Gabriele Mackert

© Gabriele Mackert

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Ghosts, or On the Beauty of Plants and their Names in Times of Ignorance in Ana Torfs’ “Family Plots”


Although Ana Torfs had been fascinated by botany, gardens, and horticulture for quite a long time, she first became involved with the classification system for nature with Family Plot #1 and Family Plot #2 beginning in 2008. The impulse came from the Swedish "father of modern taxonomy," Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), whom she stumbled upon during her artist-in-residency stay on Gotland in 2007. Linnaeus had explored this island in the Baltic Sea for medical plants, textile dyes, as well as useful raw materials beginning in 1741, under commission by the Swedish parliament. In addition to Linnaeus' literary talent expressed in his travelogue about Öland and Gotland, his binomial naming system captured Torfs' sustained interest.

On the basis of selected botanical genera, the photographic series Family Plot #1, 2009, refers explicitly to the nomenclature that Linnaeus introduced and the "naming history" behind it. Prior to Linnaeus, many naturalists gave individual, arbitrarily amendable (Latin) names to the species that they studied and described. The great number of plants that were introduced into Europe via naval expeditions to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, made a more practical naming system indispensible. Linnaeus was certainly not the first naturalist to use double names. Nonetheless, he was the first to employ them consistently: following the model of a given name and surname, Linnaeus propagated the systematic use of a two-part Latin genus name with only one specific surname, the species name. Also included in the full name is the initial of the name-giving author. "L." stands for Linnaeus: for example, in the name Homo sapiens L., which he published in 1758.

Linnaeus' naming system, although only a chance byproduct of his enormous encyclopedic efforts to identify and register genera and species concisely and precisely, is nonetheless his most influential contribution and remains the standard today. Linnaeus also consciously subdivided the species based on artificially selected traits in order to create a classification system that is easy to use and learn. However, this system ignored, for the most part, natural relationships among the species. As a student Linnaeus had dealt with the then new idea of the sexuality of plants, and later concentrated on the description of stamens (masculine) and pistil (female reproductive organs). Rather than including the entire plant and its construction in his taxonomy, he divided all plants based on these characteristics (their number, form, proportion, and situation) into 24 corresponding groups, classes, and orders. This method led to a controversial debate and the accusation of botanical pornography. Contemporaries countered his concept that nature could be classified systematically, claiming that it was too diverse and versatile to adapt to such a strict framework. In his standard work The Order of Things, Michel Foucault later included Linnaeus' method of classification as part of the natural science tradition of observing, which means being content with seeing, and seeing a few things systematically. Linnaeus was especially concerned with dismissing "obscure similitudes" of things in the world.[1]

Linnaeus' nomenclature–which in addition to specific characteristics such as color, size, behavior, and the location of discovery, also derived the names of the genera and species group from people–accompanied Europe's global expansion and colonization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the "newly" discovered plants throughout the world were thus named after their–usually white, Western–discoverers, their commissioners, regents, or sponsors, or were dedicated to important personalities. Among other things, the existing indigenous names were ignored. This, and much else makes evident that naming is always an act of appropriation, which poses questions of identity that determine the course of (hi)stories. But this is only one aspect resonating in Torfs' title, Family Plot. The word "plot" can mean the plot of a story, an intrigue, a piece of land, a ground plan, or a graphic representation such as a chart. As always in Torfs' work, following the hints contained in the meaning of the title opens essential aspects of the concept.

Torfs' aesthetic analysis of Linnaeus' efforts at a uniform classification scheme and the associated politics of naming focuses, for one, on the network of this linguistic imperium. Family Plot #1 thus presents an imaginary community of Western elites. Other influential personalities followed Linnaeus, for example, Joseph Banks, President of the British Royal Society, who propagated the binomial system. Solandra grandiflora Sw. is Swedish botanist Olof Swartz' homage to Linnaeus' student Daniel Carlsson Solander who went to London in 1760 and introduced his teacher's classification and naming system in England. In the late nineteenth century, German botanist Hermann Wendland honored the first president of the United States, George Washington, with the nomenclature Washingtonia robusta Wendl.

