This summer at the Henry Art Gallery, in a room by itself, there's a giant floral arrangement roaring up out of a white vase on a white pedestal. It probably reaches 12 feet in the air. Bismarck palm fronds five feet in diameter spike out at the top and the sides, forming a shield around a proliferation of grasses, vines, and flowers: yellow acacia puffs, spines of chalky-green eucalyptus, white-tipped bunny-tail grass, vines sagging with tiny dates, and more.
On the wall, a sign explains that the arrangement is a work of art called Bouquet XI, intended to evoke the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All the plants are native to the contested lands in and around Israel, and several have strong allergenic properties. The artist, Willem de Rooij, has said that he's trying to make your nose run and your eyes water (he's allergic to pollen, too). I didn't have an allergic reaction during my brief visit, but I'm told that some of the gallery attendants have to take antihistamines just to come to work.
De Rooij means his monumental bouquet to be a potent metaphor for cultural exchange and its discontents. But is he likening a little snot to a lot of spilled blood? Is he substituting a cleverly engineered itch for a catastrophe, triggering emotionless tears in the name of actual tragedy?
Or—prepare for the backflip—is he demonstrating how the act of using anything as a metaphor for war is an exercise in trivialization?
"Misreadings and miscontextualizations can sometimes be very painful for the different parties involved," de Rooij told an interviewer at the Jewish Museum in New York last year, where Bouquet XI was first installed. "The process of becoming exotic, when people, objects, or concepts move from one cultural sphere into another, getting misunderstood, getting lost. I think misunderstandings of all sorts are, for artists, very important... This work has the possibility of influencing the viewer on a physical level."
What you see in the gallery is just a heap of pretty, dead plants, but Bouquet XI is more like a piece of legislation—produced by various interests that overlap in certain ways despite a prevailing state of conflict.
Take de Rooij's intentions first. He's been making monumental bouquets since 2002. Often, his installations include collaborations with traditional artisans, like florists or weavers. He says the crossover of fine art and craft and the blurring of authorship reflect "the postcolonial project" of mixing the invasive new with what was there before.
Furthering that end, de Rooij chooses colors and symbols with loaded associations. In a different series, of images in shades of orange, de Rooij (working with another Dutch artist) referenced Guantanamo Bay prison uniforms as well as a rising tide of Dutch nationalism (where the monarchy represents the House of Orange) in order to "test the capacity of supposedly objective entities (color, form, material) to simultaneously evoke and question social and political structures: difference, individuality, majority, change, and polarization."
These types of overwrought associations—orange/House of Orange, date vines/Israel—are de Rooij's attempts to draw out the question of whether materials themselves can make meaning or whether meaning is projected through external references. His New York/Berlin gallery calls this the "tension between sociopolitical and autonomous image production."
In some ways, I buy it. It's also awfully decentering to consider that Bouquet XI is a work of art by a Dutchman living in Berlin comprising an arrangement of plants representing the Middle East that are shipped to Seattle from California and Florida (where they also grow). Here it might productively be noted that the Seattle-based curator who organized the exhibition of Bouquet XI, Luis Croquer at the Henry, is the El Salvador–born, British-and-American-educated son of a Venezuelan diplomat.
Layered on top of the piece's crisscrossing political and geographical associations, there's the Henry's highly conflicted presentation. On its website, the Henry—the University of Washington's art museum—advertises Bouquet XI under the headline "The Trouble in Beauty." Scroll down, and you find five events related to Bouquet XI, all entirely untroubled and untroubling: "Growing a Summer Cocktail Garden with Amy Pennington," "Creating a Homemade Summer Amaro with Amy Pennington," two science lectures including a tour of UW's medicinal herb garden, and a perfume workshop where attendees take home their own scents.
For an exhibition referencing generations of bloodshed, in the midst of a campus packed with political scientists, historians, sociologists, and activists, the university museum offers only workshops on drinks, gardens, and earth science. Would scholarly, air-conditioned slide lectures about war or heated debates about abuses of power be any better? For whom? This is the sort of question you can get stuck asking because of Bouquet XI.
The most human presence in Bouquet XI is one that only appears once in a while. Nisha Kelen is the florist the Henry and de Rooij chose as the installation's manual laborer. De Rooij sent Kelen a list of hundreds of Middle Eastern plant species, the artist and florist discussed the artist's intentions, then Kelen created "rehearsal" bouquets until de Rooij was satisfied.
Every 10 days or so, Kelen goes into the gallery with two helpers and two ladders. She spends hours carefully dismantling the tightly crosshatched arrangement, stem by slimy stem, lilies shattering. She removes the two plastic inserts inside the ceramic vase, which secure all the plants, and replaces them, then begins rebuilding Bouquet XI anew. (I recommend going when she's there: at 3 p.m. on June 26, July 7, 15, and 24, and August 4.)
She's like the local magistrate to a distant king. She has a real measure of creative control, but she's working in a style that's not her own. Bouquet XI is too busy to be one of her designs, she says. (Her own business is called Fleurish.)
"But I get it," Kelen told me. "I see different stories going on as you walk around it. He wanted super-dramatic, bold parts, and within that, more delicate, tender moments."
Kelen puts small, soft, tender grasses at the base of spiky palms. She sees them as individuals in the shadow of historic events. The palms serve as swords and shields, offense and defense. "You've got Israel protecting its people and fighting for its land," Kelen said, "and then you've got Palestinians doing the same thing."
Neither Kelen, who is American, nor her husband, who is Israeli, has pollen allergies.