At the entrance to “Tomás Saraceno in Collaboration: Web[s] of Life,” we are politely asked to surrender our phones. There is no apparent judgment; instead, the act is more performative as our gadgets are safely slotted in what appears like an old wooden shelving unit and exchanged with an oracle card, “Arachnomancy Card,” with a personalized message (mine read: “planetary drift”). We are free, of course, to choose not to give away our phones. Yet it seems a missed opportunity: to truly immerse in the lively and layered world created by Tomás Saraceno for London’s Serpentine Galleries requires this small sacrifice.
Later, I reflect on what a relief it was not to reach out for my iPhone at every photo opportunity (and there are plenty), to be in the moment and absorb the chapters that unfold in each room and onto the surrounding Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. As Saraceno’s first major exhibition in the UK, “Web[s] of Life” takes on a lot. Ultimately it aims to observe how different life forms, technologies and energy systems are connected in the climate emergency. Art, for Saraceno, has active agency.
A canvas of sprouting greens reveals a fading figurative image of family. The watercress has taken only a few days to grow thanks to the nitrate-rich Spanish water used to cultivate the seeds. As the green grows, the negative projected onto the cress panels fades. Eventually, the living artwork returns to earth. This is Family Album, the last chapter in The Pigment Change creation by the London based Spanish artist Almudena Romero for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo. Her autobiographical and at times impermanent organic photographs ask the viewer to question production, consumption and ownership. Hers is a meditation on the ephemerality of life and our relationship with nature. I met with the artist to understand more:
You talk of finding ways of renewing the medium of photography. Can you explain?
Photography has been a conservative medium. It has taken a long time for it to move out of print because it has largely been used as a tool for representation and documentation. For me photography is a process rather than being about the result. If we start to understand photography as writing with light, then it becomes a very simple rudimentary concept that makes sense. This way it can be liberated, become more performative, more conversational.
Your work is very organic, working directly with plants to create photographic images via photosynthesis, as well as being highly autobiographical. Can you explain your process?
I started my research on plant-based photography at my grandmother’s garden in Valencia. I work with her plants and her nitrate-rich water to create my work, then I use my hands to project images onto the leaves. Some of the images are sharp, some not. There is a lot of invisible feminine labor that goes into growing a family and growing a garden. The fact that my hand images are not all obvious I feel is a metaphor for the invisible labor that makes the trees and plants and nature grow.
Your grandmother sadly passed away before the original show in the summer at Rencontres d’Arles in France, yet her legacy continues through your work.
She passed away before I exhibited and I’ve been reflecting on our relationship and her impact on me ever since. When I was a teenager, my grandmother would tend to her plants and I would listen to the Spice Girls not realizing how much of her and her work stayed with me. My mother says this is the real heritage, my grandmother’s legacy and the passion and understanding I have of plants.
That is really beautiful. I’m intrigued by the layers of multiple meanings in your work. Is this intentional?
Much of my work is self-reflecting. As an artist, I want to know what’s the impact of one’s own practice, contributing to the dynamics of producing, accumulation — all of which is at the roots of the environmental issue. I want to contribute to a wider conversation as to why and where does photography exist, what’s our relationship to nature, to photographic productions such as photosynthesis. A better understanding of plants can help us be more respectful to nature.
Your final piece, the vertical watercress for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo, is made to disappear, which to me seems like a direct commentary on art ownership.
Forthe BMW Residency I wanted to move on my plant-based photography to be alive. I have a good scientific understanding of plants and began looking at all sorts of green elements until I decided on watercress. I got the idea from garden walls which always have cress as it can grow vertically and doesn’t need soil to make roots. I had to search hard to find the right type of seeds which will bring the color and tonality I’m after. Growing it vertically gives it one focal length so you get the sharpness in the picture, then as the plant grows the picture disappears in complete greenness.
I’m reminded of an ancient Persian ritual we perform for our new year, which falls on the first hour of spring. It involves cultivating seeds on a plate, watering them for 13 days, then releasing the fully grown green into a flowing river to symbolise letting the past go and welcoming new beginning. And I’m moved by the ephemerality of your artwork.
I really like that! My work is ephemeral but at the same time in ephemerality there is hope for the future. We are facing a serious environmental crisis based on too much production, accumulation and disposal. I used to teach at the Stanford University overseas study program in Florence and I would often think of what I wanted to pass on to my students, what knowledge and skills would make sense to them in the future. This plant-based photography is part of my vision as a teacher in that these materials are ephemeral in the short run, but in the long run they are the only thing we will be able to practice. Because ephemerality is the only thing that lasts.
Perhaps it is a question of redefining object ownership in that the memory of a piece of art, that moment of connection, can be the value rather than possessing it as an object. In fact, we have an ephemeral connection to most works of art anyway since we see them fleetingly in museums or galleries after which they remain only in memory.
That’s a really interesting concept: this idea that because the piece is ephemeral it disappears. But art disappears from everyone’s eyes unless you own it. As an artist I’m interested in contributing to the wider conversation, help change our understanding of the photographic medium, of our own lives and our relation to nature, rather than decorating someone’s house.
That’s quite a radical statement. I like it.
We have to review property and ownership. This is part of the problem. “Me and mine” are the dynamics of the ego. It extends to “my perspectives”. This is why I’m very keen on collaboration and on passing my knowledge and processes to my students, as I think it’s rewarding to pass on your knowledge and see it grow elsewhere and without the need to be the master of the original idea. I feel the art world needs to move more towards this direction.