The Gaia Hypothesis
Chapter Two – Palm Trees Also Die
Fall 2023 - Winter 2024
This exhibition is dedicated to the Cahuilla Nation, protectors and stewards of the Oases in the Western Deserts.
Palm Trees Also Die is the second chapter in THE ELEMENTAL's inaugural cycle of exhibitions. The aim of this cycle is to develop the visual, sensitive and performative writing of a collective, imaginary novel dedicated to the Gaia Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis formulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis at the dawn of the 70s, Gaia is the name given to the Earth defined as a living, self-regulating super-organism that maintains a positive balance for life. With the Gaia Hypothesis, we are invited to reconsider the ways we inherited from Modernity of understanding and thinking about the environment. What's more, we are called upon to think differently about living things, to understand the subtle interdependencies that link all their components. The Earth is not the backdrop to our actions, but an actor in human history in its own right, never separate from us, whatever the Moderns may think. Gaia, as a living organism, reacts to our actions in a set of "feedback loops", as climate change and environmental disasters perfectly illustrate. We are linked to the Earth and we must understand her fragility, which is in reality, not hers but ours.
After our first chapter dedicated to the four fundamental elements, the Palm Tree is the subject of the second chapter. This exhibition has a strong symbolic dimension, given the location. Indeed, the Coachella Valley is the birthplace of the only palm tree endemic to the California deserts: the Washingtonia Filifera, or Máwul in the Cahuilla language.
Let us now recount the origin of the "Palm Trees Also Die" exhibition. The intuition for this show emerged right here, during a visit to Palm Springs in December of 2019. This trip was the first moment of discussion between Catherine Dobler, Cristopher Cichocki and myself, Christopher Yggdre, around the project of building a center for the arts in the heart of the Western Deserts. This center was intended to be a place for dialogue, relationships and sharing, a place imagined between Paris and Palm Springs, a place that would question the filiations and continuities of Earth & Land Art, Eco-Art, Bio-Art, Light and Space, as well as the importance of life and ecology in contemporary artistic creation, a place for research and creation. During our stay, Catherine Dobler and I were delighted to discover the Twentynine Palms Oasis. We owe this admirable "wild garden" to the Cahuilla Nation. The place inspires an enigmatic call to question the traces and memories of primordial alliances with the Palm.
These alliances have never been forgotten by the Cahuilla Nation. Since time immemorial, they have nurtured a reasoned, symbiotic relationship with the oases and palm groves of the Coachella Valley. They have preserved fruitful bonds between the living community - flora and fauna - and the palm trees. What's more, according to one of their founding stories recounted by Francisco Patencio in his book Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, we owe the Sungrey People the first Palm Tree on Earth:
“One of the head men of the people of Sungrey felt that his time was about gone. His years among his people were many, and he must be prepared to go. This man wanted to be a benefit to his people, so he said: ‘I am going to be a palm tree. There are no palm trees in the world. My name shall always be Moul (palm tree). From the top of the earth to the end of the earth my name shall be Moul.
“So he stood up very straight and very strong and very powerful, and soon the bark of the tree began to grow around him, and the green leaves grew from the top of his head. And so he passed from the sight of his people.
“Now the people were settled all about the country in many places, but they all came to the Indian Well, to eat of the fruit of the palm tree. The meat of the fruit was not so large, but it was sweet like honey, and was much enjoyed by everybody animals and birds too. The people carried the seed to their homes, and palm trees grew from this seed in many places. The palm trees in every place came from this first palm tree, but, like the people who change in customs and language, the palms often were somewhat different, but all, every one of them, came from this first palm tree, the man who wanted to be a benefit to his people.”
