London's San Mei gallery is currently home to a selection of new plants. Set alongside drawings, and striking green wallpapers, it's an intriguing new exhibition from artist Matthew Beach. Gina Castellheim speaks to him about this new work.
So much, Matthew, of what you do in the exhibition is about botany. That idea of humans having a relationship to plants, and the first ever human curiosity about plants [thousands and thousands of years ago]. What is that relationship like – the human-plant relationship?
At the moment, I think it’s a (mostly) one-sided relationship favouring human (re)production based on extraction and aesthetics. I mean it’s complicated…for example, I wonder the degree to which various plants might fall within the evolutionary advantage of self-domestication; particularly as I am reminded a fellow conference attendee once remarking on their insistence on the manipulative aspect of plant biology. But I don’t know. I’m weary of saying anything that could be seen as anthropomorphising or overly romantic. Sure, it’s symbiotic at some basic level between oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. I think what’s most interesting, and this might be controversial to say, but I favour the idea of co-domestication over leaving nonhumans to their own devices. Which is to say the human-plant relationship is one that has a lot of potential with respect to world-building beyond the Anthropocene as we know it today.
There’s something quite unique about the moment you walk into a space and your plant hanging is fully immersive, that will keep continuing to grow. Especially if it turns out to be beautiful [by the end of the exhibition]. What sense are you trying to give visitors who step foot in the space?
There is a basic element of using the architecture of the space in order to enable visitors to experience a houseplant closer to its native scale. We (or at least I) often think about houseplants as being relatively small species, wherein reality many grow to great proportions. Spatially, too, I’m hoping visitors will experience the plant’s central location within the room as a contextual device — the work literally revolving around the plant. Beyond acting as an orientating device, there is also an element of reading the plant as a domestic agent occupying different perspectives between subject-object. For example, it’s a subject sharing the environment with other humans and nonhumans, actively taking part in world-building within the gallery space. However, it’s also constructed as an artwork and object of value and symbolism.
You mention [discovering plant species in the jungle/looking for plants around the jungle], I know you took a research trip to Brazil, not long ago, where you did some amazing research in an artist residency there?
Yes, so I participated in the 2019 edition of LABVERDE, which is a short-term residency that brings together knowledges and practices between artists and natural scientists within the context of the Amazon River and rainforest. This might sound silly, but it hadn’t actually occurred to me in the beginning that I might see plant species or genera that I would recognise as belonging to the houseplant category elsewhere. I remember recognising my first plant and asking Ricardo Perez, who was the botanist working with us, whether we would we see Philodendron; and he was kind of like, well, yeah, of course. That was the real turning point for me in trying to identify (or at least photograph and later identify) as many philodendron species as I could. This practice to me learning more about their relationships with other species such as ants and beetles, as well as the trees they’re cling to as part of their epiphytic characteristic, and then trying to imagine how similar relationships could be formed in other locales, or in the domestic sphere.
I’m imagining it was easier for you to massively connect to nature in the jungle, how did you decide on the exhibition’s plant selection? Did you connect more deeply with those ones?
I prefer to think about the worlds we inhabit as always already more-than-human. So I would have to push back on your first point here because for me connecting to the nonhuman isn’t about ease or difficulty, it’s just about context and focus! The exhibition’s plant selection was driven by what I observed during my time in the Amazon, and how that connected to my ongoing research entrenched in the global houseplant market. Philodendron pedatum, the main plant on display, has started to make more of an appearance in high street plant shops and nurseries. It was also very common in the areas we were trekking as part of LABVERDE. I found the contrast between this ubiquitous plant crawling around the forest floor and up trees, and the idea that here in the UK it’s considered ‘rare’ and desirable for domestic space very compelling.
So Matthew, you’ve recently been closer to home, in the UK. Has the climate crisis made a difference to what’s been happening in the human-plant relationship, in the Amazon and at home?
At the time I travelled to Brazil, the 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires were near their peak. It was a weird experience because the areas we were trekking in were mostly unaffected, so it was this odd sense of knowing you’re so close to the ongoing catastrophe, yet you can’t see it. And I think that experience functions similarly to what we’re all going through while sheltering-in-place due to Covid. All of those global industrial processes that contribute to the climate crisis are still ongoing, but they’re that much less visible as (some) humans have been retreating from public life. This carries through to the human-plant relationship between both locations as houseplant internet searches have surged during the multiple UK lockdowns. This might sound really grotesque, but as more and more people seek to cultivate their relationships with these tropical and subtropical plants native to places like the Amazon, they’re also participating in their decline. Granted one might argue the same for nearly any commodity, but what I am trying to do with this work is to point out