Subtle Affinity

Elise Adibi

Reviewed by David L. Hays

10 Mar 2019

Greenhouse at the Frick (Pittsburgh, PA) in fog. Film still from Elise Adibi, Respiration Paintings (2018), by Elise Adibi and JPC Eberle.

From April to Octo­ber 2017, a selec­tion of my abstract oil paint­ings was exhib­it­ed togeth­er with plants in the his­toric green­house at the Frick, a muse­um in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia. With its ele­vat­ed heat and humid­i­ty, a green­house is an unusu­al loca­tion for paint­ings, espe­cial­ly works like mine made with vital sub­stances: essen­tial plant oils on can­vas and human urine on cop­per. Part ani­mal, part veg­e­tal, part min­er­al, my paint­ings were already hybridized in mate­r­i­al terms, but the fer­tile con­di­tions in the green­house induced them to trans­form at accel­er­at­ed rates and in unex­pect­ed ways. Shar­ing affini­ties with plants, fun­gi, and insects, not to men­tion sun­light and humid­i­ty, the paint­ings embod­ied a new kind of agency and life cycles dif­fer­ent from what they would have had in con­ven­tion­al­ly con­di­tioned spaces aimed at keep­ing them for­mal­ly stable.

The green­house at the Frick was designed in 1897 by Alden and Har­low, an archi­tec­ture firm known for its sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­al com­mis­sions, includ­ing the Carnegie Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry (also in Pitts­burgh) and City Hall in Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts. The Frick muse­um is named after the fam­i­ly to whom the prop­er­ty belonged orig­i­nal­ly. These were the same Fricks who even­tu­al­ly moved to New York City and whose home there became anoth­er muse­um, the Frick Col­lec­tion. Hen­ry Clay Frick made his for­tune turn­ing coal mined in the near­by moun­tains into coke, a mate­r­i­al nec­es­sary for the pro­duc­tion of steel. He sold much of his coke to the steel man­u­fac­tur­er Andrew Carnegie, who took Frick on as a part­ner in 1882. The Fricks moved into their Pitts­burgh man­sion in 1883 and called it Clay­ton” as a play on Henry’s mid­dle name. The green­house was used pri­mar­i­ly to grow flow­ers for their new home. As the Fricks’ wealth increased and their estates mul­ti­plied, cut flow­ers were trans­port­ed east­ward by train to their oth­er homes in New York and Massachusetts.

Visitor entering the exhibition. Film still from Elise Adibi, Respiration Paintings (2018).

Around the same time when the first iron and steel green­hous­es were being built in the mid-1800s, the term green­house effect” came into use to describe the impact of gas­es that trap infrared radi­a­tion in the atmos­phere, keep­ing Earth’s tem­per­a­tures con­stant. One of the pri­ma­ry green­house gas­es is car­bon diox­ide, which was then being pro­duced at sharply increas­ing rates due to the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels, such as coal, and has since increased to a crit­i­cal lev­el in the earth’s atmos­phere. Coal is a rock formed from dead plant mat­ter con­vert­ed into peat mil­lions of years ago. When Frick’s green­house was built, it was as yet unknown that increased car­bon diox­ide would lead to glob­al warming.

Yellow and Pink Pour Painting (2017). Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint, and essential plant oils of lemon, Peru balsam, red mandarin, and ylang ylang on canvas, 30 in. x 30 in. Photo by Elise Adibi.

The idea to dis­play paint­ings in a green­house grew out of my use of essen­tial plant oils in mak­ing my own paints. Essen­tial oils are typ­i­cal­ly used in nat­ur­al per­fumery and, med­i­c­i­nal­ly, in aro­mather­a­py. Research­ing the oils and their var­i­ous prop­er­ties, I learned that what we call oil paint­ing is, in fact, plant oil paint­ing. Around the 15th cen­tu­ry, painters start­ed mix­ing dry pig­ments with plant oils. This inven­tion has his­tor­i­cal­ly been attrib­uted to artist Jan van Eyck, who was also known to be an alchemist, and that lat­ter inter­est may have influ­enced his exper­i­men­tal atti­tude towards nat­ur­al mate­ri­als, includ­ing plant mat­ter. Plant alche­my was prac­ticed as a form of herbal med­i­cine, and tinc­tures cre­at­ed from dis­tilled plant mat­ter were used as reme­dies. So, the same sub­stances used to heal were also used to paint, and that con­nec­tion per­sists even today. For exam­ple, lin­seed oil, the most com­mon binder in con­tem­po­rary oil paints, is pressed from flax seeds and is edi­ble. In its food grade form, it is called flaxseed oil, and peo­ple ingest it as a source of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega‑3 fat­ty acid believed to have a wide range of health benefits.

