Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Monday, March 31, 2008

Why Callas Must Moan: Jay Yan

With callas that sigh, a California artist combines digital media and fresh flowers with his art world savvy to entice an international audience.


A gallery goer bends down to attend Jay Yan’s Whisper

Photo: Jay Yan

A few fundamentals. Flowers contain the sex organs of plants—it’s true. And yes, art is a form of exhibitionism.

A delightful young artist from Los Angeles, Jiacong (Jay) Yan, has turned these basics into interactive works designed to allure and startle. In these times, artists who allure only tend to be dismissed as frivolous. (A shame, we say. How many Watteaus have turned to truck driving?)

What drew us to Jay were the flowers in his piece Whisper. In a dark room, nine white calla lilies stand illuminated from above, and as you approach them, you hear each flower moaning tenderly. If there’s an auditory equivalent of “voyeurism,” here it is, sighing in a public gallery. Since it’s just flowers, not a writhing woman, listening is socially acceptable, sort of; but calling it “art” is the real kiss of guilt-freedom.

Jay, born 1983 in Shanghai, moved to the U.S. in 1990 and now lives in Los Angeles. “I am born Chinese, raised American, and now because Chinese art is so hot, Chinese once more,” he states in an online bio. We enjoy how Jay both plays along with many rules of the art world and breaks the big one—disclosing that there ARE rules everyone plays by. He very generously wrote to us about the evolution of Whisper, an intriguing story, we think, as it illustrates some of the pressures—social, conceptual, financial, political—that are molding contemporary artists and what they make.

imageJay Yan

Whisper came to me when I was kicking a ball around with a friend. Like anything worth making, it came inexplicably,” Jay writes. “I said to myself, ‘If flowers could talk, what would they say?’ We explored romantic notions, agricultural notions, environmental complaints, and then realized, ‘Wait, all these notions are placed on flowers by society.’ Like my professor Jennifer Steinkamp once said, ‘Flowers are innocent. Flowers do not represent love, charity, sorrow, friendship —if society was not around. What do flowers do if we really abstract it enough?’ Well, that’s obvious, right? sex.”

All the classroom philosophizing, considerations of social constructedness and the like, land back at square one. Nonetheless, most “serious” contemporary artists feel obligated to engage in such a conceptual workout.

Back to Jay: “Again, idea of sex and flowers—not new. Georgia O’Keefe explored it extensively through her paintings, and Robert Mapplethorpe did through his photography. I wanted to reference both in Whisper. (Also, I found a company in Japan that makes flowers talk! Too bad they’re out of business now, haha. The talking flower didn’t prove to be that popular; I think I was their only customer).” We wrote a bit about that product, Jay, right here. Good to hear from one person—as you say, maybe the only one—who bought it.

He goes on: “So the piece consists of 9 flowers, each of them calla lilies. Calla lilies being not only the best flower for talking but also Georgia O’Keefe and Mapplethorpe both used it extensively in their works. The sexualization of calla lilies is quite explored in art history. I included a very strong spot light from above the piece to give it the shadows Mapplethorpe uses so well.”

Exploring the precedents for his subject, Jay fulfills another another artistic obligation. The point is not to imitate what’s come before but to advance past it somehow—either slaying your forebears or, more benignly, standing on their shoulders. Noting that many an art historian has written about human sexuality and callas, Jay mentions only art celebrities of the recent past—O’Keefe and Mapplethorpe— maybe because their popularity serves as a kind of cultural shorthand.


Jay Yan’s Whisper during its exhibition in Shanghai

Callas must not have been available; these look like Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum)

Photo: Jay Yan

“The flowers each moan softly like during intimacy, and it’s a female voice,” Jay writes. “I know, sounds very sexist. Let me tell you another story….

“So at first, I had each flower whisper prepared text by my friends who all gave me their favorite lines they like to whisper to someone’s ear during intimacy. Then I recorded both male and female voice actor tracks. Oh boy, was that hard. First off, I auditioned 120 people. Here is one typical result from an actor:

“The funny part was, his girlfriend was next to him, so I gave her a quick glance like, ‘Does he talk to you like this normally?’

