The title came first, Mona Kuhn explains. “Bushes and succulents! Of course!” she says. “It just seemed to appear. It’s cheeky, but it seemed to fit with what was going on in LA.” There was a drought in Los Angeles, the German-Brazilian photographer’s adopted home – green gardens, covered in grass and flowers and irrigated by an artificial and dwindling water supply, had browned, wizened and dried away. But the city’s more botanically minded residents had responded by planting gardens comprised entirely of succulents. In the drought the old gardens died, but the succulents, in all their strange shapes and sizes, were able to thrive.
“These plants seemed to be able to endure so much. They had a power of endurance through good and bad times,” Kuhn says. “That echoed, I thought, the way women have survived through the ages. And, I couldn’t help but think to myself – the succulents, they looked like vulvas.”
The artistic recreation of flowers and botanicals is an ancient and reliably mainstream practice – how many people still flock to see Van Gogh’s sunflowers, or Georgia O’Keeffe’s blooms, every year? Kuhn wanted to find a way of subverting this very conservative rite of passage, to use it to make a suggestive, teasing contrast. “Botanicals tend, for some reason, to be associated with female artists of a certain age,” Kuhn says. “I’m using succulents, alongside a woman’s body, as a way of creating visual wonder and visual pleasure. I’m playing with the viewer because, in reality, I’m not exposing anything.”
Over the course of an artistic career that has lasted more than 20 years, Kuhn has always worked with the female form. She was looking for a new way to make a statement about the female body, one that captured something of the here and now. “There’s one thing they say you should never do – you should never show a woman’s body without her face, because it’s objectifying,” she says. “You’re reducing the woman to just that, her body. It goes against a lot of conventional wisdom when it comes to depictions of femininity. But I see this work as feminist in so far as it communicates the way I adore the female body. I’m aware it can be misinterpreted – I’m reducing the woman to just that – her womanhood. But that, to me, is everything, the origin of our species.”
Bushes and Succulents may make for a playful and irreverent title, but there’s a seriousness here too. Our right to express our sexuality, and the way we should do that, is a subject worthy of the most nuanced debate, she says. “There’s not one way of thinking when it comes to feminism,” she says. “This is my way of celebrating women.”
Mona Kuhn’s Bushes and Succulents is displayed by The Ravestijn Gallery at PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco from February 23 – 25, 2018.