A holistic understanding of the plant world

In the complex world of plants, where every flower and leaf has a story to tell, deep connections lie within waiting to be discovered. This goes beyond mere botanical studies; it is about understanding how plants relate to our culture, history, and social dynamics, and recognizing the impact of our relationship with plants on our environment and well-being. Therefore, through an interdisciplinary knowledge collaboration, ART SCIENCE dialogues collaborated with the Amsterdam Sustainability Institute and the Environmental Humanities Center Amsterdam and explored this complex relationship between humans and plants to help us understand how plants affect the environment and our lives. Providing guidance for a more sustainable and harmonious coexistence with nature.

The dialogues started off with a talk around the topic of human effect on plants in our local environment with artists Arja Hop&Peter Svenson and scientist Hans Cornelissen moderated by dr. Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou; then artist Oscar Santillán, together with scientists Lisa Ausic and Pepijn Brandon moderated by Katja Kwastek, examined the complexities of colonialism in relation to our experience of nature; the third talk of the series explored the importance of plant effect on humans with artist Elspeth Diederix, and scientists Bep Schrammeijer and Jolanda Maas moderated by dr. Iris Burgers; and in the final talk Špela Petrič and Marije Martijn moderated by Petra J.E.M van Dam discussed the impact of altering our impression of what plants are.

When exploring the intricate world of plants, the dialogues led to a holistic understanding through weaving together common threads and possibilities. Incorporating interdisciplinary approaches within each dialogue from fields such as psychology, ecology, history, photography, biology, and design. They together highlighted the complex connections between plants, environments, societies, and human well-being, and emphasized the importance of sustainability, scientific inquiry, and cultural awareness in addressing and working through present issues. Cultural and historical contexts significantly shape our relationships with plants and the environment, and acknowledging and understanding these connections is essential to develop effective strategies for building a better and more sustainable relationship with the plant world and the natural environment all together. This involves confronting colonial legacies, challenging preconceived notions about plants and colors, and recognizing diverse cultural perspectives on nature. The dialogues also raised profound questions about autonomy, identity, and the essence of life as it pertains to plants. Recognizing that traditional hierarchical structures often fail to capture the complexity of plant life, which operates on different strategies than those of animals or humans. As Spela Petrič pointed out, “plants don’t have these qualities that we would associate with a higher power, which creates a hierarchy, but plants are very capable of living, just their strategies are different”.

The dialogues demonstrated the value of integrating perspectives from various fields, to gain a holistic understanding of the plant world and therefore be able to address complex environmental issues and develop innovative solutions. For example, reflecting on how colors can reveal information about plants and their surroundings, relating to the questions of Arja Hop & Peter Svenson; “What do colors communicate of the plant? Why do the tones and shades differ throughout time? How are they not the same color tone?”

Questions as such can help in creating a reciprocal communication between humans and plants and foster a deeper connection to the natural life around us. Relating to Oscár Santillán’s perspective of developing a new frame of reference of being in the world, “We need affirmative ways of being in the world that are different from criticizing our common reality.” It involves interpreting the natural world surrounding us as a reciprocal interaction, forging new alliances with the botanical world, ones that transcend conventional notions of hierarchy and superiority. Where we don’t just take, but also give back and understand the environment in a comprehensive and holistic way. For example, when designing urban green areas, a topic from the dialogue around Elspeth Diedrix’s Flowerfields, it would be especially useful to incorporate a holistic approach and forge new alliances that are beyond conventional methods and notions. Moreover, recognizing the importance of plants in daily life and stimulating connectedness to nature in urban settings are essential for both human well-being and sustainable practices. To which, Elspeth Diedrix’s Miracle Garden is a great example, that shows the beauty of the plants, and sheds light on the importance of plants and plant effects in our daily lives.

Ultimately, by recognizing that we have the power to change our perspective, and challenge conventional notions towards plants, we can effectively reconsider our relationship with plants in a more empathetic way, and potentially create new alliances. Embracing interdisciplinary perspectives, a holistic understanding and cultural awareness of the plant world, would allow us to forge a more sustainable and harmonious relationship with nature in the future.

By Eszter Rácz, exhibition intern

Recordings of the dialogues are available upon request.