“Then I got criticized by a curator at the Getty about the choice of words (well ‘criticized’ is a strong word— more like, he was interested in buying it, then he asked about the text, and when I told him, he stopped becoming interested). This coupled with each flower having a different voice proved not that interesting after a while, and the electronics for making each flower having a different voice becoming expensive and hard to find. I decided they should all be the same.” Maybe if a few gladioli, pansies and snapdragons had been mixed in, different “texts” would have been warranted.

But, Jay, how rare it is for artists to admit that the wrinkled nose of a museum official or gallery owner or some other arbiter changed their creative course! As heliotropic flowers turn their faces to the sun, artists intent on growing their careers do heed the responses of authorities. It happens all the time!  And of course there are feasibilities to consider. Media artists can dream beyond their technical capacities, and their finances. Let’s be real.

“The reduction of audible words to a moan came about because Art is international these days. Hell, 100% of all my shows are all overseas in non-English speaking countries. How can they understand the sexualities of the piece if they don’t speak English? So to the dismay of many of my female friends, but support of all my female friends that make art (funny how making art changed your opinions) I auditioned for moans.”

What used to be called art’s “universality” is now a feature of art world globalism. And Jay neatly avoided what might have been a linguistic barrier, by nixing words.


Listening with happiness to Whisper

Photo: Jay Yan

“That was another 60 horrible auditions. But I finally came up with one that was great. I liked her because just listening to her can invoke the feeling of eroticism instantly in any language. I like the idea of people at an art museum or gallery in public and putting their ear to the piece and hearing it and getting turned on because it’s such a socially inappropriate thing, thus taboo. And taboo is the basis of eroticism (so it’s like a loop!).” See above.

Though Whisper’s blooms and sighs both travel easily across international boundaries, Jay points out how variously the piece has been received.

“In China, since sex in art is taboo enough to get you banned, I had a show and when the censors came to inspect the show, I unplugged the work so they just thought it was a nice looking sculpture. During the opening, a famous curator commented that he was amazed I got away with such a piece in China. The censors came back the next day apparently, but I think a janitor accidentally unplugged the piece! haha.

“In Asia, men love the piece. Many women like it, but are apprehensive about it. I suspect it could be like a Confucius thing (like how it is only appropriate for Chinese women to associate with men in church). This might be a bias, but it’s my observation from hanging around Chinese churches at a young age. Sex is still soooooo taboo in China.

“The opposite is found in, say, Europe where women all love the piece. They openly tell me and some have offered me drugs because they appreciated the experience with the piece so much.” Not exactly “fame, money, and beautiful lovers,” but, hey, there’s a recession going on.

“As opposed to men in Europe, who are very restrained about their contact with the piece. An observer said to me at a show, ‘The piece is so sensual, it’s surprising a man made it.’ I think this is the interesting part, I think the sensuality turns men off in Europe because they might fear losing their manhood in public by being near the piece. They loved the giant robot hand that was next to my piece!

“Oh, and Germans generally dislike the piece. I still haven’t figured out why.” General Germans, please let us hear from you.

Congratulations and nine breathy thanks to Jay for his account of a provocative Human Flower Project, its creation and reception. In case you don’t have the opportunity to see and hear Whisper in person, Jay has supplied a video on his website.

Posted by Julie on 03/31 at 03:52 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Falklands Flowers at 52° Latitude S.

Even on windy islands of peat in the far Southern Hemisphere, if there are Anglos, there will be gardens, too.


The garden at the Government House in Stanley

Falkland Islands, Februrary 2008

Photo: Sharen Branscome

A territory hospitable to penguins doesn’t put most people in a gardening mood. But most people are not English people, and they’re the ones who, mainly, settled the Falkland Islands. Shallow soil be damned. What’s a little Antarctic wind? There WILL be gardens.

