MECO360: Domestic Politics

Liz Linden | June 2017

I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to articulate this about myself prior to starting my PhD at Wollongong, but after the initial period of drilling down, working out, and pushing through the ideas circumscribing the ‘research space’ of my studio work with appropriation and globalization, it became clear that what I am actually interested in is postmodernism, the Pictures exhibition, and the critical, internecine struggles for no less than the soul of contemporary art that took place in the pages of Artforum and October. In short: the 1970s.

Anybody who has been to my house could have saved me the trouble. It’s full of houseplants. I recently read something about the ‘daggy’ 70s houseplant trend, accompanied by a photo ostensibly illustrating the same, but all I thought was, ‘Oooh! What a fantastic Monstera!’

And, as it is for most of us, one thing bleeds into another. What began as a purely domestic interest became a more theoretical/conceptual one as houseplants migrated to my studio, in the flesh and in representation (‘representation’, of course, being another of the obsessions of the 70s). In fact, I did a whole exhibition of (mostly) houseplant related work in 2014 at a photography foundation in Atlanta, Georgia.

By then, I had become interested in how complex houseplants were as signifiers read within in the larger text of an interior design catalog or a corporate lobby, that they bore, on their slimmest of shoulders, the weight of so many metaphors and impossibly virtuous ideals. For example, one work in that exhibition was this: 

Liz Linden, Signs (Atlanta), 2014, Live Phalaenopsis orchid in pot, artificial Phalaenopsis orchid in pot, dimensions variable.

Liz Linden, Signs (Atlanta), 2014, Live or artificial Phalaenopsis orchid in pot? (detail).

Signs (Atlanta) consisted of two identical Phalaenopsis orchids, one real and one artificial, presented side by side on pedestals.  The sculpture takes the ubiquitous interior design element of the moth orchid (found in minimalist kitchens, spa-bathrooms, hotel lobbies, and receptionists’ desks the world over) and turns our attention to its oxymoronic status in the built world as ‘minimalist decoration’.  The paradoxical semiotic work this plant does in architecture is to invoke both simplicity and luxury at once.  The doubling of the plant, pairing the one alive with its polyester-and-plastic simulacrum, alluded to this specious duality as a sign.  Further, the plausibility of making the sculpture, locating a ‘real’ orchid doppelgänger in the flower markets in Atlanta for a pre-existing ‘fake’ orchid, rested on the disquieting truth that the farmed natural world is in some ways as predictable now as the mass-produced itself.  

Since then, I have continued to work with houseplants and how they operate in consumer culture, sometimes in more oblique ways. Earlier this year, I photographed Parliament House. I’ve always been interested in the peculiar colour scheme of each chamber and wondered if there might be something interesting to be made of their unorthodox fuchsia and mint palettes. Already you can see the point: that the halls of power are softened by the presence of plants. The metaphors are not subtle, and neither—perhaps resultantly—are the colours.

Liz Linden, Bed of Roses (Parliament House), 2017, Archival inkjet print, 65 x 47 cm.

Liz Linden, Naturalist (Parliament House), 2017, Archival inkjet print, 65 x47 cm.

Does the fact that our lawmakers meet to debate the future of Australia inside rooms assuring them of nature’s soothing presence or their own masterful and assured place in it in any way sway their arguments? True, these are just names on paint chips ascribed along lines of corporate logic, not likely known to the people working in their spaces, but the colours are, in the end, unmistakably ‘natural’. Does the fact Parliament shapes the laws of the land in rooms painted in imitation of the outdoors says something heartening about their sensitivities to nature, or does it simply disclose their ruthless, supplementary logic? It’s a question that can be asked in my own house as well—is this comfort I find in my houseplants related to being closer to the outside in or being close enough?

As an artist, I do raise an eyebrow every time I see nature represented (which means mobilized) in service of the powers-that-be, be they Parliament, Capitalism, or, as they would say in the 70s, God herself. Slim shoulders, big ask.