PRINT December 2017

Books: Best of 2017

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Philosopher Emanuele Coccia’s newest book La vie des plantes (The Life of Plants) (Rivages, 2016) is an illuminating reflection on the nature of plants. Coccia, who studied at an agricultural college as an adolescent, argues that plants have been neglected in philosophy since the division of knowledge into the humanities and sciences. For Coccia, the significance of these organisms is twofold: Plants, as producers of oxygen, sustain life on the planet; yet as the only living organism that can transform solar energy into mass, they also give form to life. “The seed is a force able to draw forth incredible forms from matter,” Coccia said in an interview. “But at that point, reason is no longer just a human or animal faculty; it’s a cosmic force.”

Plants, according to Coccia, are not a separate kingdom, but a multifarious presence that links earth and sky, human and animal. They are profoundly anti-individual, able to exchange nutrition and energy and to simultaneously grow and reproduce. But Coccia’s argument about the singular vitalism and sentience of plants is not only timeless, it is also timely: At a moment in which social atomization and the destruction of nature are changing our world dramatically, La vie des plantes serves as an urgent reminder of the intelligence of the planet, of the importance of sharing, and of our responsibility to be respectful visitors on earth. In the end, it seems, tulips are more reasonable than we are.

A contributing editor of Artforum, Hans Ulrich Obrist is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London.