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A Conversation with Frédéric Triail

Frédéric Triail was the Head of Department of Art in the City of Paris, and Secrétaire Général of l'Ecole Du Breuil.

Published in A Chinese Communist Garden (Paris: Villa Vassilieff, 2016)

ZB

I wanted to show you my most recent film, Pteridophilia, which I shot in Taiwan last August. Did you know Taiwan has a lot of ferns?

 

FT

Yes, I did! The Latin names of plants often include “sinensis” meaning that the plant comes from China, or other names like “fortune,” after botanist Robert Fortune, who discovered many plants in China and Taiwan. Someone told me recently that when you are in nature in China, it’s like being in a garden: many plants we associate with gardens actually grow there in their natural environment. It looks designed by a gardener, but it’s just nature.

 

ZB

Yes indeed! Many people who saw this film thought that I arranged the plants and used lighting. But this is all already there, right on the outskirts of Taipei! Taiwan has the highest number of fern species per square meter. There are more than 600 different species of ferns, thanks to the humid climate and all the mountains and valleys. This summer, I also grew ferns for my exhibition at TheCube Project Space in Taipei. It’s like this box of weeds here in my studio. The first thing I asked for when I arrived in Paris in May was to build a wooden box to plant the weeds I collected from the Petite Ceinture.

 

FT

Do you know Edward O. Wilson’s work? He created the concept of biophilia, the idea that you feel better as a human if you have other living beings around you.

 

ZB

I recently read that during the Tang dynasty in China (7th-10th c.), our ancestors treated plants like stones. If you look at Tang dynasty paintings, the gardens are symmetrical. But something changed during the Song dynasty (10th-13th c.): people started to see plants as living beings, and to move away from symmetry. They wanted to have a sense of liveliness in the gardens, rather than geometric patterns. When I went to Versailles and looked at the garden there, I felt that the hedges and the borders were treated like cement. Plants are used as construction materials there.

 

FT

People are quite critical of Le Nôtre today. He was a very skilled gardener. If you look at his entire work, you see that some parts of his gardens are like a forest, the trees are not cut. But for what we call jardin à la française, the “French garden,” everything has to be under control. It’s a very strong French tradition. Still today some architects ask for a tree with very precise dimensions, like 1.48 meters in the sight of an historical castle. In the jardin à la française, trees and shrubs are treated like furniture pieces. It is all about man asserting his power over nature. It took us a long time to admit that we are not so powerful in the world. Things are just beginning to change now, in other fields of knowledge as well. The general idea is that we are part of nature, which is difficult for the French to admit because of Descartes’ tradition, which states that Man must master and own Nature. But once we accept that we are neither the master nor the owner, we can observe and accept that there are different kinds of lives, maybe sometimes more interesting than our own. That’s the idea of gardens too. A true gardener is not there to run a factory, he is there to make the plants feel good, you know, he’s there for pleasure.

 

ZB

When I look at the weeds in this box, I see something that’s not particularly beautiful in the traditional sense. The flowers are quite small; they don’t blossom very passionately; and the leaves don’t have spectacular shapes. But they bring pleasure through a sense of surprise.

 

FT

Knowledge plays a role in finding plants “interesting” and being able to love them, even the smallest ones.

 

ZB

Take the weeds in this box for instance: because I’ve lived here for two months and have seen them every day, I remember them even though I don’t remember their names. For me, knowledge comes through intimacy.

 

FT

Yes, it is exactly what we tell the students. It’s nonsense to try to learn lists and lists of names. Treat plants like people and then you will remember them and names will come. But it’s all about knowledge too. You can’t love if you don’t know. Sometimes people walk in a garden, they see it like a decor, and they don’t try to know what’s happening. Learning how to see, how to watch things, is also a form of knowledge. It needs to be learnt, to be taught. You can’t say that you see things if you don’t have the knowledge. It’s the same with art. There is no sightseeing without knowledge.

 

ZB

I also started to think about space: how most of us, most of the time, live far away from other species. In our apartments, there are bacteria, maybe a little mouse, but mostly empty of living things. Our cities are designed to be rid of most plants, of most animals. So we only acquire knowledge by watching the Discovery Channel. It only comes through the screen.

