The World’s Long Thoughts
by Lawrence Bradby
Why are there plants in here?
It’s in plants’ nature to be green. And it’s in our nature to regard them with a discerning eye. We are able to distinguish more gradations within the green portion of the visible light spectrum than in any other. Our eyes and visual cognition and evolutionary history have made it so. For most of human history, living as hunter-gatherers, such sensitivity to plant colour was essential.1
Jevan Watkins Jones talks about his drawings as an attempt ‘to make that contact appear, that contact with the vegetal … allowing you to ingest the green’.2 As he alternates between his parallel professions of artist and gardener, Jevan also alternates his means of engagement. As an artist, his contact with plants is through the eye, through marks made on paper; as a gardener, the contact is by hand, pruning, planting, tending. Accompanying this alternation between the manual and the visual, though often out of step with it, is another movement, between a human-centred relationship (one that is based on the function of the plant or its visual appearance) and a relationship that acknowledges ‘plant-thinking’ or ‘thinking without the head’.3
Can you touch them?
This exhibition places plants (living and dead) alongside representations. So, as you spend time in the gallery, positioning yourself in relation to a drawing or a film of plants, you are in the presence of another life. Your life and their lives are carried out in parallel, in proximity. Perhaps the air displaced by your arms or your legs will softly buffet the live plants, shifting their leaves unnoticeably. And without doubt gases will pass from your lungs to their stomata, from their stomata to your lungs. 4
Are they green?
Our relationship with the objects around us is not a distant one: each object speaks to our body and to the limited human means we have with which to perceive it. The colour of plants, for example: in terms of their fundamental biochemistry, plants have no use for green.5 Chlorophyll absorbs light most effectively in the blue and red portion of the spectrum and least effectively in the green portion. Yet our embodied experience sees only the light reflected back from plants, and tells us they are green. The perceived world is a human world: limited and yet sensory.6
Is there a list of all the species?
The sequence of ten studies called I Knew a Man Who Would Not Have Green in His House: Wild Types 7 presents a dense surface of lines and marks. These lines and marks define the shapes of leaves, flowers, stems. These in turn cohere into the forms of individual plants. Although some are recognizable – nettle, horsetail, bramble – the studies are not plant illustration. The forms on the paper suggest particular plants, individuals shaped by a life’s journey, rather than archetypes. For instance, one study includes what is probably a comfrey, its unusually tall stem suggesting that it had to stretch above grasses or nettles to get its place in the sun.
Where are the edges?
Rather than combining on the paper’s surface to create a pictorial space, each plant form maintains distinct perspectival boundaries, retaining its own quiet purpose. One plant is drawn as if seen from directly above, spreading a basal rosette of leaves flat across the surface of the paper. Others are seen from eye level; others, from very close up. This makes ‘study’ the right category for these drawings, as well as offering a link to the scientific studies in the plant laboratories.
Although they are not orchestrated to a conventional compositional effect, these separate plant portraits have an ensemble effect. All the lines are in the same colour – a mid-green – which unites them further, so that they become all figure and no ground. They seem to be massed against the surface of the picture, pressing for attention wherever your eye alights. Looking at them is like going toe-to-toe with a 10-foot yew hedge.
Does this stuff smudge?
Jevan made these studies during an intense period this spring. Some plants he drew outside where they grew. Describing this experience he said, ‘I see the edges of the plant that define its kind first. Then I see around it. I imagine kneeling the other side of it and therefore it is central to my existence.’8 Other plants he uprooted and brought indoors to the studio. To draw the uprooted plant, he held it out with one hand, as one would hold a hand mirror, and drew it with the other. This emphasis on contact with the object being drawn recalls the work of Claude Heath, who is known for drawings made entirely by touch.
Where should you stand?
We’ve learned not to run in the gallery. And not to touch. This necessary detachment from the physical presence of an artwork can remove us from our own physicality. We can become clumsy and embarrassed, feeling we should leave our bodies outside and ghost round the gallery, living entirely through our eyes.9
Finding the right place to stand, the right viewpoint, can allow an artwork to blossom. This means using your body: moving, stooping, craning. Like with a game of pool, you have to pace around before you reach the still point, the point from which the direction of your next shot reveals itself, showing as a line running down your cue, across the bridge of your hand and on, almost perceptible over the deep green of the baize.
Is this more like a garden? Or a laboratory?
In everyday life, we are rarely immersed in green; vegetation is something to look at. As children, on the other hand, it is something to inhabit: climbing trees, hacking nettles or lying, out of sight, where the bracken smell is 6 foot deep.10
As a boy, Jevan spent much of his time in the local woods or on the allotment, at the end of which was a ditch full of wild poppies: ‘I was looking at the different highly saturated colours held at the centre of the stamens. I think it was studying them, being dazzled by them, that made me lose my footing and fall in. I sat up amongst the poppies and realised I’d pierced my hand with a rusty nail. My Dad took me to the water butt to wash my left hand because there was no running water.’11
The phrase ‘plant-thinking’ covers at least two things: the non-cognitive forms of attention that plants give to their surroundings, and the way that human thinking can be dehumanized and made plant-like by encounters with the vegetal world.12
Why don’t plants have hands?
