Botanical Speculations

Botanical Speculations

Chapter Four

Gusts in the Hothouse: Aimée Beaubien


Wild,fast-growing vines creep about the garage,slink through the yard, climb upand aroundthe side of our Chicago home.I track their invasive movements.My studio is on the first floor of our house and steps away from the garden.On occasion, I yank out a stranglehold of thickly entwining morning glories, pluck their heart-shaped leaves off and roll rambling trails to dry into large tumbleweeds before they choke too many other plants in our tiny backyard.

I take photographs.I make prints.From my prints, I continue to reconfigure subject matter while reworking images. While examining hand-woven structures, I photograph grass baskets and continue returning to a growing collection of images with the impulse to cut my grass basket photographs apart in order to weave them back together.

 When I first started pushing my cut-up photographs into sculptural forms, I grabbed what was within reach to prop material up during construction. In the process of making, I reached for things in my home like cups, colanders, mixing bowls and vases. Very quickly things from my domestic space travelled with my work and into exhibitions; including a growing collection of lemons that had dried before their sourness could be squeezed. 


[Fig.4.1] Aimée BeaubienChitter-burst-tangle-swell(detail), cut-up pigment prints, wooden dowels, ceramic bowl, glass bottles, ceramic jugs, needle point foot stool, wooden table, and miniature clothespins2015courtesy of the artist Aimée Beaubien

Depictions of a multi-dimensional world rendered flat in prints reach new expressions as I weave visual impressions together. Drooping, pitched and placed.Sloping, jutting, braced.Holding, planted and spread.Leaning, shooting, bedded, staked.My pictured plant forms are constructed through processes of translation, revision, cutting and reassembling; reflecting on the complexity of the garden and of the photographic encounter. 

 Some qualities of the garden run parallel to the nature of photography: both can be defined by interactions of the scientific, the accidental and the temporal. My approach to building installations feels similar to how I treat my tiny backyard garden. My garden in life, and in the life of exhibitions, is much like a large-scale canvas to explore the potentials of wild compositional experiments.


[Fig.4.2] Aimée Beaubien, Hothouse Cuttings(installation view), cut-up pigment prints, color laser prints, paracord, miniature clothespins, hammock swings, grow lights on fabric cord, dried lemons and limes, 2018, courtesy of the artist Aimée Beaubien


Gardens portray time.Interdependent systems grow, bloom, intertwine and die. With live plants coexisting in my studio with photographs of plant matter, I began to incorporate dried botanical elements into my installations. Death is steeped in photography and dried plants alike. 

 Photography images the world as beguiling fragments.Our contemporary lives are lived in a series of interrupted fragments. Sampling and re-mixing are interwoven throughout our daily experiences.Cut-up techniques are employed in literature, music, cinema, visual art and popular culture.

Moments drift. I crowd in with my camera to draw connections through different conditions in a manner that I imagine in which information travels through systems and bodies. The act of replacing a complete image in the process of inventing a new one seems analogous to the ways that I process information and reconstruct memories. I think I know something but that thing and my relationship to it continues to transform.

Working in an exploratory manner,I place myself somewhere not entirely familiarand crowded into situations where I learn as I go.During a residency at the Roger Brown home in New Buffalo, Michigan, I learned that, at one point, Roger had a collection of 50 different varieties of roses on his property.I look with photography. While I looked out of Roger’s windowsI re-assembled ribbons of cut photographs into flexible interlocking structures,mimicking the plant movements in front of me. 