 

FT

The story of abiotic cities is quite recent in fact. In the case of Paris, it comes from the Haussmannian city. It’s the idea of a mineral city, with very few trees and nothing else. A hygienic city, from which all miasma has been evacuated. Before Haussmann and the industrial revolution, cities were very mixed spaces. Medieval cities had gardens, animals. There used to be farms inside Paris, in Montparnasse for example. I met old people once who still remembered getting their milk in town. The idea of vegetal in the city is strongly coming back. No human person is separated from animals that are living in it actually; they are vital to one’s life. As you do know, there are much more bacteria, microorganisms in our bodies than cells. For plants, it’s the same. In Paris we have the biggest herbarium in the world, at the Museum of Natural History. But it’s impossible to consider a plant like it is presented in an herbarium, because it’s isolated and it’s not the whole plant. You can’t think of the plants without the soil, the fungus and the bacteria, and it’s the same for a human being, you can’t be isolated. So, you shift from a thought based on things to a thought of relation, of relationships. Everything is related.

 

ZB

I start to feel that whenever we say “I”, it should be “we” – it should be plural. This idea has political consequences. When I vote, it’s not just me voting, it’s also the microorganisms in me voting. I started this project called “Weed Party” last year. This political party consists of not only human beings, but also plants. We could also include microorganisms. I realized that when we talk about communities and publics, these notions only included human beings. It’s time to expand these notions, to think about interspecies communities, interspecies publics.

 

FT

You know the basic idea of Bruno Latour, about "the parliament of things", in this system, there must be a human to talk for things. It’s always talking for the others, but maybe the imaginary living being in you has a different voice. A gardener for example gets perfectly clear messages from the plants, knows when they feel good or not. Plants are like people, some like to be at the front of the stage, some are shy, and you have to deal with all that, you have to know their characters and you can arrange them, like you know they live well together, and this brings us to politics. Because a garden can be seen as a political space; for example there are questions of local plants and invasive ones you know.

 

ZB

Immigration issues.

 

FT

Somehow a garden can be a pattern, a political pattern. It’s not just a place of pleasure and welcoming. There may be a political model there, you see.

 

ZB

I’m starting to believe that there is so much we can learn from how plants live socially. For some reason we are terrible at living together as communities these days, despite or perhaps because of “information.” We are very short-sighted as a species in many ways.

 

FT

We have to be cautious because nothing is ever sure about prehistoric ages, but we don’t have traces of mass slaughters that come from the Palaeolithic, just the Mesolithic and Neolithic, as far as I have read; someone like Paul Shepard is quite affirmative on this. It suggests that something happened with agriculture.

 

ZB

In agriculture, the relationship to plants is exploitative: I give less and I take more. Marx talked about this idea of exploitation in capitalism, but now I think exploitation started way earlier, when agriculture started. When I collect edible weeds, there is a more equal relationship. I need to spend a lot of energy to gather plants that can give me just enough energy to sustain myself.

 

FT

You know in the history of humanity there has not been a clear shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturist. Even in modern times, agriculturists sometimes turn back to hunter-gatherer.

 

ZB

In a 2009 article, Dipesh Chakrabarty talked about how the discipline of history has to change, how human history and natural history can no longer be considered two separate disciplines. For us, the question is, can art still remain separate from nature? Can we still separate art museums from gardens? In Chinese gardens, paintings and plants exist in a continuous space.

 

FT

I think there is a traditional way of putting art in gardens, like Le Nôtre, statues, and that’s the same traditional way when you have most of the contemporary works like in Versailles. It’s a way of bringing things, non-living things in a garden. There has been a different way of understanding, making artworks in gardens, like with land art. I think there is a new class of artists emerging that do not only want to work in the gardens but want to work with living beings, and it’s quite different. It was very rare a few years ago. Now people like you and Art Orienté Objet in France take that risk to interfere with living beings.

 

ZB

Working with plants has opened up a lot of big questions for me. Should artworks be treated as things permanent? This goes all the way back to the idea of agriculture, to our idea of control.

 

FT

There is something else interesting with plants. You can take a plant, a little piece of it, put it in water and then in the soil and you have a new plant, and it’s the same.

 

ZB

In some ways, plants are much more powerful than we are.

 

FT

Yes of course. Try to cut your finger…

 

ZB

and grow another person.

 

FT

That’s incredible! Also, most ancient trees in the world are 30,000 years old. As long as trees have good conditions of life, they live.