Entering Benedict Ernst’s Nothing (but flowers) exhibition at West Space is like entering a grand hotel with light streaming through the windows, glossy parquetry floors and Ernst’s striking sculptures of flower arrangements. These works draw upon the elegant configurations of contemporary floristry but are constructed using the found objects one would more commonly associate with household junk. There are bouquet’s made of broken beer bottles, saucepan lids, hose pipes, wire, busted car tires, bottle tops and sushi soy fish lids. However, there is a sense that this is more than just an exercise in aesthetic reconfiguration—sculpting in junk. Ernst plays on a notion of the bouquet of flowers as an object that is universally recognised and understood.
In his ability to arrange sharp nails, scrubbing brushes and tennis balls as beautifully as a bouquet, Ernst raises the question—why do we love flowers? In rites of passage they are symbolic of a life cycle. Like the brides, lovers, mothers and grievers they are given to; they embody the blooming and withering and blooming and withering of life. The language of flowers, picked up in the florist slogans “more than words” and “say it with flowers”, makes flowers unlike any other inanimate objects, except maybe art. They are used to symbolise the abstract emotions that people have trouble expressing.
The title of the exhibition Nothing (but flowers) suggests a certain empty sentimentality that can be bought too easily with flowers. They can convey too much for too little. Though Ernst’s work is made of “nothing”, the items in a household we would generally ignore, the detail and ingenuity of his work make them so much more than the average bouquet. Like the ephemeral symbolism of living flowers, these bits of junk that have been transformed—have had life and death. While a bouquet of nails and screws may seem more confronting and hostile then velvety rose petals, Ernst works asks us to consider what sort of messages underlie the emotionally loaded bunch of flowers. In his catalogue essay Ernst repeatedly apologises for his project. Ernst has accentuated certain sharp, angular and prickly features of flowers to suggest a subtext of ambivalence.
Ernst likens his work to ‘a “gift” your cat drags in from the night, still beating with feathers and blood to your bedroom pillow’. Receiving flowers, though never admitted, may often be like the gift from the cat. It is a way of unloading something on someone; it asks the receiver to recognise, accept and be grateful for an object that symbolises the emotional state of the giver. Much like in all interactions with other people sometimes this is something we are glad to have received—we want to know about, we enjoy it or hope for it. For the giver, the flowers can be used to mask awkward feelings. A clean way of discharging obligations, sometimes by remote, without getting caught up in too much emotional junk. They are a quick solution to unloading a burden, demanding forgiveness, displaying easy care and affection and relieving the anxiety of bearing witness to an uncomfortable pain or sorrow.
Slavoj Žižek would like Ernst’s flowers. In The Perverts Guide to the Cinema Žižek describes flowers as “disgusting”, like a vagina dentata, that should ‘be forbidden to children’. Many of Ernst’s flowers, like the beer bottle tops with fake eyelash petals, evoke this sort of menacing interpretation of flowers that will lure you in like Venus Fly Traps only to devour you to fulfil their instinctual desires. As symbols of love and affection, flowers that devour seem synonymous with an idea of love as a hunger or yearning that needs to be fed. It follows that in Žižek’s Enjoy your Symptom, Žižek writes that the lover seeks the beloved to fill a lack in himself. The beloved in order to resist objectification reciprocates with his own lack/desire. Žižek says ‘the two lacks can succeed and beget a new harmony’. The aggressive quality of some of the flowers in Ernst works evokes certain violence in the objectification of the beloved. The “be mine” demand, so liberally sugared in pop songs and Valentine cards, is often read simply as hyperbole for aching desire. In these works the demanding “be mine” sentiment comes at us in a jealous rage with jagged beer bottles and planks of wood.
The “Nothing” of the title speaks of voids like they are growling stomachs and hollow gestures. These works show there can be duplicity in grand demonstrations of emotions. Maybe we like to unload our feelings of guilt or shame onto others while making it seem like we are doing something nice. Maybe we give a bouquet to force a person to think about us and not just fleetingly, but appreciatively and affectionately for the duration of the week that the flowers last. Sometimes, though, flowers are very nice. Ernst also seems to celebrate flowers through his affectionate studies. I once entertained a quick and silly idea where I would send flowers anonymously to people working in car parks all around the world—to make them happy. A friend advised me of the arrogance and narcissism of my Pollyanna plan. He suggested I would probably end up responsible for at least one car park attendant’s battering from a jealous spouse who refused to believe the flowers were from “nobody”. Ernst work celebrates the intricacies and complexities of the gifts we give. The too-easy statements conveyed with flowers can be used to mask and prettify ambivalent and confronting emotions.