Plantblind | Why we look but don’t see

By Redactie See All This | June, 2023

While being seductive is their mode of survival, plants are still finding it hard to capture our attention. Artists help us overcome plant blindness and to open our eyes to the mystical world of other earthlings.



We finally see them. Or maybe we have just started to notice how wonderful they truly are. In 1999, botanists James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler coined the term ‘plant blindness’ to explain a specifically human cognitive phenomenon that leads us to overlook plants in culture as well as in our everyday lives. It goes without saying that scientists and botanists have invested an enormous amount of time and effort in the study of plants. They have always been fascinated by plant complexity.  

Today we know more about plants than we ever have and yet they remain peripheral to the interests and lives of many people. This might be because the enormous amount of knowledge about plants produced by Western science has, counterintuitively, in some ways impoverished our relationship with plants. It has stripped them of their mystique, reducing their complex existence to biological responses. Artists have always bridged the gap between reality and imagination with poetic images that help us connect with the otherness of other earthlings in richer and more meaningful ways.


Albrecht Durer, The Large Piece of Turf, 1503, watercolor and opaque colors, heightened with opaque white, 40.8 × 31.5 cm, Albertina Collection, Vienna



Not all cultures suffer from plant blindness as we do in the West. In Indigenous cultures, plants have played fundamental roles in mythology, rituals, clothing, and sustenance – they have often been regarded as deities in their own right, or as mediators between the material and the spiritual realms, connecting humans to the planet. 

Colonialist approaches and capitalist logics have, since the discovery of the Americas, promoted a progressive distancing from the natural world that reached a tipping point around the 1850s, as the industrial revolution relentlessly, and far too drastically, reconfigured life on this planet. Pollution, deforestation, the rise of mono-cultural plantation practices, mining, factory farming, and sprawling urbanization – as technological advances and the mechanization of labour sped up lives and filled homes with a myriad of superfluous and cheap commodities, the Victorians began to fetishize animals and plants as souvenirs of a bygone world: taxidermy domes, pinned butterflies, dried flowers, collections of ferns and orchids. 


Naoko Benom-Miura, Jazz Blue, 2018, acrylic on paper, 106.7 × 78.7 cm


Bringing animals and plants into their homes, the Victorians thought, would keep them connected to the natural world. But, as it turned out, that connection was in more than one way feeble. It inadvertently furthered the idea that nature is a commodity, an object to possess, a resource to exploit, or simply a place for recreation. 

Plant blindness lies at the very root of the misconception about the natural world that, over the past five hundred years, has permeated and defined Western life. It is therefore through a thorough reconsideration of the roles plants play in our lives that we can begin to reconfigure our relationship with the whole planet. This is why we have recently – at a time of deepening environmental crisis – experienced a spike of interest in all things vegetal. Furthermore, it is artists who are leading a true botanical revolution that may help us see and understand plants beyond the cultural limitations that have impoverished our world.  



Read the whole article in See All This #30 – Paradise Found curated by Piet Oudolf.
Order the issue here>


About the author

Giovanni Aloi is an author and curator specialising in the role of nature in art. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the ­editor-in-chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.


header image: Justine Kurland, Orchard, 1998, courtesy de kunstenaar


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