ON THE NIGHT OF AUGUST 21st, 2018, TWO AMORPHOPHALLUS TITANUM plants bloomed at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, California. Though their impressive botanical collection boasts some 43 specimens, the last time one bloomed at the Huntington was in 2014. Catching wind that there would be corpse flowers aflowering, and knowing that the blooms only last a day or two, I made a beeline (or rather, beetle-line, since the florescence is pollinated by beetles, flies, and other carrion-attracted insects) to the Huntington that next morning. I was glad I did, since one named “STINK” had already finished itself off a few days prior, and another named “STANK” was already partially deflated. “STUNK” was fully open and erect when I arrived conservatively in the greenhouse Conservatory on August 22nd.
Though I had been in the know for years about these botanical masterpieces, and had included them in two paintings in 2009, this was the first time I had seen even just one in the flesh. Hence it was also the first time I smelled one–and, true to mythology, it did indeed waft of fresh rotting flesh. By the morning however the reek was somewhat deodorized in the ever-warm and humid greenhouse, reeking more of a potpourri perfume themed tropical fruity death. While there was a decent crowd of voyeurs taking snaps of the naked botanical celebrities, I saw only one fly sticking around. In lieu of lack of beetles, it just so happened that at 1:15 PM on August 22nd–as can be seen on this Tweet from @TheHuntington–a resident botanist hand pollinated “STANK”–with a paintbrush! This excellent article chronicles the lives of the stinkers as well as the miraculous conception of the process of hand-pollination.
Amorphophallus titanum (whose scientific naming is self-evident upon seeing it) boasts the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence. Growing out of the limestone soil of the rainforests of Sumatra and Java (which are unceremoniously being destroyed via deforestation), it is a member of a type of bloomers called “carrion flowers” or “corpse flowers”. It’s uniquely spotted palm-like herbaceous tree form dies back in preparation for the monumental blooming, which takes place usually only once a decade. Its smell and visual appearance attracts pollinating carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies (Sarcophagidae–named after the sarcophagus, a term which actually means flesh-eating stone). Far from having anything in reality to do with death and decay, the corpse flower is in fact very vibrant and lively. I must admit that in addition to the list stating that “analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the stench includes dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like feces)”, I personally appreciate Wikipedia’s description of the spadix (flower spike) resembling “a large loaf of French bread”. Yum!
Way back in 2009 I did two paintings featuring Amorphophallus titanum. Since I had never seen a corpse flower in the flesh (being restricted to painting from internet-supplied images), seeing and smelling these specimens in person was the literal experience of a part of my paintings from the past come to life in real living flesh and blood. What a trick of magic that is! Sun Ra demonstrated this same type of magic in Space is the Place and elsewhere, stating “I am the living myth”.
Upon revisiting the painting Serpent Queen, I recalled the premise of its inception originating from a dream or vision. I remembered having written down in some notebook about the dream or vision, though I hadn’t revisited that text since I had started the painting in 2008. Nearly 10 years later, I now was able to locate the notebook containing the text which describes the dream. I had written this at 1:00 PM on October 2nd, 2008:
It is clear from the final resulting painting that I had no intention to stick to the literal image presented to me on the page in the dream. At the time of painting I was drawn instead to depict a heavy, dark and damp–womb-like–rainforest environment, which grew from a separate spontaneous vision I had involving a woman wrapped in a snake in the jungle. Plus: I was more interested in painting plants and rabbits at the time than explicit Egyptian or Christian iconography-although such references are indeed there to be found. Indeed, there was just too much to include in one single painting–and still the painting is heavily overgrown! In a different notebook, written while I was working on the painting, I wrote on January 14th, 2009:
(Side note: Having crossed only two weeks into the new year, I hadn’t transitioned to writing the date as 2009, as the above text is dated 1-14-08. Strangely enough the incorrect dating of 2008 continues until 3-4-09, meaning that for two months in that notebook I forgot to note/notice it was no longer 2008. Accidental blips in chronological documentation must prove to be a bitch for archaeologists, I am sure).
According to the info on the digital file, the photograph shown left was taken on October 31st, 2008, at 1:33 AM. Assuming that is correct, I can be fairly certain that instead of going to the CalArts Halloween party like all my other peers at school, I was starting that painting. The veil is just so–very thin–at that time of year that putting on a veil to party hard is usually the last thing I want to do. But even year-round, I had a hard if not impossible time justifying or veiling exactly what I was doing making such paintings within the walls of an educational institution (con)founded upon the hypocritical Postmodern narrative of non-narrativism which was grounded down into the superficial superstitions and high art dogma of the “conceptual”. (And yet ironically in this institutionalized context, no one would have understood any immaculate conceptual jokes). In December of 2009 I exhibited Serpent Queen along with some other paintings, poetry, objects and plants in a corner gallery so prominently located that everyone walking through the institution would pass by the exhibition. Perhaps this conscious corner exhibitionism unconsciously made up for my semi-deliberate avoidance of being cornered academically and publicly, as I really didn’t like to profess the things I am professing now to my professors of the institution at the time. (Why bother talking to the walls of white cube sanitary confinement?). I recall having a successful “review” of the show, but I’ve carelessly forgotten about it. I did however write this poem as as sort of textual addendum to the painting:
Unaccountably at the time of creating Serpent Queen I had also consciously forgotten (or was not thinking about, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to “grow up” or something) the one-off painting titled Apep’s Eclipse I did all the way back in 2002. Rather than stemming spontaneously from a dream, this acrylic painting on wood was simply informed by my spontaneous interest in Egyptian mythology at the time:
The corpse flower is a rare living paradox: through imitation and emulation of death it furthers its botanical life. Its existence embodies a living, botanical mythology worthy of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the Ancient Egyptians, whose secrets, yet to be practically divulged, orbit around the links betwixt life and death. What true mythologies might have been growing in the cultural soil of peoples inhabiting ancient Sumatra and Java? After all, there were pyramid builders in ancient Indonesia.
I just wonder what is going to happen when the Ancients depicted in 2-D form come back to life in 3-D: when the gods of old return like the blooming corpse flower as the living myth