George Gessert

Natural Selection
Dye sublimation prints with text
selected leaves, 7 3/4 x 5 1/4 in. each leaf

Artist statement from Paradise Now:

I began as a painter. The transition to plant breeding was through painting on Japanese papers, which absorb water and pigments in unpredictable ways. I became fascinated by how ink spots grow on unprepared papers. Watching them grow, and helping them along, I no longer felt like a lone artist, but connected to creative energies that already reside in materials and in the world. From ink spots to plant breeding was only a small step. Plants, like ink spots, generate themselves. My job is to facilitate.[1]




From the Leonardo Electronic Dictionary:

George Gessert was born in 1944 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has a BA in English from the University of California at Berkeley, 1966 and an MA in Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1969. Initially he was a painter and printmaker. From 1985 to the present his work has focused on the overlap between art and genetics. His exhibits often involve plants that he has hybridized, or documentation of breeding projects. He is especially interested in plant aesthetics and ways that human aesthetic preferences affect evolution. He has exhibited at New Langton Arts (San Francisco), Vasarely Museum (Budapest), the San Francisco Exploratorium, the Smithsonian Institution, Exit Art (New York) and many other places. He has received various awards, including the Leonardo Award for Excellence. His writings have appeared in Leonardo, Art Papers, Design Issues, Whitewalls, Massachusetts Review, Hortus, Circa, Northwest Review, and elsewhere. [3]


Natural Selection
Eugene, Oregon, 1994
[computer-printed handwriting, paper, inks, Cibachrome prints]
Science and the Artist's Book
An exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Washington Project for the Arts

In his artist's book, George Gessert takes inspiration from his experiments hybridizing irises. He selects his plants based on their aesthetic qualities and contends that Darwin also recognized aesthetics as an evolutionary factor. Gessert's view is based on the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin discusses the breeding of pigeons for their ornamental characteristics.

On Exhibiting Hybrids

Hybrid 488
Hybridized 1990, first bloom 1994

Article reproduced from Art + Technology Supplement of CIRCA 90, pp. s08-09 [2]

George Gessert breeds Irises as an artform. He discusses some of the aesthetic and ethical issues involved in using DNA in art.

Since the late 1970s I have been breeding plants, concentrating on the native irises of California and Oregon. I have also bred other ornamentals, including daylilies, streptocarpuses, nasturtiums, and several kinds of poppies. For the last fourteen years I have exhibited live hybrids, as well as documentation of my breeding projects.

When I first exhibited plant hybrids as art I expected to have to defend my work against criticism that plants were not art, but no one, then or now, has raised that question, at least not in conversation with me or in print. There have been plenty of other questions and criticisms, but not about plants as art.

This is rather surprising, considering that until relatively recently nonhuman organisms were not exhibited in galleries. Even as late as the 1980s, shows that included works with live plants were extremely rare. Traditional Western dualism maintains that art is one thing, nature another, and never the twain shall meet (except in specialized ways in landscape architecture). That dualism dominated Western gallery art until very recently. But today the art world is more friendly to the Darwinist view that every aspect of culture is an expression of nature. This view, by the way, is also shared by Buddhists, Taoists, and many Native Americans, among others.

Today the obstacles to exhibiting hybrids are less philosophical than social and architectural. My installations sometimes invite audiences to participate in making aesthetic decisions that affect the lives and deaths of plants, and these decisions remind some people of eugenics. Occasionally people get hostile, even though I have never used plants as symbols of human beings. I hybridize for the pleasure of working with plants and because hybrids are various, astonishing, and wonderful in themselves. However, the traumas of the Holocaust and of the eugenics movement are still with us, and I try to remember those wounds when I bring genetic issues into galleries, which after all are spaces that encourage wide-ranging free association, including associations that have nothing directly to do with the work on display.

Except for museum courtyards and atriums, most galleries are architecturally designed to protect canvases from rain and sun, and prevent birds from nesting in sculptures. This presents obstacles to displaying living works. The first time that I exhibited hybrid irises in San Francisco the curators had to install windows in the gallery, because the space had too little natural light for the plants. Gallery workers, who had worked for years under artificial illumination, thanked me. Unfortunately new problems arose. After I had transported pots of irises to the gallery, a heat wave struck, and temperatures climbed into the nineties. Before the opening, the plants bloomed out. I had promised flowers, but presented instead a not very interesting mass of seed pods and grassy leaves.

Someday, perhaps, there will be new kinds of art spaces to accommodate nonhuman life, spaces that combine features of galleries, gardens, menageries, and wilderness. In the meantime artists have worked out problems of exhibiting organisms in the biologically hostile environments of traditional galleries and museums, and as a result, it is no longer surprising to see nonhuman creatures on display. The question is, what kind of awareness does this serve? Does it aestheticize the biological revolution? Will it speed the commodification of life? Can living things in galleries help remind people that all forms of life have intrinsic value? Can we play some role other than tyrant in the community of life? Can we develop an art of evolution? [emphasis added]

I do not have answers to most of these questions. However, I never would have asked them if I had not begun to examine the aesthetic aims of ornamental plant hybridization. [emphasis added] For most of the twentieth century, the primary aim of hybridization in the United States, and probably in most other countries as well, has been to create saleable organisms. Certain visual formulas work. Doubles and ruffles sell. As a result many highly bred plants have come to look alike: they are double or ruffled, or both. But other approaches to breeding are possible, at least if one sees breeding as an art. One can breed plants as a way of getting to know them. One can emphasize qualities distinctive to particular breeding complexes. One can seek integrity of form. Breeding can even bring back into gardens and cities some of the visual qualities of wildness. There is no contradiction in breeding for wildness. After all, we're part of it, too. George Gessert [1, 2] is an artist who breeds irises and other plants. His work has been widely exhibited in the United States, and his writings have appeared in many journals, including Art Papers, Design Issues, Northwest Review, Art Week, and Hortus. He is currently Leonardo's editorial advisor on art and biology.




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