations to make an ironic statement of resistance on this. The ‘unnatural’ colour countered the heteronormative world of Linnaeus which labelled homosexuality abnormal. For the premiere of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), he dipped some carnations in green dye and asked one of the actors and some of his friends to wear these green carnations in their buttonholes. When he was asked what the green carnation meant he replied; “Nothing, whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.” The green carnation is a still an important queer symbol today.

In 2012 I visited Camille Henrot’s installation Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers? in New York’s New Museum. In a period of loss, the artist had delved into ikebana, the Japanese tradition of flower arranging, intended to comfort the soul. According to this practice, the step-by-step search for the perfect flower arrangement provides a path to enlightenment. Even the most famous and infamous generals in Japan are said to have dabbled in the art of ikebana. It supposedly has a calming effect on the mind and lends clarity to strategic (war) decisions. Burying herself in ikebana was a way for Henrot to understand the world. One by one, she started translating books from her library into flower arrangements. For this she had to reformulate the original ikebana rules, guided by the associative power of the names of flowers, their Latinate names, their popular appellations, their medicinal properties, and where the flowers originated.

The ikebana arrangement for Aimé Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme, for example, consisted of a leaf of the Mexican blue palm and a hanging tulip. In her translation of Marcel Liebman’s book Le léninisme sous Lénine, la conquête du pouvoir (2012) into a flower arrangement, she combined coloured plastic with a few dried flowers and a bright green head of lettuce. That head of a lettuce seems to push Henrot’s translations towards the absurd, yet her arrangements are never corny. She seems to want to appeal to both our cognitive and sensory faculties. In this new order, she breaks free from strict normative categorisation and leaves space for the ambiguous meanings of both flowers and literature...

The Botanical Revolution at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht.

This essay is the result of a collaboration between Nest The Hague and Centraal Museum


Philipp Gufler, 'Saftgrün_Indanthren-blau (Orasol® Rot 395', 2018 and 'Quindo Rosa D_Orasol Gelb 152', 2020 Maria Pask, Shoulder to Shoulder, 2020 © Nest, photo: Charlott Markus

Patricia Kaersenhout 'Food for thought' (series), 2021 © Nest, photo: Charlott Markus

Mehraneh Atashi Flower, 2010

Mehraneh Atashi. Tehran self-portrait, 2008-2010

This article appeared in DAM81. Order your personal copy.