Volume XXVII Number 2
Photo © Tyagan Miller
End of Show from the sLowlife exhibit
Photo courtesy Roger Hangarter
(Un)still Life with Plants
By his own admission, plant biologist Roger Hangarter is not an artist. He doesn’t paint, sculpt, or draw, and he spends his days not in a studio but in a laboratory, studying flora. Yet Hangarter, in collaboration with artist Dennis DeHart, is responsible for sLowlife, an installation focused on the aesthetic wonders of plants as living things. It was exhibited in late 2003 at the Indiana University School of Fine Arts gallery in Bloomington. Featuring time-lapse movies of plant movement alongside static prints and other displays, sLowlife combined abstract art and science education in a visually arresting, thought-provoking show.
“Although they come from different disciplines, both Roger and Dennis have hypersensitive observation skills,” says Georgia Strange, professor and director of fine arts and studio arts for IUB’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts. “Their exhibition had a savvy rawness because of the simultaneously concrete and symbolic nature of the images.”
The images that gave birth to sLowlife began in decidedly concrete fashion—as scientific research tools. In 1998, seeking a more accurate way of measuring how plants respond to stimuli, Hangarter, an associate professor of biology, bought a Web camera, programmed it to take pictures at five-minute intervals, and set it up in front of a plant in his basement. Several hours later he downloaded the photographs onto a computer. When played in sequential “flip book” fashion, the images revealed that the seemingly static plant had been in constant motion, its stem and branches bending, swaying, and twirling.
“I knew that plants moved, and I’d seen Attenborough’s nature films,” Hangarter recalls, referring to documentary filmmaker David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants. “But it was still remarkable to see plants I worked with every day move like this in a movie I’d made myself. It’s easy to forget that plants are actually alive because they move so slowly, so when caught on film and played back at a pace we can relate to, the effect is really stunning.”
Hangarter tested his movies’ appeal in the classroom, where students normally bored during lectures on phototropism (how plants move in response to light) suddenly perked up when he showed them a film of seedlings bending towards a light bulb. Encouraged, Hangarter put his growing collection of movies on a Web site. Before long the site received favorable reviews from Science magazine and other journals, and Hangarter began to receive inquiries from scientists, teachers, artists, musicians, even television producers and churches.
“People wanted to use the movies for all sorts of things—images of flowers opening and closing during church sermons, movies of roots growing and plants dancing during concerts,” says Hangarter. When visual artists began showing interest, Hangarter began to think of his films not only as educational pieces, but also as potential art objects. He showed some movies to Strange, who put Hangarter in touch with DeHart, at the time a visiting professor of fine arts at IUB. DeHart, whose past work had involved still images of plants and other natural objects, was intrigued. They started meeting weekly to plot out an exhibit featuring Hangarter’s movies.
At first, Hangarter and DeHart approached the project with conflicting visions. “Dennis, being an artist, wanted to take the movies and make abstract art out of them,” Hangarter recalls. “I was afraid that making the movies too abstract would take away from their educational quality.”
Eventually, the collaborators’ aesthetic and scientific perspectives began to merge. Shown some of DeHart’s prints of “found” plants and other vegetation, Hangarter was able to identify nearly all of the objects. “Dennis had assumed that his prints were abstract, but when I identified most of them he didn’t seem to mind,” Hangarter says. “In fact, knowing what the plants he photographed actually were made it even more interesting.” Finally, Hangarter and DeHart decided that their exhibit could be both aesthetically sophisticated and educationally viable. The medium, in other words, would not have to obscure the message.
The message of sLowlife—a title chosen to highlight the element of time and movement in reference to “lower” life forms—was that despite their normally immobile appearance, plants are very much alive and in motion. The exhibition’s several set pieces were designed both to introduce viewers to plants as living things and to foreground the beauty inherent in plants’ extremely slow but—when sped up on film—breathtaking movements. One installation, titled Tropisms, featured a large video projection displaying 96 movies of seedlings bending and twisting, overlaid with pieces of data from a research paper about phototropism written by Hangarter and graduate student Craig Whippo. The images are both abstract and realistic; the plants appear as real, living things and yet are also somehow surreal, doing things that plants are not normally expected to do.
“With this piece and others, we were attempting to appeal to both artists and scientists,” Hangarter explains. “The main point was to give people an impression that would stick with them, a feeling of awe and astonishment that plants do these things.”