French marigolds in front of Copper Monochrome (2017). Rabbit skin glue, oil paint, and copper on linen, 30 in. x 30 in. Photo by Elise Adibi.

As I became increas­ing­ly invest­ed in using essen­tial plant oils in my paints, my research led me to the plants them­selves. I read about plant com­mu­ni­ca­tion and learned that trees and oth­er plants release pheromones to ward off preda­tors and to warn oth­er plants of impend­ing dan­ger. They also use these air­borne mol­e­cules to attract pol­li­na­tors, there­by spread­ing their own genes. Learn­ing about plant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it occurred to me, was I some­how com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the plants when I was paint­ing? I was breath­ing in scents that have evolved as a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the nat­ur­al world, but since I am not a pol­li­na­tor, what mes­sages — if any — might the plants be com­mu­ni­cat­ing to me? Aro­mat­ic mol­e­cules first entered my nasal pas­sage, then pro­ceed­ed to the olfac­to­ry bulb in my fore­brain, where the infor­ma­tion was processed and sent to oth­er parts of my brain. In oth­er words, plant mol­e­cules were enter­ing my body phys­i­cal­ly and pos­si­bly affect­ing my thoughts, moods, and mem­o­ries. Dur­ing long hours of paint­ing and breath­ing plant oils, did I notice a change in myself? I felt more present, more con­nect­ed to the mate­ri­als with which I was work­ing. I won­dered, was that com­mu­ni­ca­tion some­how reflect­ed in the paint­ings I made with the plant oils? Were plant essences inspir­ing me through res­pi­ra­tion? That was the pos­si­bil­i­ty I sought to share through the exhi­bi­tion in the Frick’s greenhouse.

Detail of Oxidation Painting (2017) in greenhouse. Rabbit skin glue, oil paint, urine, salt, vinegar, and copper on canvas, 40 in. x 40 in. Photo by Elise Adibi.

In addi­tion to the paint­ings I made with essen­tial plant oils, the exhi­bi­tion includ­ed oxi­da­tion paint­ings I made by apply­ing urine to a cop­per ground. Uric acid in urine oxi­dizes cop­per, turn­ing it green. Oxi­da­tion paint­ing was invent­ed as a genre in the late 1970s by artist Andy Warhol, who grew up in a neigh­bor­hood in Pitts­burgh not far from Frick’s green­house and even clos­er to the steel mills he oper­at­ed with Carnegie. Unlike my paint­ings in the green­house, Warhol’s oxi­da­tion paint­ings were not meant to keep chang­ing after they were fin­ished. To pre­vent such works from con­tin­u­ing to oxi­dize, strin­gent cli­mate con­trols are required, with sur­round­ing air kept ide­al­ly at a con­stant 70 degrees Fahren­heit and 55% rel­a­tive humid­i­ty. The oxi­da­tion process can be slowed by such con­di­tions but not stopped com­plete­ly. By putting my oxi­da­tion paint­ings in a green­house, I allowed them to change at a faster rate.

Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on lantana plants in front of Oxidation Spiral (2017). Film still from Elise Adibi, Respiration Paintings (2018).

Think­ing about paint­ings that change led me to Oscar Wilde’s nov­el The Pic­ture of Dori­an Gray, pub­lished in 1890, sev­en years before the con­struc­tion of the Frick green­house. Envy­ing the abil­i­ty of paint­ings to resist time, Dori­an wish­es he could switch places with his por­trait and remain vis­i­bly unchanged while the paint­ing aged. When he first per­ceives phys­i­cal changes in the por­trait and real­izes that his wish has been grant­ed, Dori­an won­ders more gen­er­al­ly if there is some as yet unde­ter­mined con­nec­tion between objects and human feel­ings. He asks, Might not all things exter­nal to our­selves vibrate in uni­son, with our moods and pas­sions, atom call­ing to atom in secret love or strange affin­i­ty?” The affin­i­ty Dori­an expe­ri­ences between the paint­ing and him­self is at once mys­ti­cal and sci­en­tif­ic. In its sci­en­tif­ic use, affin­i­ty, also known as chem­i­cal affin­i­ty, describes the force by which atoms are held togeth­er in chem­i­cal com­pounds. Hap­pen­ing inside mat­ter, chem­i­cal affin­i­ty is not some­thing we can see with our naked eyes, yet we might intu­it it, as Wilde did in The Pic­ture of Dori­an Gray: Was there some sub­tle affin­i­ty between the chem­i­cal atoms that shaped them­selves into form and colour on the can­vas and the soul that was with­in him? Could it be that what that soul thought, they real­ized? – that what it dreamed, they made true?” Sub­tle affin­i­ty sug­gests that, through pro­longed, close atten­tion, vital con­nec­tions among things may become per­ceiv­able. In these slowed-down moments, the alive­ness in things can be felt and experienced.