Friends Jim and Sharen were recently in Stanley—at least Sharen was, while Jim played shuffleboard on the ship and sent out email: “The wind was still blowing at 41 mph this morning when we arrived….” That’s tough on plants. But Sharen found some fascinating gardens around town. The best known, likely the grandest, is outside the Government House, built in 1845 to be home for the presiding Englishman here. As Jim and Sharen discovered in southern Chile, lupines are the showboat garden flowers of the far southern hemisphere. Some grow tall as hollyhocks. The flower stalks bristle with color all the way up—you’ve got a tiger by the tail!

There’s also a big greenhouse and nursery on the grounds for growing the governor’s vegetables. It’s a long choppy ride to the supermarket in Chile (since the war with Argentina in 1982, Falkland Islanders tend to go the extra mile).

Though the islands are way far south, at 52 degrees latitude, the climate here is generally called “temperate.” For example, it’s a very reasonable 61 degrees at Mount Pleasant Airport today. Still, growing things is tough because the islands’ soil consists of “shallow peat over clay” and the winds blow steady and harsh. “Once you get outside the landscaped yards in town, there is nary a tree or bush to be found. Anywhere. None. There is one trial nursery for trees, but no natural greenery reaching above about 12” above ground.”

imageFelton’s Flower (Calandrinia feltonii)

rescued from extinction by gardeners

Image: Falklands Conservation

All this makes islanders exceptionally proud of the native wildflowers—the species that can make it. Herds of sheep about did in Felton’s Flower (Calandrinia feltonii), an endemic plant that would be extinct today, had it not been for the acquisitive efforts of Falklander gardeners.  Pale Maiden (Olysnium filifolium) is the Falklands’ national flower. Botanist J. D. Hooker described “grass plains…almost whitened by the profusion of its pendulous, snowy bells” in “the spring month of November.” That was a hundred years ago.  We understand Pale Maiden isn’t so plentiful now.


Gnome Garden in Stanley, Falkland Islands

Photo: Brian Lockett

Resignation to “dwarf” plant varieties and delight in the islands’ abundant bird life may have inspired this garden in Stanley. Photographer Brian Lockett provides this description. “The yard was tiered. The lowest tier of the garden was occupied by dozens of garden gnomes. There was a ceramic Mexican burro and a pair of plastic, pink flamingoes behind them. Farther up, there were a couple of species of ceramic geese. A large shrub in the highest tier was surrounded by a collection of ceramic Gentoo Penguins and topped by a ceramic hawk.” You will also want to experiment with Brian’s alternative view of this yard: “Cross your eyes” he suggests, “to see the gnome garden in 3-D.”

Jim, have you tried that? You don’t even have to leave the ship!

Posted by Julie on 03/29 at 12:01 PM
EcologyGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hallmark Quits the Flower Business

The first name in U.S. greeting cards—and PG-rated TV dramas—has not done so well selling flowers.


“When you care enough to send the very best….” To the breast-beating motto of the Hallmark card company, we now add: “When you know enough to get out of flower retailing….”

Hallmark has done just that. The company announced that it will stop “its direct-to-consumer flowers and gifts business by the end of April.”
Hallmark Flowers began as a pilot retailing program in 1999, launching in 2001 and mailing out its first catalogue in 2005. The company marketed flowers and other gifts through both the catalogue and a website. Jennifer Mann, reporting for Hallmark’s hometown paper the Kansas City Star, quotes company spokesperson Julie O’Dell: ““Basically, we have taken a close, thorough look at the current competitive marketplace — particularly for flowers — and our business model and have determined that the investments we needed to make to keep those businesses running and profitable simply couldn’t guarantee the results we needed.”

Does that mean margins were too low, postal rates too high (Hallmark Flowers mailed a whopping eight catalogues to customers last year), or flower sales are declining? Or could it be that the greeting card giant never understood flowers as gifts?

We have no inside scoop, but we do know that buying greeting cards and buying flowers are very different. And while Hallmark knows a thing or ten thousand about the former, that knowledge might have botched their efforts with the latter.