The ancestral knowledge held by so many of the world's peoples could be a resource for thinking differently about our relationship with our environment. The exhaustion of the logics of exploitation and extraction of living matter is obvious today, but we are still far from having fully understood the importance of certain imaginaries as well as the poetics, too long disregarded or ignored, for thinking differently about our relationship with the Earth. The vision and poetics of the Cahuilla Nation are of the highest importance. Reading ethnohistorian Lowell John Bean's book, From Immemorial Time, his writing about the Cahuilla World View struck me: a fundamental concept of life. There is already the understanding that life is a set of subtle interdependencies in which we are all involved:
“Since the beginning of time, a strong and unpredictable force or energy, ‘iva a’ had been a part of all things. This creative force or power was neither good nor bad. The ‘iva a’ could suddenly leave an area causing earthquakes, floods, droughts, or other natural disasters. (…) If treated correctly, ‘iva a’ was beneficial, but if treated improperly, it could cause serious harm. (…) Since human action could have an effect on other parts of the system, humans who were holders of power like all other beings had to act responsibly, which involved protection of other life forms. For example, Cahuillas would not waste the plants they used for food. To be responsible to the universal system, they did not take all the edible parts of a plant or all seeds. They left something to help the plant grow again.”
Historian William Cronon has perfectly captured the ambiguity of Wilderness. Where Moderns see nature as immaculate, virgin and wild, other human communities, keepers of immemorial knowledge, know how to perceive nature as sustained, protected and preserved in a relationship of symbiosis instead of domination and exploitation.
“They tell us that plants are perishable, soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this, I think, is something that we know very nearly nothing about. Anyhow, this palm was indescribably impressive and told me grander things than I ever got from human priest.” John Muir
“A lot of people who love palms have that feeling that you're dealing with our elders-with great, great antiquity-that have been here a long time, and they know more about the Earth, in some ways, than we do.”
W. S. Merwyn
The Palm Tree has an importance in the history of humanities that is beyond our imagination. No migration, no human history, would have been possible without the protection of the Palm and the resources it offers. This is why the Palm has been and remains a sacred plant for so many peoples and civilizations. There's a definition of the Earth that says: "The Earth is a sphere encircled by palm trees.”
This belt formed by the palm trees covers tropical, desert and semi-desert regions. We owe the Oasis to the Palm. The etymology of the word Oasis goes back to ancient Egyptian and refers to the place of habitation. Here, we must understand the dwelling place as a space shared by the community of all living beings. According to an Arab proverb, the date palm must have its feet in the water and its head in the fire. Palms are among the few plants that can resist the Sun's fire. Their stipe acts as insulation. The Oasis should be understood as a reasoned garden, a shared creation between the palm community and the human community. In the Oasis, the palm trees form a canopy under which trees and plants can live and develop without being burnt by the incandescence of the Sun. Palm trees draw water from deep underground, more than fifteen meters away, and return it to the surface by sweating. The vaulting of the palms preserves humidity and helps to share the water between all residents of the Oasis. What the palm tree takes from the earth, individually, it restores and distributes.
The "Palm Trees Also Die" exhibition is all about hearing what the Palm Tree has to say to us as a privileged witness to our history and giving it a status beyond its ornamental qualities so prized by artists and poets. We need to learn the languages of the Palm. If we listened to it, the Palm might exhort us to remember primordial alliances. Without doubt, it would tell us the absurdity of transplanting it, it would tell us the madness of deforesting to exploit it in disproportionate plantations, it would tell us the shame of the colonial history it has been witness to, it would tell us the nonsense of its presence in urban density.
A history of art could be written from the sole point of view of the presence of the Palm tree. The Palm tree is the first plant to have been represented in the history of humanities. Representations of palm trees in the Libyan desert date back to prehistoric times. The palm tree is familiar to us through its silhouette, its ancient and contemporary representations, yet it is irreducibly distant and foreign. It's commonplace to associate the Palm with the word Paradise, but we must remember that the Palm can just as easily be associated with Hell, that of the slave trade, colonial massacres, and pillaging.
The Palm is the infinite plant that has been most anthropomorphized. The words used to describe it bear witness to this: palm comes from the palm of the hand, date from the finger, and we refer to the central part of the stipe as the heart or brain. Finally, the Palm's life expectancy is close to that of a human being, a little over a hundred years. This anthropomorphism could well be a "palmomorphism" in a reversal of points of view.
We should also mention the extraordinary qualities of the palm tree, its resistance to fire and the strongest winds, which in recent years have made it an omnipresent player in images of extreme climatic phenomena.
The title of the exhibition is a direct reference to "Statues Also Die" by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet. The latter was one of France's first critics of the Western, colonial perception of African art. This perception confines art from the African continent to artifacts whose sole value is anthropological.
