One is from the world of fine arts, the other is a philosopher—but they share a common theme: the relationship between plants and animals (including humans).
Tue Greenfort was born in Denmark in 1973. He started his studies at the Funen Art Academy in Odense, under the painter Jesper Christiansen, before moving on to the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main, where he continued under Thomas Bayrle. Time and again, his sculptures and installations offer new routes of access to the relationship between humans, nature, and the environment. At dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012, he contributed to The Worldly House, an archive-inspired by the writings of philosopher Donna Haraway. From 2011 to 2014, he was a professor at the Funen Art Academy.
Emanuele Coccia was born in Fermo, Italy, in 1976. By the age of fourteen, he was already attending an agricultural academy. His interest in the observation of plants was a formative influence on his further studies, which he completed at the University of Florence, where he earned a doctorate in medieval philosophy. As a professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, Coccia lectured on the philosophy of natural observation, just one of the themes in his latest non-fiction book The Life of Plants, which analyses how animals relate to plants and explores their “strange chauvinism towards flora.”
Greenfort and Coccia approach the same topic from completely different angles, arguing that the distinction between flora and fauna is a misunderstanding and that our tendency to regard the relationship between them as hierarchical is misguided. Far more, plants and animals are interconnected as equals and combine, along with the inanimate world, to form a coherent whole.
Tue Greenfort is preparing an exhibition in the ceramic facilities of Rochester Square in Camden. He forms tiles out of clay dug from London ground, then applies leaves and branches of plant species that are not endemic to England. Their imprints stay on the ceramic, which Greenfort then glazes in various colors. A wall-sized mosaic made of these tiles was on show at KÖNIG LONDON in autumn 2020. To Greenfort, the question of the relation between identity and place of origin becomes particularly vivid in the capital of the formerly largest empire in human history.
Based in an abandoned and derelict nursery, with a wilder vision of a sculpture garden in its center, Rochester Square collaborates regularly with artists and institutions.
This is an extract from Emanuele Coccia’s Life of Plants published by Polity Press, 2018. We barely speak of them and their name escapes us. Philosophy has always overlooked them, more out of contempt than neglect. They are the cosmic ornament, the inessential and multi-colored accident that reigns in the margins of the cognitive field. The contemporary metropolis views them as superfluous trinkets of urban decoration. Outside the city walls, they are parasites—weeds—or objects of mass production. Plants are the gaping wound of the metaphysical snobbery that defines our culture. The return of the repressed, of which we must rid ourselves to consider ourselves as “different”: rational humans, spiritual beings. They are the cosmic tumor of humanism, the waste that the absolute spirit can’t quite manage to eliminate. The life sciences have neglected them, too. “Current biology, conceived of based on our knowledge of animals, pays no attention to plants … the standard evolutionary literature is concentric.” Biology manuals approach plants “in bad faith … as decorations on the tree of life, rather than as the forms that have allowed the tree itself to survive and grow.”
The problem is not just one of epistemological deficiency: “as animals, we identify much more immediately with other animals than with plants.” In this spirit, scientists, radical ecology, and civil society have fought for decades for the liberation of animals; and affirming the separation between human and animal (the anthropological machine of which philosophy speaks) has become commonplace in the intellectual world. By contrast, it seems that no one ever wanted to question the superiority of animal life over plant life and the former’s rights to life and death over those of the latter. A form of life without personality and dignity, it does not seem to deserve any spontaneous empathy or the exercise of moralism that higher living beings are capable of eliciting. Our animal chauvinism refuses to go beyond “an animal language that does not lend itself to a relation to plant the truth.” In a sense, anti-species animalism is just another form of anthropocentrism and a kind of internalized Darwinism: it extends human narcissism to the animal realm.
Plants are untouched by this prolonged negligence: they affect a sovereign indifference toward the human world, the culture of civilizations, the succession of domains and ages. Plants seem absent, as though lost in a long, deaf, chemical dream. They don’t have senses, but they are far from being shut in on themselves: no other being adheres to its surrounding world more than plants do. They don’t have the eyes or ears that may have allowed them to distinguish the world's forms and multiply its image through the iridescence of colors and sounds that we give it. They participate in the world in its totality in everything they meet. Plants do not run, they cannot fly; they are not capable of privileging a specific place in relation to the rest of space, they have to remain where they are. Space, for them, does not crumble into a heterogeneous chessboard of geographical difference; the world is condensed into the portion of ground and sky they occupy. Unlike most higher animals, they have no selective relation to what surrounds them: they are, and cannot be other than, constantly exposed to the world around them. Plantlife is life as complete exposure, in absolute continuity and total communion with the environment. It is for the sake of adhering as much as possible to the world that they develop a body that privileges surface over volume: “In plants, the very high proportion of surface to volume is one of the most characteristic traits. It is through this vast surface, literally spread in the environment, that plants absorb from the space the diffuse resources that are necessary to their growth.” Their absence of movement is nothing but the reverse of their complete adhesion to what happens to them and their environment. One cannot separate the plant—either physically or metaphysically—from the world that accommodates it. It is the most intense, radical, and paradigmatic form of being in the world. To interrogate plants means to understand what it means to be in the world. Plants embody the most direct and elementary connection that life can establish with the world. The opposite is equally true: the plant is the purest observer when it comes to contemplating the world in its totality. Under the sun or the clouds, mixing with water and wind, their life is an endless cosmic contemplation, one that does not distinguish between objects and substances—or, to put it differently, one that accepts all their nuances to the point of melding with the world, to the point of coinciding with its very substance. We will never be able to understand a plant unless we have understood what the world is.
© Extract from Emanuele "Coccia’s Life of Plants" published by Polity Press, 2018
© Images Tue Greenfort