George Gessert is an artist whose work focuses on the overlap between art and genetics. His exhibits often involve plants he has hybridized or documentation of . George Gessert has a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MA in fine art from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. From to the present. George Gessert THEIR SILENCE IS A GIFT Interview by Arjen Mulder The question of beauty is a natural one for breeders of ornamental plants and flowers for.

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George Gessert: Genetics and Culture

Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. But beauty in commercial breeding is defined and limited by commercial concerns: Artists working with plants engage in interactions with these companion species to produce beauty and companionship that exceed commercial deliberations and to redefine what aesthetics means and what kind of aesthetics we value. George Gessert is an artist whose work focuses on the overlap between art and genetics. His exhibits often involve plants he has hybridized or documentation of breeding projects.

InGessert published Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution MIT Pressa book about bio art, covering subjects such as exhibiting flowers as fine art and art using plants, animals, bacteria, slime molds and fungi. Gessetr it, he examines the role aesthetic perception has played in bio art and other interventions in evolution.

The gesserh that strikes me most about Green Light, and about the hybrids you use and show in your work, and actually about plant people in general, is that the explicit goal they’re after is beauty. It seems as if horticultural bio art gesert the one stronghold geesert the 20th-century arts where beauty survived.

What is it that moves you most about plants and flowers? What do they have or do that creates such strong feelings, not just of witnessing beauty but also of happiness, attention, interest and maybe even bliss? Some of my earliest memories are of flowers.

I have an especially vivid memory of a border of irises that my mother tended, and of houseplants — a begonia and Christmas cactus — that our housekeeper had in her room. In these memories, flowers are magical things that draw me to them.

An important part gssert their beauty is that even though they are vividly alive, they are not human. They are literally beyond imagination. Encounters with the unimaginable introduce us to the immensity of being. Geasert like irises and begonias are proof that that immensity is at least in part gworge.

In one memory, flowers are frightening.

George Gessert

I was geoege with my sister Beth and our Aunt Crescents on an estate near our home. The yessert had a small sunken garden with marigolds and other bedding plants. Just as we reached the edge of the garden, Aunt Crescents announced, “There’s a skunk here! I can smell it! She was a thoroughly urban person and distrustful of wild animals, especially animals with gessegt. I didn’t know what a skunk was, but from the intensity of her reaction, I assumed it must be a monster.

I was terrified, and suddenly, before my eyes, the flowers in the garden melted into a lava-like mass of color. I was too young to have any sense that this hallucination was my own mind at work. However, the perception that flowers are not just beautiful but capable of metamorphosis into something threatening has remained with me ever since.


Later I learned that plants have great powers. They can feed on sunlight. They brew remarkable chemicals. They are tenacious and can grow in places no human can endure for long. Individual plants may be fragile, but collectively they are infinitely stronger than humankind.

Traditionally plants have been seen by Gessery as natural resources, put on earth to serve human needs, but with the help of ecology, we now tend to see plants as distant relatives and foundational to geswert community of life. So the beauty of plants can be elegiac. Merwin writes about plants this way. Beauty and terror meet in the sublime. Aesthetic categories are crude summaries of experience, but granted that, few phenomena are more sublime than the plant kingdom.

When we discuss the beauty of plants, let us keep the sublime in mind. OK, we’ll keep the sublime in mind when we talk about plants.

But when you grow and hybridize plants for your bio art projects, you don’t seem to be aiming for the sort of shocking, overwhelming, awe-inspiring effects I associate with the sublime in the arts.

The great thing about plants and flowers — even very tall trees — is that one can have feelings for them that allow for a relationship with them, that make you want to keep them in your house or balcony or garden, or that make you go and look for them in your spare time, even if you’re a city dweller. In that sense, plants appear to be anti-sublime. What are you looking for when you grow plants: What draws me to plants is primarily curiosity, pleasure, and a feeling of being at home among them.