The word sub­tle” comes from the Latin sub­tilis, mean­ing, lit­er­al­ly, fine­ly woven.” The idea of sub­tle affin­i­ty I am propos­ing here is like exam­in­ing woven fab­ric more close­ly and per­ceiv­ing threads not dis­cern­able at first glance or from a distance.

Rose Chord (2017). Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint, and essential plant oils of red mandarin, jasmine, starwood, Australian sandalwood, bergamot, sweet orange, rose absolute, rose otto, geranium rose, geranium, aged patchouli, benzoin heart note, and highland lavender on canvas, 30 in. x 30 in. Photo by Elise Adibi.

Look­ing into the weave of his­to­ry, per­haps there is a sub­tle affin­i­ty between Dori­an Gray and Hen­ry Clay Frick. Frick was 41 when The Pic­ture of Dori­an Gray was pub­lished. Did he read it? Con­sid­er­ing the scan­dal the book caused, it is like­ly Frick had at least heard of it. Frick was known for being a ruth­less man of busi­ness. By 41, he was one of the rich­est men in the world and was known as the King of Coke.” In 1889, eight years before the con­struc­tion of the green­house and a year before Dori­an Gray was pub­lished, a flood in John­stown, Penn­syl­va­nia, killed over 2,200 peo­ple. The flood was caused by a break in the South Fork Dam, which con­tained Lake Cone­maugh, a man-made reser­voir. On the shores of the lake was the South Fork Hunt­ing and Fish­ing Club, a pri­vate club for rus­tic get­aways by wealthy Pitts­burgh indus­tri­al­ists and their fam­i­lies. The club offered recre­ation­al escapes into seem­ing­ly pris­tine nature and away from the soot and smoke of the city, pol­lu­tion caused by the indus­tri­al enter­pris­es of many of the club’s own mem­bers. As one of the founders of the club, Frick was involved in the pur­chase of the land and its devel­op­ment. The club’s own­ers had altered the dam and were appar­ent­ly aware that it was faulty and might fail, yet they took no action to shore it up. Then the fate­ful day came. On May 31, 1889, after days of unusu­al­ly heavy rain­fall, the dam broke, flood­ing John­stown four­teen miles down­stream with a fero­cious force. Despite the dis­tance, there was no way to alert and evac­u­ate the city. Many peo­ple became trapped in the debris that piled up against the Stone Bridge, which still stands today. That wreck­age then caught fire, so those who didn’t drown burned. It was one of the worst dis­as­ters in the Unit­ed States up to that time. Despite evi­dence that the South Fork Club mem­bers had been warned and knew that the dam was vul­ner­a­ble, a court ruled that the flood was an Act of God,” and they were nev­er held legal­ly or finan­cial­ly account­able. It is now pos­si­ble to look back on this event as a har­bin­ger of things to come with glob­al warm­ing and the increased sever­i­ty of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters exac­er­bat­ed by human activ­i­ty. Though there was nev­er a pub­lic admis­sion of guilt by the club mem­bers, a pri­vate con­fes­sion of sorts was per­haps made indi­rect­ly by Frick. On his deathbed, Carnegie asked to speak with Frick, and the lat­ter respond­ed with a note that read, Tell him I will see him in hell, where we are both going.”

Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) in front of Lemon Grid (2017). Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint, and essential plant oils of lemon, bergamot, and yellow mandarin on canvas, 30 in. x 30 in. Photo by Elise Adibi.