In that regard, a time-lapse piece titled Unstill Life is particularly impressive. Before playing the movie, viewers see what appears to be a still-life image of cut red flowers in a vase against a black background. When the movie plays the flowers began to move, slowly at first and then with more urgency, the stems twisting and swaying as their flowers open and close. Hangarter, who spent some time observing people’s reaction to the sLowlife exhibit, noted the effect this piece had on viewers.
“I’d overhear them express amazement, or watch them just kind of stare, playing the movie again and again,” he says. “I think it blew their minds a bit that the cut flowers they might have on their tables move around like that.”
sLowlife was a hit. Tropisms, Unstill Life, and other installations—several more time-lapse movies, a laboratory bench scenario using scientific equipment to display the process of photosynthesis, and DeHart’s nature prints and found-object displays—attracted hundreds of visitors to the SoFA gallery. Plans are now in the works to refashion sLowlife as a traveling exhibit with showings at the U.S. Botanical Gardens, the Chicago Botanical Gardens, and other sites across the country.
For Hangarter, exhibiting sLowlife in larger venues is a chance to get his message across to potentially millions of people. Yet, according to Georgia Strange, Hangarter’s interest in the project is more than only educational. “Roger can teach with the movies and learn from them,” she remarks, “but I bet he loves their beauty most of all.”
Hangarter’s attachment to plants does indeed go beyond scientific inquiry. But his appreciation of natural beauty is more complex than the garden-variety pleasure derived from looking at pretty flowers. With his grey-streaked ponytail, goatee, plaid shirt, and jeans, Hangarter most resembles an outdoorsman—a sparsely bearded Grizzly Adams, perhaps, or a more diminutive Paul Bunyan. His office in the biology building at IU Bloomington has the look and feel of a miniature rain forest. Potted and hanging plants drape themselves over bookshelves and desks. In a large aquarium a ghostly white frog floats serenely in murky, greenish water. It’s the office of someone who not only studies but lives in nature.
Educating others to see nature as an integral, living part of our world drives Hangarter’s research, teaching, and artistic pursuits. He is alarmed over what he sees as a growing disconnect between people and the natural world. To illustrate, he plays a scene from the recent Oscar-winning film version of The Lord of the Rings. In the scene, two hobbits are lost in a gloomy forest, surrounded by gigantic, gnarled trees. “They say there’s something in the woods that makes the trees grow tall and come alive. The trees whisper and can talk to each other!” one of the hobbits says in a frightened undertone.
Hangarter shakes his head and turns the movie off. “They’re playing to what most people think, that trees are not alive but that some magical thing makes them move around and talk.”
The problem with such fantasies, says Hangarter, is that plants do move in response to light, water, touch, and other stimuli. Trees and other plants communicate by chemical signaling, warning each other to boost their defense systems against insect attacks. These things happen so slowly, though, that to the human eye they seem not to be happening at all.
“Humans tend not to be very patient; unless something is happening quickly, at the moment, we ignore it,” says Hangarter. “It’s a problem, because the only way we can begin to really connect with nature and take care of it is if we see that world as every bit as alive as the world we inhabit.”
Nowhere do plants appear more alive than on Hangarter’s Web site “Plants in Motion” (sunflower.bio.indiana.edu/~rhangart/plantsinmotion.html). The site, which contains more than 40 time-lapse films of plant movement, begins with the disclaimer “Created for nonprofit educational use.” To be sure, the site is packed with scientific explanations of photomorphogenesis (the process by which plant development is controlled by light), nastic movements (plant movement responding to stimuli but not dependent on the direction of the stimuli), and other technical terms. Each movie, lasting approximately 10 to 30 seconds, is accompanied by text explaining how and why each plant moves.
Yet for all their scientific rigor and usefulness, the movies are most striking to the average viewer as a type of found art exhibiting the raw beauty of something wholly unexpected. One film, called Worshiping the Light, shows several corn seedlings planted in a circle swaying towards a light bulb at their center. The plants seem less like flora than stick figures bowing to a shining god. Another film, Twining Motion of Vines, depicts a potted morning glory placed between two tall sticks. Click play, and the plant’s delicate, milky-green tendrils begin to twirl in increasingly widening circles. When they touch the sticks, they curl around them in a leafy embrace.
Watching these plants in action is like peering into a beautiful universe hidden in plain sight all around us. Yet, to the end, Hangarter denies any artistic ability or intent. “I’m more simplistic. I just think the movies themselves are interesting, and I’m happy if people watch them,” he insists.
But without his eye for detail and intuitive sense of the power inherent in his images, the films would not exist. Hangarter may not be an artist by training, but in his films, an artistic passion shines through.
Jeremy Shere is a freelance science writer. He is completing his Ph.D. in English at IU Bloomington.