Denn Fluss Entlang / Along the river Ems
HAVE NO FEAR FOR FLOWERS It’s just honey that’s missing! Amidst everything that grows, moving water, glass, animals and milk, it’s honey that would give this fairytale scene its finishing golden glow. But maybe this ingredient would be too obvious. Instead ketchup, pepper powder and fruit are added. Honey will probably be any visitor’s association with the substance and glue from paradise anyhow.
HAVE NO FEAR FOR FLOWERS
Although Margriet Smulders’ works are definitely photographs, in fact, the artist rather works as a cooking scenographer. The landscapes in her works are realistic scenes, arranged in her studio, made vigorous by her photography. Smulders is an artist, dedicated to flowers, which can easily call for prejudice nowadays. Have flowers not long been a taboo in contemporary art? For a woman at that? Wouldn’t she be better off working with sandy soil or sturdy rocks?
In the art world, flora is heavily trampled upon in Land Art Projects or as potted plants in many light- and technical arrangements of Concept Art. And yet, always without flowers in bloom! It seems as if the concept cuts off the flowers from the plant to deny this colour symbol to make an intellectualisation possible. Flowers are said to be romantically emotional, which equals intellectual helplessness. A concept, politics or criticism are easier redefined in green stems than in colourful flowers. Also art critics seldom talk about flowers, they’d rather receive them.
Smulders focusses exactly on this uncertain field of the seemingly unprejudiced art world. She shows flowers, radically and exaggeratingly so. That is courageous and at the same time her works unmistakably show: no floral compromise.
Smulders’ flowers are neither small nor a part of a flowerbed, nor is it about documentary photography. It is not about holding on to the general or typical beauty of flowers. Every flower in Smulders’ works is a better version of itself. The pictorial worlds are compositions of artistic exaggeration descending in the surreal, seemingly pictorial and they present not just one natural plant, but a sterilised Floral Wonder. That is the essence: flowers are not being photographed, but romantically floral radicalised landscapes. Her work exaggerates, pushing it to the limit. Smulders brings all ingredients together, puts them in the picture, strongly intensified. Finally, the photographs are made large-sized. The observer does not stand before a picture of flowers: one swims among them until floral intoxication. Abundance without compromise.
A reception of her images is felt in the belly first. And that seems to be another taboo of the present art world: gut instincts? Also art historians find these hard to accept. How would one describe these? How could these be assessed? One rather beats about the bush than write about emotional reception.
Vassily Kandinsky presented his ‘Point-and-Line-to-Plane-theory’ in a time in which emotional appreciation of art was assessed differently. At the start of the 20th century, he described lines and planes as personified beings that could express and trigger tensions and emotions. He used words from the reception of music to clarify the workings of certain planes, forms and compositions. The recipient could then sense this as long as one didn’t suffer from poor eye-sight, a handicap, which Kandinsky ascribed to the particular psyche.
Today, in leading art discussions, initial emotional appreciation of art is clearly frowned upon. Maybe because too often bad artists had tried to enhance their gestic expression paintings in this manner. Emotional inflation was the result. All the more important it is to reintroduce this theme in contemporary art.
Smulders’ photographs connect with the (female?) body. A first approach is sensual, based on an imagined interaction between one’s own body and the shallow warm moving water. Of course, one wants to see the real scene, dip in a finger to hit new waves. Who wouldn't want to play in a brook? To go exploring, turning every flower around, feeling like Alice in her Wonderland? Besides, there are associations of Cleopatra’s bathing scenes too. The glamorous bathing ceremonies with special ingredients that were illustrative of the Empress’ legendary Beauty and Power.
Smulders’ compositions are both luxurious and bewitch at the same time. This is what makes Cleopatra’s power enchanting and Alice’s dreamworld fantastic. Either way, ‘the feminine’ is conspicuous. It is neither a side effect nor something the artist wants to hide or obscure: it’s a conscious focus. To directly label flowers as symbol of femininity and fertility seems vintage at first, like the Post-modernist climax: brightly coloured flowers as symbol of strong women. One needs only think of the Spice Girls-times of the 90-s, in which fans of neon-coloured, sterilised flowers, became a symbol of ‘girl-power’ and an educational role model to a generation of young girls. Music videos and songs like for instance ‘Mädchen’ by Lucilectric, which showed the singer, sitting on a flower swing, singing: ‘…. because I’m a girl….’ were the pop-cultural essence of bygone women’s literature. The pond of milk, ketchup and flowers plays with these clear connotations.
In Smulders’ art-kitchen, everything comes together: a Classical symbol, spiced with pepper-powder, baked in water and cured in fruit juice. Other ingredients are also inspired by the literature of William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht. For personal reasons, Smulders decided on making a scene that would depict Brecht’s poem ‘Legend’ that talks about the origin of the Book in which Tao Te King leaves Laotse. Smulders’ father was imprisoned in a WWII concentration camp for having helped Jews. He survived, yet this fate was never really specified within the family. Smulders doesn't explicate either, but merely refers to this episode by using a poem’s title. Definitely the observer himself won’t be able to deduct this, one needs to inquire. But it is not about that, she won’t make political art or recount specific stories. They are thoughts that should not be forced onto the observer. If Smulders personally put something in the flowing water at all, it would be more of a purifying, very intimate act, meant for herself entirely. Her works function, better said, unfold an expression, also without knowing this. Smulders wants to evoke freedom and lightness.The aforementioned ‘getting drunk’ on her images, she understands positively and slightly ironically.
