Cruising around the historic King William district in San Antonio in the middle of a sweltering summer heat-wave, amidst staid Victorian mansions sitting primly on well kept lawns, a casual viewer might have been struck by a shimmering square of spotted yellow lurching up to ground level near the banks of the river. Closer inspection would have clarified the source of that screech of color: nearly 600 mammoth sunflowers growing in the ruins of the Pioneer Flour Mill, which 150 years ago provided sustenance to this burgeoning south Texas settlement.
The same visitor, making the rounds, would have been equally surprised when climbing to the roof of a renovated car-dealership-cum-art-center located in the dusty industrial section of San Antonio’s historic downtown. Dominating the tasteful postmodern appointments of the rooftop café was a swath of vibrant green topped by giant yellow flowers: 598 mammoth sunflowers growing in a grid of black pots on the roof of ArtPace.
These floral displays are the twin components of Joan Bankemper’s project for Artpace. A southerner who has settled in New York City, Bankemper has gravitated away from traditional art-making materials by incorporating living things into her work, such as flowers, herbs, and vegetables. She began developing her interest in a rooftop garden adjacent to her apartment in Manhattan’s Little Italy. After a determined scavenging of the city’s resources—discarded soil, broken pots, mulch, cast-off industrial waste Bankemper found that she could successfully maintain a thriving garden in the most hostile of concrete-and-steel urban environments. And she found that the lush presence of the ephemeral, the perennial, and the annual plants of her garden had a powerful effect on visitors. Even the most hardened city dwellers, the most focused culture brokers, and the most committed simulationists were quickly softened by the forgiving natural environment of the garden.
Learning from her casual anthropological observations, Bankemper began to create garden environments that more specifically addressed the lack of considered plant life within the confines of the city. She installed a moss garden in a SoHo gallery, an unsaleable art piece that had a priceless, soothing effect on art viewers. Smack dab in the New York art district, in the New Museum’s store-front windows, Bankemper placed hundreds of potted narcissus flowers, alluding to the intertwined relationship of ancient mythology (Narcissus succumbed to his own unexamined self-love) and contemporary art practice (the narcissism of the artist in a self-centered, market-oriented commercial world). The fabulous lure of the flower’s scent and the gutsy beauty of its blossom transformed what could have been a cynical comment on the art world’s limitations into the desire of the artist to control the environment for the sake of her own pleasure. In another ongoing project Bankemper shares her enthusiasm with her audience: she gives away small balloons filled with wild-flower seeds, on which text encourages the taker to fill with water and fling the contents over a fence or into an empty lot. This subversive move may improve, instead of merely critique, a bit of urban blight.
In San Antonio, Bankemper had considered creating a self-contained garden inside the galleries of Artpace, with elaborate in-house watering, lighting, and heating systems, but confronted with the atmospheric actuality of the place, she felt that such an effort would be too wasteful, too artificial. Instead of escaping the extremity of the Texas sun, she chose to exploit it. Hoisting hundreds of pots bearing sunflower plants to the roof of the urban art gallery, Bankemper set up a potential garden. As in her Manhattan rooftop garden, the growing sunflower plants quite effectively lowered the temperature of the urban air and promised expectant viewers the possibility of fully blossoming flowers.
Bankemper’s site along the San Antonio River provided her with twin sites geographically (one up in the sky and another down near the water) and sociologically. The sanctity of the art environment protected the ArtPace rooftop sunflower garden as art-per-se, providing it with a concomitant legitimation within the art-historical pantheon (alluding to Van Gogh’s sunflowers and botanical illustrations). But the river site required a different set of allegiances and alliances. In order to realize her project to plant hundreds of mammoth sunflowers along the river, Bankemper negotiated with the bureaucracy of the City of San Antonio. She succeeded in getting municipal and neighborhood assistance to clear out the site, plant the sunflowers, and organize maintenance for its future success. Just as Bankemper inspired ArtPace employees to water her rooftop garden, she helped to bring together neighbors of King William to monitor and maintain a site for a potentially on-going patch of aesthetic beauty. Bankemper used the site of the flour mill for its symbolic potential: the mill once provided the elements of physical sustenance, and now the artist has refashioned the site to provide psychological and emotional sustenance, a sanctuary for the soul.
A garden can be a most perfect artwork, a consummation of the wish to control a chaotic nature mixed with a fond relinquishing to the natural forces out of human control. Bankemper has made this mixture into more static physical objects in an ongoing series of vases. Pieced together from kitschy shards of Victorian mass-produced dishware adorned with stylized floral designs and standardized songbirds, dogs, and roosters, the vases present a loaded tableaux into which “real” flowers can be placed for domestic contemplation.
In her installation of some 15-odd vases at Artpace, Bankemper layered her arrangements with more cultural manifestations of the will to control nature. Some arrangements were made of exotic real flowers, others were mixed with the now-ubiquitous fake silk versions, and yet others were arranged in exaggerated compositions taken from traditional Japanese ikebana. The combined effect was simultaneously light hearted and profound: a late twentieth-century gardener/potter meets nineteenth-century domestic commercialism meets ancient Shinto animism. A series of small, casual drawings of flowers by the artist tilted the experience of Bankemper’s installation toward an intimacy similar to sniffing the fecundity of plant-life, while a large glowing scrim covering a grid of cascading blossoms positioned the experience of nature’s artwork in relation to the painterly sublime.
Throughout her ongoing projects blending nature and humanity, Bankemper’s idealism continues to stretch the rules of what art can be, from a simple pot to a transformative experience of nature. After the sunflowers reach their peak, they will return to formless mulch. But like the kernel of committed inquiry that drives art-making into an ever-renewable resource, the sunflower seeds will scatter their continued potential to the winds.
Kathryn Hixson is the editor of The New Art Examiner and is based in Chicago, IL.