The rela­tion­ship between Carnegie and Frick had soured years before. In order to force Frick out of his com­pa­ny, Carnegie had giv­en him a mas­sive set­tle­ment. With this pay­ment, Frick moved to New York City in 1905, and he spent the remain­der of his life col­lect­ing art. One of the prizes of Frick’s col­lec­tion is St. Fran­cis of the Desert (14761478) by Gio­van­ni Belli­ni. Paint­ed 35 years after Jan van Eyck’s death, it is a remark­ably well-pre­served ear­ly work in oil on pan­el. St. Fran­cis is known as the patron saint of ani­mals and the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. He was said to be able to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­er species, call­ing oth­er crea­tures his broth­ers and sis­ters. Once, when he was walk­ing in the wild, he came upon birds in a tree. He stopped to preach to them, and they flocked around to lis­ten. In Bellini’s paint­ing, St. Fran­cis is seen fac­ing the sun with his arms open. Per­haps he is receiv­ing inspi­ra­tion for his song Can­ti­cle of the Sun, also known as Praise of the Crea­tures. In the upper left-hand cor­ner of the paint­ing, a lau­rel tree also seems to be com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the sun, lean­ing back in a way that echoes the pos­ture of St. Fran­cis, with some of its branch­es raised towards the light. Is it pos­si­ble that liv­ing with this paint­ing in his New York man­sion made Frick more sen­si­tive to the nat­ur­al world and pro­vid­ed him with some heal­ing? Per­haps the spir­it of St. Fran­cis could be felt in the green­house where my paint­ings were installed. Along with humans, non-human vis­i­tors came and expe­ri­enced the works, includ­ing bees and but­ter­flies, pray­ing man­tis­es, moths, spi­ders, occa­sion­al birds that flew in, even the neigh­bor­hood cat. Insects were the most fre­quent vis­i­tors, and they became a part of both the expe­ri­ence of the paint­ings and the paint­ings’ expe­ri­ence, fly­ing around them, land­ing on them, and — strange­ly — some­times even dying in front of them.

Dead moth in front of Oxidation Spiral (2017). Rabbit skin glue, oil paint, urine, salt, vinegar, and copper on canvas, 30 in. x 30 in. Photo by Elise Adibi.

Rain drops on Yellow and Pink Pour Painting (2017). Photo by Elise Adibi.

The sum­mer of 2017 was par­tic­u­lar­ly wet in Pitts­burgh. There were fre­quent, tor­ren­tial rain storms, and those rain­fall events,” asso­ci­at­ed with cli­mate change, soaked the green­house and mud­died the plant beds sur­round­ing the paint­ings. Despite the Frick museum’s best efforts, the paint­ings got dripped on from above and splashed from below. Con­tact with water accel­er­at­ed their rates of change. Mois­ture sat­u­rat­ed the can­vas­es, quick­en­ing their organ­ic poten­tials and mak­ing them per­fect hosts for microor­gan­isms. Over their six-month stay in the green­house, the paint­ings revealed images dif­fer­ent from those I had ini­ti­at­ed, devel­op­ing in ways inde­pen­dent of my ges­tures and inten­tions. For exam­ple, raw can­vas dark­ened as mold infil­trat­ed its weave, and paint bright­ened in con­trast. The paint seemed to emanate from the sur­faces, glow­ing bright­ly, as if lit from with­in or incan­des­cent. Mold grew in organ­ic pat­terns over straight lines I had drawn.

Rose Monochrome (2017). Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint, and essential plant oils of rose, bergamot, sweet orange, and lemon on canvas, 30 in. x 30 in. Film still from Elise Adibi, Respiration Paintings (2018).

Mold and mildew on Rose Monochrome (2017). Photo by Elise Adibi.

Sur­faces rep­re­sent­ed trans­for­ma­tions under­way. It was not easy for me to watch the process of the paint­ings chang­ing and decay­ing. The mold was lit­er­al­ly eat­ing them. In my stu­dio, I had spent many months mak­ing them, real­iz­ing their forms. They were fin­ished, but then they were food. When I first saw mold on the paint­ings, it was phys­i­cal­ly painful. It took time for me to adjust to their emer­gent aspects. Once I could let go of my idea of the paint­ings as fixed objects, I could relate to them dif­fer­ent­ly and con­sid­er our shared agency. I saw a new beau­ty in them. Some of the plants seemed to grow towards the paintings.

Bee on cone flower next to Yellow and Pink Pour Painting 2 (2017). Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint, and essential oils of lemon, Peru balsam, red mandarin, ylang ylang, bay laurel, and palo santo on canvas, 30 in. x 30 in. Film still from Elise Adibi, Respiration Paintings (2018).

