PRINT February 1999


In his silent film Untitled (Beautiful Place), 1998, Paul Sietsema observes eight different plants for two minutes apiece: a starry pink poor man’s orchid; a purple passionflower; a succulent in a rocky, arid zone; a forest dainty caught darkly among pine needles; a verdant hedge thick with elongated leaves; a chic attenuation of paper whites; a houseplant, common, overlooked; and, finally, perhaps in the solar role of illumination, Gerber daisies. During my visit to Sietsema’s studio, in Culver City, California, the thirty-year-old artist told me in passing about one of his first experiences of “art”—as a child, he drew pictures of flowers to give as gifts, to mother, to the loved one. Artifice’s bouquet, culture is of course etymologically rooted to cultivation, and flowers, pretty, cultivate some of the earliest experiences of beauty, its various ephemeral meanings and refusals to mean. So the film is not really about flowers, although it considers, carefully, flora, things grown, growing, plants as they are, as they seem to be, not as mere symbols of mourning, of love—which they are also, or I guess could just as easily be.

What is seen are not flowers, or, rather, not “real” flowers—although it is crucial that when, how, and why anyone watching the film figures this out remain complicated. Sietsema’s constructed plants, crafted of foam, paper, and paint, recapture and negate their real semblances—some were made after studying actual plants, but others only from small photos in seed catalogues or gardening magazines. In a series (never displayed) of studies for the eight parts of the film and the painstaking assemblage of each plant, research on floristics (precise botany and the materials that will come to form the artist’s botanical garden—the petals, stems, and leaves, as well as environment), notes on camera angles, snapshots, color tests, all demonstrated imagination’s science. But in the film any evidence of fact or facture is abandoned. For nineteen minutes, projected as compactly as a grade-school lesson, the film doesn’t just present the absent plants but is structured by absence: Fresh vegetation gone, notes and research gone, exacting sculpture gone, all that remains is the ghostly appearance and disappearance again of the plants, if that is what they exactly are. Remember a friend saying Sietsema’s film was like an essay on Blanchot. The coma of representation.

Unlike many artists exploring the pleasurable conundrums of verisimilitude, Sietsema is interested not in the presentation of objects—sculpture, installation—but their glimmering absence. Despite his obsessive approach to the subject, his material is deployed not in service to simulation but in an attempt to embrace the immaterial. Perhaps the beauty lies in the doubt and failure inherent in such an attempt, and the strangeness of all the removes, like strange memory, dehabitualizes vision so the things and the act of viewing them can actually be perceived.

Tony paper whites are situated near white blinds in the film’s sixth sequence. Along the white wall behind them runs a line in pencil—barely suggesting, for the first time, some process of making. The possibility that the blinds are just strips of paper, the smart situation really a corner of the artist’s studio, the flowers not in fact flowers, creeps up on the viewer until a precious lapse in cognition, and it creeps up again. The aestheticized view, the spare location, the flowers that are not really flowers, blank, the paper whites of white paper become, as Sietsema suggested, the “early modernist” sequence. And if this is the early modernist section of the film, then the lone, no-frills succulent in the black-and-white rock and dirt could be the Smithson/earthworks section. Untitled (Beautiful Place) questions how and why such knowledge (class, erotics, art-historical reference) changes perception, but the work thwarts any stable systematization. Perhaps this thwarting of meaning most recalls the precision and deadpan, psychotic conceptualism of Charles Ray, one of Sietsema’s teachers at UCLA, where the artist is in his final year of the MFA program (although he had shown in galleries before entering graduate school). Sietsema’s film is not really about flowers in the way Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture is not really about a wrecked car but about inattention, about what is noticed, the dire consequences of not noticing.

In the penultimate section, a mundane houseplant “greens” (in black and white) the film. The camera circles this innocuous plant and its rubbery, mottled leaves, and while moving around it encounters something else, blocking the view of the little growth. Suddenly the unremarkable experience of not being able to see becomes spectacular. Vertical bars, shadows, moving across the line of sight represent the countless gaps in vision that constitute it, the breaks between seeing and the world, not only the matter (eyelid, body, thing) that blinds but the habits, memories, fantasies, psychic treasons that make up perception. Through the elementary camera movements (pans—slowly or quickly up stem, along vine—and cuts), the vibrant bleeds between sections, the antenna-like examinations of bud, tendril, bloom, and leaf, what appears is whatever convinces the eye of. . . something before that something returns to nothing, darkness, private thought. By the time the Gerber daisies—orange, yellow, glowing against a grammar-school-science-film blue—show up on screen, the madeness of the film, the physicality of its emulsion (so unlike the vacuity of video), intersects with the madeness of the flowers. Patiently the viewer’s gaze has been bred to see the secret life of plants—plants and their contexts, landscape, situation, meaning—hybridized from foam, paper, paint, non-sense and ending as something immaterial, unwinding, bound up in film’s secret life of light, which illuminates how things grow to be as they appear and the mortality of such appearances. Whatever Sietsema’s subtle considerations of the aesthetics of science, aesthetics as science, as a way of breaking down reasoning, or rather, replacing it with a useless concentration, his viewing becomes a botanical autopsy of the imaginary, its conceptual blooms.

Only light allows them to be, only the circuitous routes of representation hydrate them.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.