The Power of the Flower

Sara Krajewski, The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Flowers mark the turning of the seasons; cut and arranged in a vase they accompany the occasions of life. Poets ascribe symbolic meaning to the rose, daisy, and lily. What about the orchid? The showy flair of the Phalaenopsis is now found everywhere from decorating corporate offices to the florist’s shelves of big-box retail stores. The once exceptional and exotic plant has become a symbol for the homogenizing effects of global trade, as it is shipped around the world to adorn a variety of domains. In an extraordinary appearance, Two Orchids by renowned artist Isa Genzken rises outside the Portland Art Museum, white blooms balanced on stems measuring three stories tall. Rendered in painted bronze, the outsized flowers have the scale of a monument; but as a monument it is a complicated one.

Genzken has often employed mass-produced products in recent years: toys, souvenirs, plastic flowers, fast fashion items, and many other things that are available cheaply, large quantities, and circulating widely. Assembled into tableaux or installations, her sculptures speak to the web of detrimental effects bound to our contemporary consumer culture and our throwaway mentality. Genzken’s choice of readymade materials cast light on what the artist calls the language of mass production: “I’m not only interested in what they portray, but rather in the formal aspect of how they are made. And they come from all over the world: one component is from Taiwan, the next comes from Mexico and the third from somewhere completely different.” (Phaidon, monograph) From this perspective Two Orchids reveals a sinister side to the gross availability of both the actual botanical specimen and plastic replicas of it.

The recurring appearance of flowers in Genzken’s work also invites an appreciation for the sentimental value and pure visual pleasure they induce. The artist utterly transforms the delicate plant by radically enlarging it and casting it in bronze; she solidifies the fragility of the ephemeral bloom in a scale that exhilarates and astounds in its apparent permanence. On a fundamental level, flowers represent the natural world in contrast to Genzken’s reaction to the built environment. Throughout her career Genzken has explored the verticality and weightiness of architecture, calling attention to its dominating influence over experience of the urban landscape. Several works fight against this phenomenon. In the late 1980s, Genzken proposed public art works of giant flowers that were never realized. In a sculpture series from the late 1990s called Fuck the Bauhaus, Genzken attached a photo of a single long stem flower to a blocky skyscraper form, metaphorically dematerializing the façade. She commented stirringly that that the Bauhaus school of architects, led by Mies van der Rohe whose international-style buildings have shaped modern cities, should be denounced for its formalism that “disdained the beauty of flowers.”

Installed previously in a plaza at the edge of New York City’s Central Park, Two Orchids stood in a state of limbo between the park’s trees in one direction and the skyline of New York in the other. Now in Portland, the work animates a corner of the Museum’s red brick architecture on a site previously occupied by a large chestnut tree felled several years ago. Perhaps true to the ubiquitous plant it was modeled after, the sculpture adapts to its context and conjures up new associations for those who experience it in this location.

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