The purpose of this exhibition is to present the Palm Tree as a living subject with much to tell us. The exhibition interweaves narratives, representations and lines of flight through which the Palm tree manifests itself both inside and outside us.
Ed Ruscha's famous book "A Few Palm Trees", published in 1971, features sixteen black-and-white photographs taken in the city of Los Angeles from a western perspective. Ed Rusha erases the urban backdrop to preserve only the palm tree and its silhouette, underscoring the solitude of palm trees in the megalopolis. Beyond its conceptual dimension, "A Few Palm Trees" makes each palm tree a subject worthy of portraiture and attention. In a leap through time and space, Rebecca Webb's "Big Bang (2023)" makes the palm tree a primordial being whose origins merge with those of the Universe, blending the silhouette of a palm tree with an image of the large taken by the James Webb telescope. Rachid Bouhamidi, born of a French mother and a Moroccan father right here in Palm Springs, has created an oil painting of a imaginary palm tree, at the crossroads of all his origins, which overflows the frame to spread across the wall. Writer Tahar Ben Jelloun sees in Rachid Bouhamidi's painting "a large window open onto light and wonder". Charlotte Charbonnel's "Phantasma" (2022) is a photograph printed on fabric taken in Djerba, Tunisia, the image acts as a mirage, what we believe to be the stipe of a palm tree are tire tracks, we understand that the palm fronds are their reflections in a water that seems doomed to disappear. "Carlsbad Mansion Pool" (2014) by Jeff Frost is an image taken from his film about the Californian megafires, whose cyclical nature is a direct consequence of the climate disruption caused by the massive release of CO2 into the atmosphere. The installation plays with the reminiscence of wallpapers depicting tropical island landscapes, with silhouettes of palm trees bathed in the light of a sunset. These wallpapers were meant to brighten up the cold, anonymous interiors of megacity apartments and businesses, but here the installation acts as a warning, with the isolated, fragile silhouette of the palm tree silhouetted against the light of the megafire underlining its tragedy. Mehdi-Georges Lahlou's "Natures Mortes" (2023) are photographs of palm trees enhanced with gold like icons, part of a vast project led by the artist entitled "La Conférence des Palmiers" (The Palm Tree Conference), which, in successive layers, unfolds a place for listening to the soul of the Palm tree. Diego Ascencio Fuentes, with his series of eight diptychs entitled "It's the questions that went unasked that appear when time has passed" (2023) - each diptych is composed of a photograph and a time-stamped painting - invites us to understand the landscape through its shapes and colors, but also through the unthought and forgotten that are palm trees. The series shows the incredible chromatic diversity of the same landscape on the same day. Francesca Gabbiani's "Hot Panorama V" (2023), a subtle combination of painting, collage and paper-cutting techniques, invites us to take in the sight of burning palms, but here, perhaps, we should perceive a regenerative fire. Robert Smithson's "Upside Down Tree II" (1969) is an invitation to turn viewpoints upside down, planting a palm tree in Florida upside down. Chris Sanchez's "Thermal Excavation" (2023) is a bas-relief, an archaeological piece from the future, composed of palm fronds and industrial artifacts that he collects in the Coachella Valley and assembles in a tangle of references and symbols for us to decipher. Vincent Lamouroux's "Projection View 4" (2015) is a test photograph of his site-specific installation in a former motel in Los Angeles, which involved covering the entire architecture of the motel and its palm trees with lime, creating a sense of strangeness. Bill Leigh Brewer's photograph, "Rice, Mojave Desert" (2020), reveals a sense of incoherence and melancholy. His palm tree, a Washingtonia Filifera, is a displaced person, a transplanted person, an exile in his own region faced with contemporary ruins. Katrin Ströbel's immense installation "Goree" (2011), consisting of an enlarged drawing agitated by the blowing of fans, can be understood as the tragedy of palm trees having witnessed deportation and slave trade. "Goree" is an island off the coast of Dakar known for having been one of the places where slave trade and slavery were organized.
Finally, Zoe Crosher's bronze sculptures, “LA-LIKE: Prospecting Palm Fronds”, made from palm fronds that have fallen to the ground in Los Angeles, lie on the ground like mourners, Palm Trees Also Die...