Potted Plants

Against walls, windows, or doors of any given dwelling in this neighborhood brushes the greenery, at times mimicking a smooth faceted curtain, their leaves changing color and density along with the turn of the seasons. This foliage neither casts much shadow, nor would it always be urbane (one might easily overlook it for its modesty, as a high-rise with its uptight shape and glass shield always pierces the horizon in the mediate distance). This sprawling undergrowth adds another layer to the opacity of the furniture like the assemblage the contorted tenements in this quarter take after, insufficiently covering their damp walls patterned with fissures, temporarily tied together by sediment, sticky plaster, or an impermeable skin of plastic bricks. At first, nothing special seems to lie within this foliage. In its most sophisticated form, the botanical tissue is of obscure intention, i.e. it shows no attempt at design or cultivation. It is a street garden that does not shoot from the ground, and could not be called a hedge either, but is composed of a seemingly random set of potted plants, left (or merely abandoned) by the roadside.

Passing on foot through any quarter – even one of those in which miniature restaurants, karaoke bars and pachinko parlors are stacked upon each others’ backs – potted plants raised on sticks align with water bottles to an arrangement reminiscent of an unorchestrated ensemble. Every once in a while one may encounter two pots only, the critical minimum of plants to face the street or inhabit the vista of the interstice – the very Nowheresville well frequented by cats and insects. Leaf blades from different roots entangle, pointing at each other (as if to justify themselves in a coexistence that eventually reinforces a refracted unity), just as in the ideograph that came to stand for bamboo.

How much does this untuned orchestra of potted plants differ from the Western chaplet lingering after dramatizing the Valmaranean villas, a symmetrical set of enclosed spaces even today’s most ordinary townhouse still seems to compete with, to celebrate the façade, the street leading to the (main) entrance, the staircase, the balcony, to showcase the window? Also in later French examples of grandeur, a passerby’s view has to be captured by the plant’s enticing Baroque spectacle, in which each sculpted bush obeys hierarchy in its own splendor, even in utmost similarity and repetition. On the basis of a terracotta-textured pot it exemplifies not only the myth of uniqueness and reframing beauty, but expresses the magnificence of its owner, who inhabits his own palace, the private yet radiant center from which personality and possession emanate.

Here instead, the potted plant, in its often unspecified, even plastic round mug, represents nothing. It adds green, less to demarcate the margins of private property than to designate an open-air living room from which contemplation has been expelled, since the European street bench is as rare as leisurely resting outside a park or a designated recreation area is. Potted plants offer a roadside garden, yet for whom – to please whom? The one that is supposed to take care of it, but can only very rarely be observed doing so? Does it appeal to the high-school student trampling along while sticking her nose in a book or squabbling with her mates, the crowd of salaried employees streaming to the next best station at a decently early hour, a grandmother chit-chatting, a neighbor furtively smoking an evening cigarette on the porch? This rooted yet movable garden is glanced at while passed by. Its temporality is a function of movement and oblivion. It cannot be perceived all at once in the same way as the lawn of a Western front yard, yet it has an almost unconscious, occupying existence, leaving its trace in memory as brushstrokes of a fragmented whole rather than an inscription.

The plant in a tray, the translation of the preexisting Japanese tradition and art form of growing dwarfed plants, bonsai (gardening was a sideline of wealthy tradesmen in Edo period Japan), is an example of the paradox of how a highly cultivated plant illustrates principles of nature. The bonsai is supposed to provoke in the observer a sensation of communing with nature itself; in all its supposed solitude and tranquility as a realm preceding human beings. It is the fantasy of realizing the aura of the untouched through subtle manipulation according to the plant’s inherent laws, since the art does not consist in obtaining an artificial shape of extremely curved and twisted branches aiming to mirror the narcissistic hyperesthesia of its caretaker. For the bonsai master, this becomes an exercise not only of patience, but an eventually self-liquidating masturbation. The bonsai artists shows his or her skills in seemingly preserving all the features of an ancient tree that grew in the deepest forest, recreating its wonder in the fetishized doubling of miniature size. The bonsai is therefore in every respect a handcrafted flip side not only of nature, but also of the nonaesthetic beauty the common tray-array passed by in everyday township life introduces to the street.

The botanical inscription of the domestic street is not only different from the cultivation of bonsai, although bringing together a multitude of shapes,of a compositional variety it is not as consciously created as a Japanese landscape garden either. Take the space-time-based Zen garden, from which actual flora is mostly evacuated, water and mountains (signified by sand and rocks) as an image of landscape, of nature in a universal sense stripped to its bones, yet liberated from symbolism just as a trigger for meditation. The classical Western dichotomy of animate/inanimate is subsumed. But once again, when compared to the dwelling greenery, the fundamental distinction of both the bonsai and the Japanese landscape garden lies in the act of contemplation not granted to the potted plants. Rather their immediate appearance on the street corner opens an illustrated botanical dictionary of domestic plants, rejecting all spiritual nuance and emotion. It simply lists, sometimes juxtaposes – like a catalogue. Unlike rocks, these plants do not take pride in an otherworldly durability, their existence is completely in between.

Gabrielle Schaad, July 2014

»The text does not gloss the images, which do not illustrate the text« (Roland Barthes, 1970)