Tulips are a charged metaphor in Antonia Hirsch's Light Tender

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Antonia Hirsch: light tender
At Republic Gallery until March 2

Last week, as mobs of people surged in and out of florist shops, it was possible to contemplate a nifty coincidence of art and popular culture. In Antonia Hirsch’s mixed-media exhibition Light Tender, flowers are a significant metaphor—as they are in the emotional and economic exchanges that occur every Valentine’s Day. Still, where lovers often give each other imported roses, with all their invisible baggage of unfair trade and environmental disregard, Hirsch’s symbolic flowers are tulips. And tulips trail their own charged history behind them.

Based in Berlin, Hirsch lived in Vancouver for many years and has exhibited extensively here and internationally. She often underlines her concept-driven art with explorations of the social and economic forces that shape our lives and our ideas of “value”—intrinsic or otherwise. Her gift is for creating appealing visual equivalents to the complex ideas that stand behind her art-making.

In Light Tender, Hirsch draws on the phenomenon of “tulip mania” (the frenzied speculation in tulip bulbs that occurred in the Netherlands between 1633 and 1637), together with the rise of a wealthy middle class during the Dutch golden age, and its fondness for still-life paintings, especially those depicting, yes, tulips. Her own tulip-focused unstill life takes the form of a time-lapse video of three different bouquets, successively standing in a glass vase. The video is projected onto a rectangle of black velvet, with its conflicting, class-based connotations of luxury and kitsch.

Each bunch of flowers, stems, and leaves is tinted a different set of colours, from natural to artificial. Before disappearing into darkness, the tulips shift through various degrees of life and death—weaving, bending, opening, closing, lolling, rising, and, in one case, collapsing and shrivelling. This video neatly conflates art-historical traditions, including the vanitas—an allegorical form of still life that communicates the fleeting nature of human existence—with wildly questionable financial speculation.

Also in the exhibition, Hirsch’s black-and-white photographs depict the floor of the world’s largest flower auction house, located in Aalsmeer, the Netherlands. Such imagery is seen most forcefully in Garden of Earthly Delights, a large-scale, freestanding, folding screen, reminiscent in form of a theatrical backdrop or an altarpiece. It is, however, bereft of the rich colour you would associate with either—or with a flower market. In this ”after” shot, the vendors, buyers, and vast offerings of flowers are gone and nothing remains except the organizational lines and numbers on the dark tarmac, and a scattering of slips of discarded paper and crumpled lines of tape. Against their black ground, the strewn bits of white are reminiscent of confetti after a wedding—or unidentified galaxies in an alien night sky.

Hirsch’s auction-house images also suggest the inevitable aftermath of greedy, shorsighted speculation. The frenzied making and breaking of fortunes during the time of tulip mania find obvious parallels in the 2008 economic collapse, with its shit-storm of worthless financial paper. Flowers, symbolized here by their conspicuous absence, reintroduce the question of how emotions factor into ideas of value, and into all economic exchanges, large and small.

Also folded into Hirsch’s installation is an examination of the systematization of colours. Specifically, Hirsch looks at the RGB (red-green-blue) model that dominates digital screen technology, successfully in her tulip video, unstill life, less compellingly in her untitled window screens, made of large sheets of lighting gel on wooden frames. Hirsch also incorporates two slightly battered disco balls into her installation, the multiple shards of light that glint off them echoing the scattered bits of paper in her black-and-white photographs. Glitter = litter? Cash = trash? The complexities of desire = particles of longing scattered across the encroaching darkness?

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