One of the lan­tana plants grew so close to one of the oxi­da­tion paint­ings that cop­per oxide fell on its leaves, dust­ing it with bright turquoise pigment.

Oxidation dust on lantana plant in front of Oxidation Spiral (2017). Photo by Elise Adibi.

Oth­er plants — such as laven­der, French marigolds, cone­flow­ers and black-eyed Susans — grew over parts of the paint­ings. The col­ors of their petals relat­ed in inter­est­ing ways to the col­ors in the paint­ings, some­times even match­ing them perfectly.

Cone Flower and Yellow and Pink Pour Painting 2 (2017). Photo by Elise Adibi.

The paint­ings and the plants were becom­ing one con­di­tion. I could sur­ren­der the paint­ings to this process.

In late sum­mer, the show was at the height of its vital­i­ty. The plants were in full bloom, and the paint­ings were, too. They had blos­somed and borne fruit, man­i­fest­ing their resilience. In ear­ly autumn, the green­house was graced by vis­its from bum­ble bees and paint­ed lady but­ter­flies. The but­ter­flies land­ed on the paint­ings, drawn to them by their col­ors or their smells — or per­haps both. The pres­ence of these pol­li­na­tors was a hope­ful sign.

Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on Lemon Grid (2017). Photo by Elise Adibi.


By David L. Hays

As a type of rela­tion­ship based on nat­ur­al” inter­est or resem­blance, affin­i­ty is usu­al­ly framed in terms of sub­jec­tive attrac­tion or struc­tur­al sim­i­lar­i­ty, but its sci­en­tif­ic def­i­n­i­tion — the degree to which a sub­stance tends to com­bine with anoth­er” — res­onates in more inter­est­ing ways with con­tem­po­rary think­ing about nature and cul­ture. Mod­ern thought long sup­posed that humans are crit­i­cal­ly” dis­tant from the pure­ly mate­r­i­al realm, con­stru­ing the lat­ter as nature,” envi­ron­ment,” or (not so) sim­ply space.” How­ev­er, new think­ing about ecol­o­gy and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty have chal­lenged that premise, blur­ring tra­di­tion­al dis­tinc­tions between human and non-human agents and con­di­tions. Pred­i­cat­ed on com­bi­na­tion, affin­i­ty con­tributes to that blur­ring by erod­ing the lim­its on which mod­ern tax­onomies depend, desta­bi­liz­ing inher­it­ed sys­tems of clas­si­fi­ca­tion. At issue is the basic struc­ture of rela­tion­ship, in the mod­ern ver­sion of which things1 remain sep­a­rate even as they are con­nect­ed, as through attrac­tion or sim­i­lar­i­ty. To be relat­able in the mod­ern way, things must be in one sense the same and in anoth­er sense dif­fer­ent. That para­dox is most evi­dent in oppo­sites, which are extremes of a sin­gle con­di­tion, like the end points of a sin­gle line. But in rela­tion­ships based on com­bi­na­tion, dif­fer­ence is dis­trib­uted, and the out­comes of that syn­the­sis are both sin­gu­lar and substantial.

Elise Adibi’s essay Sub­tle Affin­i­ty” is an explo­ration of dis­trib­uted dif­fer­ence with sin­gu­lar and sub­stan­tial results. The text opens with a prac­ti­cal account of Adibi’s exhi­bi­tion Res­pi­ra­tion Paint­ings,” held in a his­toric green­house at the Frick Pitts­burgh, and it clos­es with per­son­al reflec­tions on the con­di­tions and sig­nif­i­cance of that event. In between, one thing leads to anoth­er as Adibi address­es a sequence of top­ics, includ­ing the coal-based indus­try of Hen­ry Clay Frick, green­house archi­tec­ture, the green­house effect, essen­tial plant oils, plant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, oxi­da­tion paint­ing, Oscar Wilde’s nov­el The Pic­ture of Dori­an Gray (1890), a trag­ic flood in 1889, and Gio­van­ni Bellini’s paint­ing St. Fran­cis in the Desert (aka St. Fran­cis in Ecsta­sy) (ca. 1476 – 78). At an obvi­ous lev­el, those sub­jects are relat­ed through struc­tur­al sim­i­lar­i­ties — for exam­ple, between green­house archi­tec­ture and green­house effect, or between oxi­da­tion paint­ing and The Pic­ture of Dori­an Gray. But at a less obvi­ous lev­el, ideas com­bine in sub­tle yet evoca­tive ways — for exam­ple, the exper­i­men­tal atti­tude of Jan van Eyck and peo­ple ingest­ing flaxseed oil today, or the trag­ic flood in 1889 and Bellini’s St. Fran­cis in the Desert — intro­duc­ing moments of excep­tion­al inter­est that pro­pel the text forward.