Plants Have No Use for Green 13uses the same materials as I Knew a Man Who Would Not Have Green in His House: green charcoal on heavy cartridge paper. But, unlike the latter, a wide range of marks is used to summon shadow, form and texture. The entire surface of the paper, which Jevan describes as ‘wider than and taller than an arm span or a jump’,14 is covered with green of varying densities.
Three jointed legs dominate the foreground of the drawing. They support a boxy machine with trailing cables. To the right is an upright plant with large fleshy leaves. Scale is hard to judge. Although it is placed in the foreground, the plant seems somehow withdrawn. It has one leaf clamped in an appendage of the machine, as if in an uncomfortably protracted handshake.
I Knew a Man …is awkward to look at: both monochromatic and multiperspectival, it asks you to continually adjust your position. And yet it carries quietness. Perhaps the use of the single green hue acknowledges both the centrality and the irrelevance of green to plants.
Plants Have No Use for Green is more unsettling. This effect seems to come from the uncertainties of scale, the hints that the seemingly vegetal machinery has grown from seed into its present form, the mossy feel of the objects, and above all the sense that the plant is held still.
How do plants move?
The challenge in understanding plants is that they operate on different timescales from our own. We associate thought with rapid movement: creatures that move have processed a change in their surroundings and responded.15 Plants are always on the move, yet always within their own boundaries. In spring, the fresh growth of a wood passes through the deadwood, a greenwood through a blackwood, like the moon’s halves meeting and going behind themselves.16
How do you feel about very low light levels?
Stillness is not the same as lack of movement. The sense of purposeful circulation around you can be both reassuring and relaxing. Like the transpiration of a tree as you sit beneath it.
The video Under Golding’s Feet shows fragments of pottery spread against white. Each fragment has a frond, or curl or branches, but, instead of the usual milky blue, this willow pattern is viridian green. The film follows a curve, and halfway through the fragments pass behind one another and slowly fall back in again, each still bearing its foliage.
The film loops, the vegetal images go round the same cycle. Their expansion and contraction suggests the movement between two modes of thinking about plants: human-centred and ‘plant-thinking’. Though the pottery images stay stiff within their separate domains, they are always about to grow beyond, to move like birdsong in shadowy flight, threading the leafy trees, expressive of the world’s long thoughts.17
1. For details of the human eye’s response to light, see the website of the Non-Destructive Testing Resource Center: www.ndt-ed.org
2. From a studio discussion between Jevan and Lawrence Bradby, 26 May 2014.
3. ‘Plant-thinking’ and ‘thinking without the head’ are phrases used by philosopher Michael Marber.
4. Reference to a work in the exhibition: Jevan Watkins Jones, 2014, I Can Be Your Stomata,framedcollage in two parts, newspaper and ink.
5. ‘Plants have no use for green’ is a phrase plant physiologist Dr Phil Davey used in conversation with Jevan in a laboratory of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex, 30 April 2014.
6. For discussion of how human understanding comes from our bodily experience of the world that we perceive see Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 2008, The World of Perception, London: Routledge, p49.
7. A work from the current exhibition. Full details: Jevan Watkins Jones, 2014, I Knew a Man Who Would Not Have Green In His House: Wild Types, green charcoal on cartridge paper,series of 10 studies of temperate garden weeds.
8. Email from Jevan to Lawrence Bradby, 28 May 2014.
9. See the critique of Michael Fried in Grant Kester, 2004, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkley CA: University of California Press, pp.50-58.
10.‘The bracken smell is six foot deep’ – a line from the poem ‘A Good Day’ taken from Norman MacCaig. 1993, Collected Poems, London: Chatto and Windus, pp112.
11. Text message from Jevan to Lawrence Bradby, 2 June 2014.
12. From Michael Marder’s essay ‘What Is Plant-Thinking?’, available at www.michaelmarder.org.
13. A work from the current exhibition. Full details: Jevan Watkins Jones, 2014, Plants Have No Use For Green, green charcoal on cartridge paper, 4064mm x 3048mm.
14. Text message from Jevan to Lawrence Bradby, 3 June 2014.
15. Giovanni Aloi, 2011, Art and Animals, London: I.B. Tauris, pp.93.
16. Compressed lines from ‘A Wood Coming Into Leaf’ in Alice Oswald, The Thing in the Gap-stone Stile, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp14.
17. Compressed lines from ‘The Speech of Birds’ in Kathleene Raine, ed. Brian Keeble, 2000, The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine, Golgonooza Press.