Hu Fang: Why We Look At Plants in a Corrupted World

Engraving from the book Hortus Malabaricus (1693), a Dutch treatise dealing with the medicinal properties of the flora in the Indian state of Kerala.

Excerpts from Hu Fang’s essay on E-Flux:

There is never a moment when plants are not moving.

Perhaps awed by the power of this night writing, humans produce poems and literature about plants, images of plants, social metaphors about plants. By means of anthropomorphosis, we adopt the wilderness. We turn plants into the mirror image of culture in order to dispel their mysterious, voiceless power.

Looking, by means of humble contemplation, allows us to enter into a dimension shared with plants. Once there, we do not willingly part with each other.

We have been documenting the disappearance of plants while generating an aesthetics of disappearance: humans appreciate the plants in a botanical garden or park for the value of their beauty and rarity.

There is another extreme: contemporary plant products used for treating and nourishing humanity are actually related to industrialization. Few of their ingredients come from the wild—most are the product of mass cultivation on the assembly line of green products. By way of commodity circulation, contemporary plant products have become a monument to the circulation of species, commemorating the fact that they have not yet vanished from humanity’s field of vision.

Most of the effectiveness of contemporary plant products has probably evolved from humanity’s endlessly accumulating projection of emotion over a long historical process, but there is no way to alter the plant’s current destiny of being consumed.From this we can understand why contemporary plant products are always packaged with especially lifelike images of plants,always duplicating to the utmost level the corresponding colors and fragrances, so that humans have gone from looking at plants to looking at likenesses of plants, which are used to continuously invoke the vitality that the plants themselves possessed before they were picked, processed, and fabricated.

If we take ancient survival wisdom (of medicinal plants, for example) as a starting point and continue through to today’s secret formulas for profit, the history of plant products itself interrogates the evolution of bio-politics: What is it that permeates our bodies, molds our life experiences, forms our perceptions of the world? What is it that can truly save us from our calamities,without our life become one of consuming false goods?

Plucking a leaf, and repeatedly chewing it as a giraffe would, yourecall how plants enter the human body. Stroking a plant, you areimpressed by how such a peculiar connection arises between itsown anatomy and that of a human. Plants, as well as the scenesand memories we associate with them, will constitute part of theunfinished manuscript of anthropology. How might we write,through innumerable creases in the foliage, the remnants of the forest, the wastelands of the city, our current methods for coexisting with the world?