Giv­en her work as a painter, Adibi is under­stand­ably intrigued by chem­i­cal affin­i­ty (“the force by which atoms are held togeth­er in chem­i­cal com­pounds”) and its poten­tial to link human and non-human agents, but her sense of affin­i­ty is also more abstract and gen­er­a­tive. For exam­ple, reflect­ing on Oscar Wilde’s account of sub­tle affin­i­ty in The Pic­tures of Dori­an Gray, Adibi won­ders if such a rela­tion­ship might exist between Dori­an Gray and Hen­ry Clay Frick. What makes that ques­tion inter­est­ing is the poten­tial not for struc­tur­al sim­i­lar­i­ties between two life nar­ra­tives, nor for sub­jec­tive attrac­tion between Frick and Wilde/​Gray, but rather for Frick and Gray — through some por­tion of their vast yet spe­cif­ic mean­ings — to com­bine spon­ta­neous­ly, pro­duc­ing some­thing new.

In her extend­ed med­i­ta­tion, Adibi also won­ders, Is it pos­si­ble that liv­ing with [Bellini’s St. Fran­cis] in his New York man­sion made Frick more sen­si­tive to the nat­ur­al world and pro­vid­ed him with some heal­ing?” Here, Adibi is not sug­gest­ing that Frick looked at the image over time and was con­vert­ed through reflec­tion on its for­mal con­tent or relat­ed nar­ra­tive.2 Instead, she is invok­ing oth­er forms of affin­i­ty — pos­si­bly chem­i­cal, but cer­tain­ly more sub­tle — through which Frick and St. Fran­cis might com­bine, pro­duc­ing a new con­di­tion. Hav­ing laid out that pos­si­bil­i­ty, Adibi adds, Per­haps the spir­it of St. Fran­cis could be felt in the green­house where my paint­ings were installed.” Giv­en leg­ends about that saint’s abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate with ani­mals and the sense that he both loved and was loved by them, the spir­it of St. Fran­cis” is ready short­hand for affin­i­ty in its var­i­ous forms, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the con­text of human/non-human rela­tion­ships.3 But it is also short­hand for let­ting go of expec­ta­tions, accept­ing4 oth­er agen­cies and unfore­seen pos­si­bil­i­ties — and, in Adibi’s case, see­ing a new beau­ty” in her own paint­ings as trans­formed by mois­ture, mold, and oxidation.

Look­ing to art for both cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion and per­son­al insight is a deep-seat­ed tra­di­tion — not to men­tion a basis of art his­to­ry. Sim­i­lar­ly, look­ing to nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na for both empir­i­cal infor­ma­tion and eval­u­a­tive signs, such as affir­ma­tions5 and omens, is an ancient and ongo­ing prac­tice. But look­ing to paint­ings to see how they are becom­ing one con­di­tion” with plants (and fun­gi), as Adibi does, is less famil­iar and less sure, not least because recent sci­en­tif­ic research and work by artists and writ­ers is rapid­ly trans­form­ing human under­stand­ing of the nat­ur­al world — show­ing, for exam­ple, that plants have the abil­i­ty to hear,” remem­ber,” and artic­u­late” based on indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences.6 In this new con­text, the shared agency of paint­ings and plants (and fun­gi) — which a mod­ern view would con­strue as pure­ly mechan­i­cal — becomes unex­pect­ed­ly inti­mate: One of the lan­tana plants grew so close to one of the oxi­da­tion paint­ings that cop­per oxide fell on its leaves, dust­ing it with bright turquoise pig­ment.” Dif­fer­ence is dis­trib­uted, and the result blurs the tra­di­tion­al bound­ary between art and nature, pre­sent­ing them instead as con­di­tions in which human and non-human agen­cies com­bine, pro­duc­ing some­thing new.



Things” refers here very broad­ly to objects, actions, con­di­tions, and ideas — includ­ing the thoughts, moods, and mem­o­ries men­tioned by Adibi.