Torfs' title Family Plot, also subliminally touches upon connotations of a "complot." Without wagging a finger, she presents the reverse side of a family context, namely, the authority carried by naming and the establishment of those who belong and those who are excluded in rational-hegemonic systems, in this case, the purportedly objective system of botany. In his Systema Naturae (1758), Linnaeus transferred his classification system to humans, whom he first placed in the group with apes. His differentiation of humans analogous to continents most definitely stimulated later racist views. No least because he assigned each of the four types a skin color, a temperament, and a posture. He characterized Homo Americanus as red, choleric, and combative; Homo Africanus as black, cunning and negligent; Homo Asiaticus as yellow, melancholic, and stingy; Homo Europaeus, on the contrary, as white, sanguine and inventive, inclined toward tight clothing, and governed by law. Attentive readers can find this out from one of the speech bubbles on Linnaeus' world panel in Family Plot #2.

Similar to a family tree, Family Plot #1 presents alongside Linnaeus, 24 photographically reproduced historical portraits of name patrons, and set smaller to each of these, the name of the botanist who gave the name including a diagram of the nomenclature process. Torfs positioned this "documentation" under a black-and-white silkscreen of the plant or fruit on glass. For this reason, our gaze oscillates between a confrontation with the tradition of the portrait as an expression of power, recognition, or importance, and the poetically diaphanous stylized beauty of nature. The close-ups of the reproductive units not only refer to Linnaeus' sexual categories, but obviously also explore the eroticism of the plants. The charisma of the photos lies subtly between a finely detailed closeness and sharpness of Karl Blossfeldt and the greatly enlarged, nearly abstract flower photos by Georgia O'Keeffe. The fact that there were almost no women among the name patrons is symptomatic for historical social relations and leads the idea of the traditional family tree ad absurdum–whereby, in addition, almost all of the plants depicted are hermaphroditic and polygamous.

Although Torfs' starting point was her linguistic interest in plant names, and not initially the explorers and their stories, she was fascinated by these biographies from an era in which the order of things at a small as well as large scale was being systematized along enlightenment ideas. Using the plants as a starting point, she became intensely occupied with the era of discovery, research expeditions, and conquests; the details slumbering within, and the connections of the famous names and adventures documented by the names of the plants.[2] She thus explored the cosmos of scientific-political elite of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries and one year later produced a second, supplementary series of display boards, Family Plot #2, (2010). Rather than portrait photographs (albeit superimposed ones), she now sketched out the worlds of the naming explorers, led by the questions: how and under what ideological postulates was knowledge formed back then? Starting with the 25 reproductions of plants and portraits from Family Plot #1, she pursues the history of global exploration and colonization in great detail, based on various finds.

On every print, the header "THE WORLD OF..." indicates not only each of the known or interesting land masses, represented centrally and dominating the image with the help of marvelous, then-contemporary world maps, but also aims at the connections and mutual relations of the contexts via reproduced illustrations and documents from archives and encyclopedias. Here, along with the extremely diverse charts, Torfs also collects book covers from travelogues and scientific literature, and, for example, plant depictions and other engravings, such as that of the first representation of alleged North American "Indians." Such representations shaped Europe's view of the rest of the world. Invention of the printing press enabled a high-circulation exchange of information. For this reason, in her selection of images, Torfs reproduces only historical woodcuts and engravings. This is a reference to the beginnings of the era of individual reading and study.

We can travel to Japan with Carl Peter Thunberg, to China with Jean Pierre Armand David, and we can explore Australia with Joseph Banks, Daniel Carlsson Solander, and John Macadam. Quassie van Timotibo, the only non-white explorer in the series, who as a child was brought to Surinam as an African slave, and naturally, Alexander von Humboldt, guide our view towards South America, and George Washington towards North America. Among them are also a few sovereigns, such as Spanish rulers Carlos IV and Maria Luisa de Borbón-Parma who reigned over a large part of South and North America and Spanish East India including their natural and mineral resources, or Sophia Charlotte Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who as queen Charlotte at the side of George III, not only delighted at the flowers of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, but also received petitions against slavery directly addressed to her.

