One of the most common narratives in science fiction is the risks and gains of humans playing God. Yet while, for most of us, these stories may seem far-flung and unlikely, in very odd places human intervention is creating new life. Klaus Pichler’s book The Petunia Carnage probes the confusing man-made creation of a new flower (an orange Petunia) and the ongoing efforts to exterminate this new and challenging form of life.
It is worth contextualising this slightly. Pichler reveals that this variety of Petunia was created in a lab, escaped somehow and has now made its way into the commercial seed and plant market. Forgotten by almost everyone, this variety was re-discovered, by chance, years after anyone had thought about it. Botanists and scientists now want to destroy this rogue varietal, worried about biosecurity and the potential fall out that could come from an unstudied gene spliced plant spreading around the world.
The Petunia Carnage probes the confusing man-made creation of a new flower (an orange Petunia) and the ongoing efforts to exterminate this new and challenging form of life.
Visually, one key to this work is the way that Pichler constructs images to juxtapose the artificial and the natural. The subject of this book, the Petunia, is clearly both – and efforts to understand and eradicate this plant seem both old-fashioned (in images of handheld flamethrowers, for example) and incredibly futuristic (images of a variety of laboratory apparatus). From the very first image, which precedes even the title page, the plant is photographed in a way that seems hyper-real, almost CGI-like in the way it is rendered on the page. To me, this is a vital choice of Pichler’s: exaggerating the surface of the image until one wonders if this is indeed an actual, real, alive plant that is being shown. We, as viewers, can investigate the image as those responsible for cleaning up this plant must investigate each individual plant too.
The humans in this work are largely anonymous. Images of microphones ready for an announcement (but no human is present), hazmat suited figures and disembodied hands all illustrate that the human touch is present and active, but not the protagonist. We invent something, yes, but where it goes next is as much its own story as anything we can pretend to control. The choice to shift focus away from people allows a sumptuous exploration of the places, plants and tools used in the fight to destroy the plant that should not be. Computers, flamethrowers, a myriad of testing tools and clinically sterile rooms make up the ecosystem of tracing, testing and destroying. It all seems, in this work, like an over-reaction: this weighty apparatus operated by hooded and secretive figures, is all a response to ourselves. The decision to invent this plant, the decision that it is illegal, the choice to destroy it: while the plant is the centre, Pichler does this to underscore how much arbitrary human thinking dictates so much of the world around us.
The decision to invent this plant, the decision that it is illegal, the choice to destroy it: while the plant is the centre, Pichler does this to underscore how much arbitrary human thinking dictates so much of the world around us.
There is, though, a sense of human communication. Two images of tabloid newspaper headlines decrying the choice to destroy flowers are a dramatic and racy acknowledgement that, for some, killing a flower is just simply wrong. People are not physically present, but our ideas are well captured in images such as these.
The images, almost universally, are created with a masterful use of light, texture and construction. With an abundance of still lifes made, Pichler is very much operating at his best. This is truly an ‘all killer, no filler’ book – the edit is tight, each image is viscerally arresting and just enough of the context is filled in to provide an anchor for a reader, though there does remain quite a few questions. It is eerie, beautiful, controlled and curious all at once.
The idea that people would be racing towards a genehacked, lab-perfect sunny tomorrow seems nostalgic and outdated when confronted by the reality that we are running around burning flowers that worry us. Two versions of the future that look very different: a hope (that maybe looks like arrogance) and a worry (that maybe looks like an over-reaction).
This treatment also enables a really interesting examination of our ideas of the future and the past’s vision of the future. In contrast with the hyper-real photographs Pichler has created, there are images from the 70s and 80s included, deliberately emphasising the techno-optimism and flying car hopeful view of the future people in the past had. The idea that people would be racing towards a genehacked, lab-perfect sunny tomorrow seems nostalgic and outdated when confronted by the reality that we are running around burning flowers that worry us. Two versions of the future that look very different: a hope (that maybe looks like arrogance) and a worry (that maybe looks like an over-reaction).
Gently, however, I would like to suggest that the book format was not taken advantage of as much as it could have been. Largely, the layout is a single image to a page and the cover, binding and paper feel high quality, but standard choices. While this is not a cardinal sin, and does not detract too much from the work – I do wish there had been more exploration of texture, printing and layout. Some of the most interesting printing occurs in the index that ends the book, and I wish there was a little bit more variety in what was produced. This book feels, physically, like a nicely produced portfolio – but a book can be more.
Overall, Pichler has delved deeply into the bizarre double world that exists in science. While most of us are unaware of what goes on in greenhouses, laboratories and botanical facilities, a world of testing, urgent destruction and bizarre pseudo futurism exists. This work draws a stark line between the layman, who anthropomorphises a plant as a form of understanding, unknowing of its human origins and potential dangers, and the biosecurity teams, furtively and earnestly unaware of the sadness such precise execution does cause. In a time where it feels like we are grappling with ourselves to better understand how we can relate to nature, Pichler occupies an interesting middle ground: aware of the naivety of ‘flowers are good’, but somewhat sad to see so much life snuffed out. At the end of this work one cannot help but feel like we’ve somehow got it wrong: all this future and so little present.