In 1912, when the Lon­don-based art deal­er Col­naghi was seek­ing to sell Bellini’s St. Fran­cis, its agents did not at first show the paint­ing to Frick, under­stand­ing that he did not like reli­gious works and believ­ing that he would not under­stand [it] or be inter­est­ed.” (Susan Ruther­glen and Char­lotte Hale, In a New Light: Gio­van­ni Bellini’s St. Fran­cis in the Desert” (New York, NY: The Frick Col­lec­tion in asso­ci­a­tion with D. Giles Ltd., Lon­don, 2014), 78, quot­ing a let­ter from Otto Gutekun­st of Col­naghi to Charles Carstairs of Knoedler.)


In 1979, Pope John Paul II pro­claimed St. Fran­cis the Patron of Ecol­o­gy” and heav­en­ly Patron of those who pro­mote ecol­o­gy.” See Pope John Paul II, S. Fran­cis­cus Assisien­sis cae­lestis Patronus oecolo­giae cul­to­rum elig­i­tur,” in Acta Apos­toli­cae Sedis: Com­men­tar­i­um Offi­ciale LXXI, 1509 – 1510. (http://​www​.vat​i​can​.va/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​/​a​a​s​/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​A​AS-71 – 1979-ocr.pdf)


To accept” means not to receive but to con­sent to receive. Its Latin root, accipere, means to take some­thing to oneself.”


For exam­ple, humans feel affirmed when ani­mals give them pos­i­tive atten­tion and when plants and ani­mals thrive under their care.


See, for exam­ple, Lind­sey french, land of words: a col­lec­tion of poet­ry by plants,” Forty-Five: A Jour­nal of Out­side Research (Novem­ber 162018)


Elise Adibi is a painter whose prac­tice has come to include instal­la­tions, hor­ti­cul­ture, film­mak­ing, archi­tec­ture, aro­mather­a­py, and writ­ing. She received an MFA from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, an MArch from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, and a BA in Phi­los­o­phy from Swarth­more Col­lege. Adibi has received fel­low­ships and awards from the Ter­ra Foun­da­tion for Amer­i­can Art, the Pol­lock-Kras­ner Foun­da­tion, the Rad­cliffe Insti­tute for Advanced Study at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, the Heinz Endow­ments, and the Pitts­burgh Foun­da­tion. Her work has been pre­sent­ed in solo exhi­bi­tions at Full Haus (Los Ange­les, CA), Louis B. James (New York, NY), The Rad­cliffe Insti­tute for Advanced Study (Cam­bridge, MA), Churn­er and Churn­er (New York, NY), South­first (Brook­lyn, NY), Alleghe­ny Col­lege (Meadville, PA), and the Frick Pitts­burgh, as well as in numer­ous group shows, with reviews in Art­fo­rum, The Boston Globe, The Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette, and Blouin Mod­ern Painters, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Email: eliseadibi@​gmail.​com

David L. Hays is co-edi­tor of Forty-Five, co-direc­tor of the gallery Space p11, found­ing prin­ci­pal of Ana­log Media Lab, and Asso­ciate Head of the Depart­ment of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign. Trained in archi­tec­ture and his­to­ry of art, his schol­ar­ly research explores con­tem­po­rary land­scape the­o­ry and prac­tice, the his­to­ry of gar­den and land­scape design in ear­ly mod­ern Europe, inter­faces between archi­tec­ture and land­scape, and ped­a­go­gies of his­to­ry and design. Hays is the edi­tor of Land­scape with­in Archi­tec­ture (2004) and (Non-)Essential Knowl­edge for (New) Archi­tec­ture (2013), both by 306090/​Princeton Archi­tec­tur­al Press. His essays have appeared in a wide range of jour­nals — includ­ing Har­vard Design Mag­a­zine, Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Stud­ies, Poly­sèmes, The Sens­es and Soci­ety (Oxford), Matéri­cos Per­iferi­cos (Rosario, Argenti­na), Tek­ton (Mum­bai), and Land­scape Archi­tec­ture Chi­na (Bei­jing) — and as chap­ters in numer­ous books. As a design­er, Hays’s work explores the pro­duc­tion of envi­ron­men­tal­ly respon­sive objects using low-cost, low-tech mate­ri­als. With par­tic­u­lar inter­ests in dynam­ic sys­tems, envi­ron­men­tal phe­nom­e­na, and craft, his process cross­es lat­er­al think­ing and intu­ition with ground­ed exper­i­ment. Email: dlhays@​forty-​five.​com