Many photographic gestures can be traced back to photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot. Geoffrey Batchen wrote of Talbot’s photograph of honeysuckle from 1844: “Talbot crowds his camera into the bush of flowering honeysuckle, resulting in a remarkably three-dimensional picture. Looking at this image, we feel as though we too are peering into these branches, our field of vision totally filled by its light-dappled petals and stems. The photograph is at once realist and abstract, and thus points to a paradoxical aspect of photographic vision that many future practitioners would also learn to exploit.”[1]

Throughout the seasons and over her lifetime, my great-grandmother Gertrude photographed the changing conditions in her garden.The many ways that she used her camera to look closely to discover a jack in the pulpitand to hold onto ephemeral matter—like her short-lived blooming peonies—have always loomed large in my imagination. Often my great-grandmother included detailed information about what was not available in her front facing views: “Here’s a picture of my mums.They were 4 inches across.Everyone stopped to look at them!”[2]

I have a timeline of photographic processes over Gertrude’s lifetime and fragmented views into her enduring fascination with the things that grew around my great-grandmother.Her color palates, eccentric compositions, and written observations of what wasn’t picturedwere my first point of photographic contactand remain my most enduring guide.I remember hesitating a long while before declaring the garden as subject,the garden as point of departure.I am an artist with 1970’s toile wallpaper of romantic pastoral scenes still hanging in what is now the entryway to my studio.I am an artist working with family photos.I am an artist photographing flowers. While these categories may only suggest my gender,they do not attest to my dedicated experimentation with the flexibility of photographic imagesand the materiality of photographs for over three decades.My earliest photographic impulses came of a desire to draw attention to how pictures are constructed. 

 I use photography to record my responses to present conditions in color, pattern, structure, and place. I continue to photograph in my garden, my mother’s garden, as well as public and private gardens while keeping my great-grandmother’s observations in mind.An anthropologist approached me after I presented some of my plant related works at the Botanical Speculations Symposium.[3]She spoke of research about photonic sensation and photonic choreographyas it relates to what she could see demonstrated in the ways that I make my work. 'add period'Charles Darwin was entangled in the daily rhythms of life. His home and garden were experimental spaces where he entered into what has been called a sensory partnership with his subjects.He moved and was moved by subjects in nature.

My work is driven by the transformative potential between image and material, and by the generative and cumulative strategies of making. I use photography to hold onto a short-lived and waning bloom as others have before me. Comprised of partial views, my constructions make physical seams visible where fragments meet and overlap.Collage and sculpture are intertwined in their material making for me.Photography optically frames and records traces of materiality,object becomes image, and then cut-up and woven back into an object again.

I use collage to investigate oscillations between photographic depiction and material form.What may be perceived in my entanglements slips between recognition and abstraction:from a sky, an apple in a tree, into topography.I take whatever I have pointed to with my camera and convert it into tangled inventionsthat overlap and intersect;upending conventions of foreground, middle-ground, background;and flipping expectations of subject, object, and motion. Experience morphs into fields of color and pattern and back again.

My studio is marked by cycles of processes at various stages of development. Hanging dried and drying plants mingle with huge tangles of cut and woven photographic pieces. Matter dangles down from the ceiling in states of progress and decay. Marked by seasonality, by various internal cycles of life moving at different speeds, gardens are conveyors of time from the evolutionary to the ephemeral.I photograph the ever-changing conditions in my studio, as plants dry and projects grow.

Each fall microscopic cells designed like scissors appear where the leaf stem meets the branch to push the leaf away. I excised leaf shapes from my photographs, leaving their rectangular backgrounds intact. The negative spaces within these remnants become an evocative frame suggesting the inevitability of fallen leaves while also resembling dappled light through a canopy of trees. As I stack and bind remainders together, I am reminded of the collection of pages in a book. It is noted that in 1,789 poems, Emily Dickinson refers to plants nearly 600 times. The herbarium collection she created contains more than 400 plant specimens. Archeologists have been uncovering and restoring Emily Dickinson’s garden in an effort to better understand her personal physical world and source of imagination.[4]


[Fig.4.3] Aimée Beaubien, Cuttings (detail), 142 page spiral bound artist book, 2017, courtesy of the artist and the Donut Shop Aimée Beaubien

Gardens are collections.They are nature gathered together in public space or private refuge.Interdependent systems grow, bloom, multiply, intertwine and die. Photography is used for many purposes that extend far and wide.Concentrated material investigation guides new developments in my work.I use photographic paper as sculptural material testing the flexibility of printed images. With photography, I weave visual impressionstogether.