Actually, very little of life is humanly ordered. Some plants are beautiful, and some are sublime in the classical sense — redwood trees produce that kind of awe. Still other plants provide other kinds of aesthetic experiences. My wife and I once made a garish garden, with colors as bright and extreme as possible. We loved it and since then have always found places in our garden for lurid flowers. And then there are bizarre shapes, funny ones, peculiar fragrances, disturbing colors.

These things are not beautiful or sublime, but gardens and the world would be poorer without them. We can exercise considerable power over particular plants. We can shape them down to the genetic level.

But anyone who works with plants for long is likely to gain deep respect for them, for their fragility and power, their strategies of survival, their sheer presence. Why do you gesesrt the beauty of flowers and plants arose in Darwinian evolution? The beauty of animals is usually explained with a reference to sexual selection — the more beautiful the male or female, either in looks or in specific behavior, the greater the chance of gene transference.

But in plants, good looks don’t give any evolutionary advantage, because plants don’t have eyes. So why has evolution selected for beauty in this group of organisms?

Flowers serve reproduction and are sometimes beautiful but, beyond that, don’t bear comparison with peacock tails. As I said, plants are not sentient. However, most flowering plants require animals — sentient creatures — to reproduce.

There are many different kinds of pollinators — insects, birds, bats, mice, snails, humans.

Each has its grorge preferences and set of needs, which account for much of the diversity of flowers. Toward an Art of Evolution, you describe how handbooks for plant show fessert and officials give very precise criteria for what the breeder community apparently considers to be beautiful plants.


You mention how they’re fond of double flowers and ruffling. Most judges’ handbooks are full of contradictions and transparently false claims about aesthetic values. Handbooks promote trite notions of beauty yet have an air of authority and influence plant breeding. The handbooks succeed because they provide a degree of order and validate popular aesthetic preferences.

In the United States, the popularity of an ornamental is measured by its sales. If a plant breeder wants to distribute his hybrids, he has little choice but to pay attention gessery what sells. The market is, of course, concerned about profit, not beauty, however we define it.

Kitsch is very popular — ruffles, generic doubles, throwaway plants, perfectly round flowers.

Gessert, George 1944-

This is unfortunate, because it leaves them unprepared to question prevailing values or even recognize that there might be alternatives.

The role of the georgw is to have one foot in the culture and one foot out. But the burdens and privileges of art are not for everyone, even for people, like ornamental plant breeders, who devote their lives to aesthetic decisionmaking.

If plant breeders only follow an economic logic in the selection of plant flower forms, what kind of logic do you follow when selecting specific plants for hybridization? What kind of criteria do you use that allow you to call your breeding practice “bio art”? I need to say that the vast majority of small-scale ornamental plant breeders in the United States are not in it for the money.

Most breeders have other aims. Economics dominates the horticultural industry and strongly influences aesthetics, but the underlying problem is consumer culture. I first began breeding flowers in my backyard in I paired irises that had characteristics I liked, hoping that whatever was good in the parents would come together in the offspring.

When a painting acquires this kind of independent “life,” my role is not to force the work to conform my original vision but to step back and allow the work to create itself.

Bioart through evolution: George Gessert

Besides Chinese painting, the art that most interested me then — and continues to inform my work with plants — focused on materials. In painting, focus on materials involves attending to paper or canvas, paint, two-dimensionality, color and so forth. Geszert kind of obvious representation tends to be distracting. The viewer is confronted by gdorge mystery of physical reality and by the workings of his or her mind before that reality.

Such art often involves experimentation with new materials. All of this made my shift from paint to plants a small step. It was tremendously exciting for me but implicit in contemporary art.

Many of the aesthetic choices I make when I select plants are the same as I make when I paint. I attend to color, pattern, form. Flowers that look like other flowers are much like unwanted horizon lines or faces that emerge from tangled brushstrokes.

I select against ruffling in irises, because it destroys their distinctive form and makes them look like other ruffled flowers: I seek flowers that look like whatever it is that they are, which of course is unknowable.

How do you know how to get the effects you hope to create?