In these universes, Torfs' text bubbles arrange biographical building blocks and historical sources, which are provided with no additional identification. Anonymous quotes of world knowledge. Also: mainly "official" sources rather than personal memories are used in order to introduce "THE WORLD OF… ". Yet central to each are contemporary world maps, which the pictures and word clouds circle around. Torfs hereby presents in this extremely condensed form more than just an outline of the various mental maps. She traces the careers of the name givers, their discoveries, ideas, and ideologies almost in the sense of mentality history as inevitably shaped cultural stories–shaped, namely, by colonization, exploitation, and slavery. In this context, cartography as well as name giving imply authoritative appropriation. Torfs explores history as a series of personal worlds, shows it as entirely individually and subjectively experienced, and as something told–and indeed, by anonymous narrators. Regardless of the interests and goals they have, those who speak are not made explicit. Apparently, once again, subjectivity is at issue here, and problematizing it.

Family Plot #2 intensifies the focus on each of the figures, which means that this series functions only as part of the installation and not as an independent work. While in Family Plot #1 Torfs chose people who were central in the history of naming exotic plants, in Family Plot #2 she shows their astounding enmeshment within political and economic lobbies. As in Family Plot #1, Linnaeus is the center and starting point of this family archeology. As in his own system of classification, Torfs chooses 24 further plants and thereby people who are related to him in one way or another. She arranges them looking toward him, in the middle. Her arrangement follows the alphabet and has the courage to reveal gaps. She begins with French botanist Michel Adanson (1727–1806), who additionally used the plants' indigenous names and was unsuccessful in asserting himself against Linnaeus, and ends with Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch (1806–1872) from Klagenfurt whom Queen Maria II sent from Portugal to Angola.

Here, too, Torfs puts the order of the names, as the encyclopedia has established them, before their chronology. It thus becomes clear only at second glance that forerunners to Linnaeus most definitely play a role in this history, such as the botanist Otto Brunfels (1488–1534) whom Linnaeus cited as a "Father of Botany," and to whom he dedicated the genus Brunfelsia. Matthias de L'Obel (1538–1616) born in Lille, provided the first accurate description of African and American species, including tobacco. In addition, many speech balloons harbor references to Columbus whose journeys most likely provided the foundation for a Babylonian confusion of terms. The association with an ancestral gallery is thus present in more than just the size and the hanging. Beyond the reading exemplarily sketched out here is a series of images whose perfection plants a seed of doubt regarding the strict beauty of their surfaces, even for beholders whose study goes no deeper.

The broadly sweeping series astonishes through a central stylistic means that is characteristic of Torfs' work. With an artists' authority, Torfs sets her own system atop these cosmoses, standardizing utterly diverse materials in an intensely visual black-and-white aesthetics. She reproduces all her finds in negative. Slavery, one of the virulent thematic strands here, is a possible reference for this black metaphor. These worlds do not exude revolution or enlightenment, but instead, appear as history's dark hours. Thus, it is not only the extensive information that prohibits an innocent enjoyment of the historical –but by no means idyllic–images from the past Torfs collected in her pictorial atlas, but also the surprisingly fascinating finding of form. Most obvious is the reverse of the printed colors in the depictions of Black people: through this technique, their skin appears white. Inversion abstracts the gathered documents and harmonizes extremely diverse sources, times, countries, languages, and dimensions. But it also suggests the association of a fluoroscopy or a blueprint, that is, a model or a plan for something later. Therein is the haunting-political aspect of this overflowing collection of materials. The ghosts that I summoned up, I now can't rid myself of.

(translation German-English: Lisa Rosenblatt)

[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. An Archeology of the Human Sciences, New York 2005, p. 164.
Ironically, these research expeditions also spread sexual diseases, such as syphilis.