When we shop for a greeting card (being too lazy to make one ourselves), we know we’ll have to settle for something generic – “Sympathy” “Uncle Birthday” “Baby Shower” or, preferably, “Blank.” It’s our lucky day if we find one card that doesn’t resort to a joke about farting or a photo of porpoises. And if it’s not our lucky day, well, it’s the thought that counts.

But with flowers, generic will not do. We’re always looking for something fresh and explicitly personal. We’ll try the patience of any florist insisting on shasta daisies over gerberas, blue delphinium not purple, sweetheart roses rather than the long stemmed kind….

Online flower sellers and catalogues aren’t evil, they just have no way to offer nuance or serendipity. Also, when the catalogue goes to press, in January, there’s no way to know whether the white larkspur available March 27th will be raggedy or heavenly, or not white at all but pink.

Hallmark had built a “state of the art” flower-handling facility near Memphis, where ProFlowers and 1-800-Flowers also have distribution centers. Now, unfortunately, 100 people there in Southaven, Tennessee, and in Kansas City will lose their jobs.  We wish them something better. Otherwise we consider the demise of Hallmark Flowers to be good news and good business. Ease up on the farting jokes, people, and keep on doing what you do “very best.”

Posted by Julie on 03/27 at 05:57 PM
Cut-Flower TradeFloristsSecular CustomsPermalink

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Poodle Dog & Other ‘Biting’ Flowers

You know better than to eat just any flower (right?). With spring coming into bloom, check the picking impulse, too. Some blossoms will punish you for it.


Poodle dog bush (Turricula parryi) in flower—

It’s a tempting year for California hikers

Photo (detail): Arnie (fractalv)

In our continuing effort to keep looking beyond “just pretty” where flowers are concerned, we were thrilled—wincingly—to come upon Eugene Fields’s ominous story of “poodle dog bush.” Sounds like man’s best friend. But Fields reports that the lavender flowers of Turricula parryi will bite.

The plant is blooming heartily now through the Santiago and Modjeska canyons of California. It’s an especially good year for the plant, as last October’s wildfires cleared the way for its resurgence. Hikers will encounter the tall blooming stalks now and may be tempted to break off a stem or two or three. Better leave that poodle be. The flowers produce an allergic skin reaction similar to poison oak.  “Symptoms range from itching to a rash or blisters lasting as long as two weeks. George Ewan with the Orange County Fire Authority said the pain is reminiscent to coming in contact with stinging nettles. ‘It’s like that that except it doesn’t wear off,’ Ewan said. ‘It goes for quite a while.’”

Unless you’re into scourges, pass on by (Info on newfangled styles of penance available upon request).

Many thanks to Arnie for supplying us with the beautiful photo of poodle dog bush in bloom (above). He writes that this specimen of Turricula parry was “found at about 5200’ elevation in the San Bernardino National Forest near Lake Arrowhead, CA. Bush was about 6 feet round and flowers towered over my head, the flowers being about 1” across.”


Another biting flower, from the Catalpa tree (Catalpa speciosa)

Photo: Missouri State Univ.

The poodle dog led us down a trail in search of other flowers toxic to human skin. The Ag Extension folks in Connecticut provide this good list of plants that cause dermatitis. Sometimes it’s the leaves, bark, roots, or sap that irritate skin, but flowers, even “pretty” ones, can cause outbreaks too. To use Cesar Milan’s terminology, “Red Zone Dogs” of the flower world include Catalpa speciosa, Anthemis arvensis, and Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven). The latter is often considered a “trash tree,” one with some fight in it. Ohio State botanists warn,  “Gardeners who fell the tree may suffer rashes.”

imageHickey? Nope. A blister caused by Giant Hogweed

Photo: Canadian Weed Science Society

Nobody should tangle with Zigadenus paniculatus flowers, which go by the name “Death lily” for a reason. And we’ve written here before about the perils of Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). In case you forgot, the photo at right shows what its blooms can do.

Just a drop more toxicity—Florists have learned the hard way that some of our favorite flowers can injure the skin. No…not tulips? ‘Fraid so.

Posted by Julie on 03/25 at 02:45 PM
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