Karin Pliem | De natura

Karin Pliem | De natura

Enigmas of Existence

Karin Pliem’s floral cosmologies draw the gaze into unfathomable depths. The eye traverses a seemingly endless, intertwined, opulent terrain of blossoms and umbels, herbaceous grasses, fruits and vines, mycelia and mosses. Behind bursting leaves, flowers, tendrils, and ferns, further plants spring forth, between which the delicate contours of artefacts, African figurines, and masks, the outlines of architectural elements, an arch of triumph, perhaps, and other built structures, animal heads and jellyfish-like tentacles emerge, evoking the vestiges of a vanished world or the indications of a world that is only just unfolding. The artist’s multi-layered, hybrid, delicately nuanced palimpsests oscillate on the verge between becoming and vanishing, between the aggregate states of solidification and dissipation, but also between the energies of nature and culture, which today often run counter to one another. Man is only indirectly present in the shape of his products. In her paintings (as well as in video works that developed from these), seasonal, generic, historical, geographical, and topographical phenomena are conflated into a vibrant visual texture of heterogeneous harmony, or also harmonic dissonance, in which nature assumes a dynamic, multi-coded central role in fluctuating and even divergent manifestations.

The artist’s current exhibition in Vienna is titled De natura, i.e., “on nature,” recalling natural philosophical treatises of the Enlightenment dedicated to the realm of flora. Her engagement with nature in its interaction and clash with the phenomena of culture, systematically includes a transcendence of the boundaries between the places and times, spanning from a recourse to the past to a simultaneous focus on the present in all its volatility and complexity. In her paintings, Karin Pliem gives nature free reign as an impetuous “player” who gives shape to the “creative imagination”1 in turbulent, unrestrained vegetal proliferation, and has served the creative individual as a role model since time immemorial. On the other hand, her nuanced tableaus explore the fine balances that secure our existence on this planet and, if suspended, might in turn endanger it: her works point to the existential drama of our troubled world, in which the equilibrium between nature and civilization, the life-giving forces of organic growth, and the uncontrollable dynamics of economically driven power expansion is subject to increasing disruption.

Karin Pliem composes an ambiguous post-baroque botanical theatrum mundi, uniting plants of the tropics and of alpine mountain landscapes, native flora and vegetation of distant places in her paintings as conjoining these in a floral cabinet of curiosities. At these globe-spanning sites, she examines the “potential alliances between nature and civilization,”2 whose success is made tangible as a possibility, even if this outcome, as the artist envisages as well in her works, is ultimately not guaranteed. She addresses the nature/culture dichotomy from an intra-botanical perspective as well, for instance when she visualizes how the profit-oriented single-crop cultivation of agricultural plants suppresses and extinguishes biodiversity. Or when she investigates the ambivalence of poisonous plants, which can have both healing and toxic effects, this as well being a question of balance, of the appropriate potentiation.

However, despite the inherent warning of the endangerment of the interrelationships on whose equilibrium the survival of the macro- and microcosms governing our systems of human and environmental life depends, the artist’s gracefully abysmal scenarios above all celebrate the rich abundance of existence in its diversity and resistance to the nature- and ultimately also culture-hostile excesses of consumerism and capitalism. In this sense, Karin Pliem’s enigmas of existence, in which we implicitly rediscover ourselves as human beings and encounter ourselves anew in our interactions with our (environmental) world, are both highly political and critical, and filled with great hope. In their vital beauty, the artist’s paintings convey that natural orders may always be restored and that the conflicting forces may finally be reunited again “forming a bond in the comprehensive whole, in the picture and through the picture.”3

Text: Belinda Grace Gardner


1 Cf. Horst Bredekamp, Antikensehnsucht und Maschinenglauben. Die Geschichte der Kunstkammer und die Zukunft der Kunstgeschichte, Berlin (1993), p. 68.

2 Karin Pliem, “Concursus naturae”, in: Destination Wien 2015, exhib. cat., Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2015), p. 301. (quoted from: www.karinpliem.at/de/texte.asp?id=9, June 12, 2019).

3 Ibid.