EMSGALERIE - Shopping Centre in RHEINE
Underneath its roof Smulders’ triptych hangs, all three elements visible from all floors. Shoppers walk underneath them and look up from any shop to look into a river, adorned with flowers and animals. Immediately this project raises questions: Art in a Shopping Mall? Works of art as consumer goods?
In her book ‘High Price - Art between Market and Celebrity Culture’ , Art critic Isabelle Graw investigated the relation between works of art and consumer goods. Works of art have an economic character, yet they are an exception, because they are unique and carry symbolic meaning, for instance. It is luxury goods that come closest to works of art. Coming in limited editions and being symbolic to a certain lifestyle for instance, they want to embody a certain originality. But according to Graw no collector of luxury goods is equipped with ‘ the incomparable aura of cultural importance’ the art collector emanates .
In the 20th century, the interaction of works of art and consumer goods created a well-known terrain on which to experiment and play. Pop-Artists, like Andy Warhol, painted and printed consumer items or put them to use directly as Ready-Mades. The consumer world seems an actual and close source of inspiration: the range of goods of an art-supplies shop have long been added to the shelves of a supermarket. From Marcel Duchamp and Dada onwards, through the entire century, consumer goods developed into established artist’s materials ranking traditional tools such as oil-paints, wood and steel.
By the way, flowers are also articles of commerce, a business model and a consumer good, despite or just because of their longstanding history of cultural symbolism. Flower shops, like the branches of Blume2000, can be frequently found next to the entrance and exit gates of shopping centres. After having shopped for clothes and accessories, consumers are tempted into choosing some fitting flowers to take home. Just like Pop Art (Andy Warhol slaved away with floral themes too), it is not surprising that nowadays, artists, ensuing from goods, discover the space where goods are traded: the shops or shopping malls, as a space for art.
In 1999 photographer Andreas Gursky took pictures of such spaces of the colourful consumer world. Apart from shots of the overflowing interiors of shops like ’99 Cent’, there is a picture of the exterior of a ‘Toys “R” Us’ store: the unattractive rear of this shopping giant’s building shows a filthy, grey-white concrete and tar landscape. Colour accents are simply the brands’ logos on the wall. This desolate rear stood in contrast to the safe, adventurous setting created within the building and its entrance area.
The esthetic spatial distance that Gursky still implied by his work, does not seem to be a problem nowadays. The shopping mall ‘Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche’ not only fits the category ‘Shopping Attraction’, but functions as a Parisian spot for art exhibitions too. In 2016, it had Ai Wei Wei on show for over a month. The ‘White Cube’ gets multicoloured again! When artists take their works into this space, they reach more people and introduce art in their everyday life. So the cooperation between art and shopping centres takes shape as a more and more attractive playground nowadays. In Hongkong, for instance, K11 radically introduces the phenomenon ‘Art Mall’, a mixture of museum and shopping centre. Seven floors present shops, goods, sculptures and exhibitions to the public. According to the motto: “In art we meet. In art we shop. In art we play”, Art Malls get established in more cities. Selling art could start in shopping centres, at least for those who don't come across contemporary art easily.
However, is it still possible to appreciate art in such colourful, filled, jammed settings with overheated consumers, neon signs and rucola pizzas? Margriet Smulders installed her triptych in the only free space left, better said, as far away from the shops as possible, high upon the ceiling. Scenographically this spot and the imagery of the photographs can be interpreted: the riverbanks of the triptych are embellished with voluptuous flower-arrangements and animals. Spatially, these edges are closest to the shops and seem to exceed their content, as if the excess load of goods in the shopping centre could be washed away by the riverbanks of the imagery. The river takes the attractions away to have silence return. Smulders’ triptych also is a catharsis of the shopping-and-goods drama.
At the same time, the imagery at the ceiling surpasses all images on shop windows, that is, the shops and their products. The watery turquoise Douglas advertisements, perfume posters with men that rise from the water like gods, or decorative attributes with hints of North Sea charm are all common kitschy aspects of the world of shopping centres nowadays. Only when something just gets copied, there is a risk of kitsch. Natural beaches can't be kitsch, imitation of dune grass definitely is. Obviously, Smulders’ scenery doesn’t imitate. The works depict an intense flower utopia, an ideal world, in which every imaginable, happy coincidence of nature comes together in the smallest space possible - a mix of The Bible and Walt Disney. Smulders’ works show an ideal esthetic causal chain that drove animals, plants, flowers and colours together at the best possible moment in time. From a flower utopia it is not far to floral madness, as a totally different association is also possible: when a Dutch artist spans a thriving marketplace with oversized photographs of fiery flowers, like a painted ceiling, the thought of the Dutch Tulip-mania is also close. In the 1730s, tulips were a status symbol that saw an explosion in trade, called the Tulip-fever. Inner-city Amsterdam property was traded against exclusive tulip bulbs. Rare and most-wanted bulbs could be worth up to € 87.000,- today. The flower mania ended in collapsing markets. This financial crisis entered the canon of speculative bubbles of economic history and is case-studied and interpreted even today. What contemporary art and the 17th century tulips share is a belief to be investment objects.
I came to treat Smulders’ work from two sides: I explained the presented objects, the flowers, symbolically and by association (admittedly from a female perspective), then I placed her art project in the Emsgalerie in the wider perspective of developing new art spaces. In this light, the title of my article determines both interpretations: Have No Fear for Flowers! For too long, art had to be un-beautiful, so as to appreciate content and to disengage from handicraft.
Margriet Smulders clearly intends to present Beauty and to convey emotions through her work. To ‘Have no Fear for Flowers’, should therefore be understood as a contemporary challenge throughout - of course winking slightly ironically at the codex of conceptual Biennale art and clichés on women. The flower utopia is a contemporary, intellectual test of courage.