Tanja Lažetić: 5 Flowers 8 Photographs
I like watching the opening of flower buds. I wait for that special moment when the flower is fully blossomed. They’re artificial, even though they grow and age, which is why I search for the true colors of what I see. I photograph buds, too, but not wilting and rotting, because decorative flowers were not made to grow old. – T. L.
Hardly any motif in the field of art history has been depicted, discussed and interpreted as often and in so many ways as a flower. It is the carrier of such a wide array of symbols and meanings – their interpretations range from classical myths of Narcissus and Daphne, to Christian interpretations of flowers as symbols of virtues and biblical tales, to Romantic literature of the 19th century, which intensely associated flowers with love and beauty. Because of their historic role in art, flowers are such a powerful semiotic sign, their depictions so drenched in socio-historic meanings, that the notion of a neutral gaze is completely unimaginable. Out perception is consciously or subconsciously saturated with associative meanings. The artist Tanja Lažetić is aware of this, questioning past connotations of flowers in her photography and placing them firmly in the sphere of contemporaneity.
An aspect of flowers that has been inspiring artists throughout the centuries, is their ability to symbolically depict the cycle of human life – they embody the beauty of youth in full bloom, the wilting of middle age and finally, the inevitability of death. Flowers are associated with dying since the classical age, which introduced myths of flowers blossoming from spilt blood or graves of the deceased, symbolically marking a new beginning or life blossoming out of death. Cut flowers as symbols of the transience and futility of life are most clearly observed in 17th century painting, where they are closely connected to the vanitas motif – the symbolic depiction of life’s fleeting and trivial nature, memento mori, which reminds us of the inescapable end. From this perspective, a bouquet of cut flowers, whose lifespan is cut short through the very act of plucking, is a clearly recognizable symbol of life’s evanescence. The motif, which artists such as Jan Brueghel brought to its peak, reflected the wider mentality of Western Catholic population, which perceived earthly life as a moral trial period before a soul transcends into paradise (or damnation).
However, the perceptions of the spiritual and physical world in today’s Western society are entirely unlike those of baroque Catholicism of the 17th century, a fact Lažetić clearly emphasizes. Assuredly, the vanitas motif, in the previously described sense of the word, still remains present in contemporary art. In photography, the slow falling of petals and wilting of flowers was interpreted by Jan Saudek and Michael Wesely. In contrast, Tanja Lažetić does not seek inspiration in the beauty of transience and death and the particular aesthetic of decaying plants. She presents her flowers as quite the opposite, as shiny, almost plastic objects, whose decay is far from sight. In contrast with baroque’s perception of life coming to an end, Lažetić’s flowers reflect a society which does not want to, perhaps cannot, deal with death and mortality. Youth, vitality and visual perfection are virtues of the highest value, while weakness, disease and old-age are regarded with fear and rejection, a fact proved by the ever more desperate attempts at prolonging human life. That is why her flowers are modified, perfected, “improved” towards the perfection of eternal life. Through digital modification, the artist finds their “true” colors.
In our desire to own prettier, longer-lasting flowers, they are imported from abroad with little regard to their origin. The artist considers flowers to be an artificial construct, since the very notion of decorative flowers is becoming less connected to nature or at-home gardening. Most flowers that are available in shops are imported from abroad, brought to our local flower shops through the Netherlands. Lažetić questions these practices and in that sense conceptually continues her project Migrants, exhibited in Gallery P74 in 2010. In the project, she has researched the questionable origins of our everyday groceries, warning us of the potential dangers of international import. Although this aspect of the project is less emphasized in her flowers, it additionally demonstrates their artificial, unnatural character, while also speaking about the prudent approach of the artist to her photographed subjects.
Beautiful and fragrant, they are in this world to help reproduce plants. Wind can pollinate smaller petals, but larger flowers need to be pleasantly shaped, of attractive colors and most importantly, smell inviting. They need to attract insects, birds, sometimes even bats, who will walk over them, insert their beaks in them, collect pollen, drink nectar, and spread it from blossom to blossom. – T. L.
Perfection and beauty expected from decorative flowers clearly allude to a more widely prevalent problem – a society which seeks these qualities in people, and most obviously in women. The connection of flowers to women is practically self-evident and establishes itself on two levels. From the socio-historic perspective, flowers always belonged in the domain of female artists, since women were prevented from attending art academies, training in the painting of the nude and, consequently, producing large-format historic compositions. They were limited to painting still-life bouquets and the confines of their home garden. Furthermore, a connection is established on the level of iconography, as women figures were frequently personified by flowers, the latter connected to femininity since antiquity – the nymph Chlorys who transforms into Flora through Zephyr’s rape, Daphne, who morphs into a laurel tree during her flight from Apollo, and later Mary, often depicted as a rose or a lily. Flowers, it seems, share two crucial common characteristics with women – they represent love, beauty, youth and offer aesthetic pleasure upon sight. Simultaneously, they have a clear reproductive function with connotations of eroticism and seduction, due to their role in pollination. Thus, Tanja Lažetić is investigating the motif of flowers in relation to her own position as the artist, while also questioning the very nature of its depiction.
5 Flowers 8 Photographs is a project that examines the questions of durability, mortality and social expectations. The artist reflects parallels of youth, visual perfection and artificiality in her flowers. They are perfect, luminous, exotic – fictional. Such flowers (and such people) do not exist anywhere except in our imaginations. The questions Lažetić poses are the following: should flowers be appealing, flawless, artificial? Should we? And what is the cost of perfection?