What is building inside my studio is connected to what is happening on the outside and inside of our tiny garden. The excitement of spring’s arrival in my garden inevitably makes its way into my work as moments from my everyday have become integrated into the structures of my sculptures and installations.I interact with familiar photographic observations and push them into something else.Forward or backward, reaching or touching, pulling between inside and out.I think I know somethingbut that thingand my relationship to itcontinues to transform. I put things together with photographs because they are charged with the specificity of a caught momentthat is inherently associated with the medium.


[Fig. 4.4] Aimée Beaubien, Collecting Within(detail). Artist book with a stack of 60 accordions in origami cube, 2017, courtesy of the artist Aimée Beaubien


When vines started growing on one side of our home, I followed their growth patterns. In my garden installations, cut photographic forms interweave, encircleand hang; trail in ribbon-like shredsand become wild ornamental outgrowthsas I move with and am moved by living forms. The vine wrapping around our home finally reached my second-floor bedroom and climbed into my dreams.I could feel the vine pass through the window just one foot from where I sleep and enter into the left side of my body while woven elements from my work travelled in from the right to meet somewhere in the middle for an entwining dance.

As objects from my home have made their way into my work, I have found parallels to respond to in different exhibition environments. Each new version in an ongoing series of Hothouseworks offers a garden space defined by interactions of order and disorder. Bold leaf shapes and twisting ribbons of color entwine, dangle, cluster and creep in makeshift exhibitions. The conditions of different exhibition sites inform a new chain of experiential shifts between visual representation and the physical encounter. Gusts in the Hothouse was a completely enclosed terrarium for my garden photos. I placed grow lights and a household oscillating fan inside the glass box to keep my double-sided photographs gently swaying with movement and suggestive of living things soaking up the magenta glow.


[Fig.4.5] Aimée Beaubien, Gusts in the Hothouse,2016, cut-up pigment prints, paracord, miniature clothespins, grow lights, oscillating fan, 2016, courtesy of the artist Aimée Beaubien

InCamera Lucida,[5]Roland Barthes wrote about his relationship to a photograph of his mother when she was a child and standing in a glassed-in plant conservatory.This winter garden photograph that we never see, is the catalyst for a deeply personal investigation into the nature of photographs that includes meditations on the relationship of images to death, time, memory and desire.I re-photographed a teeny, tiny photo Gertrude took of a woman in a flowing flower print dress,absorbed in a weepingcherry tree. Then I cut and wove it together with photographs that I had taken over 20 years ago in the Palm House Conservatory at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. 



[Fig.4.6] Aimée Beaubien, Taken, cut-up pigment prints, 2017, courtesy of the artist Aimée Beaubien

Gardens are solace: of leisure, labor, and our attention.They are displays for botanical taxonomies, for our fascination with nature and our desire to order it. In 1989, I walked with my mother through Claude Monet’s spectacular garden where he lived and worked from 1883 until 1926. I look closely into an amazing garden my mother continues to create and think that I see glimpses of the interior life of someone I find hard to know. I recognize patterns in the things I photograph. A still image is never really as static and frozen as it may appear. 

Different seeing areas in the brain map the scene to string together movement, color, depth, and shapein order to organize an impression informed by the many observed parts. I reorganize available visual information, modifying the experience and speed of recognition.How much can I cut away?What will agitate associations? I put things together and tear them apart in performances of revision.I vacillate between producing connective momentsand making active gestures extending marks across the field of view,often creating turbulent conditions. 

Directed by experience, feeling, thought and uncertainty;between the focus on the line and the focus on the edge and the field of focus presented in the photograph.I construct collisions between what appears on the surface of imagesand what is made absent through acts of incising and extracting.

One image becomes the starting point and then I build picture-relationshipswhile drawing connections between different pictured conditions.Often there are pictures inside of pictures and shapes that I have reshaped.I travel through illusionistic planes to create these tangles, knots, and webs,as I weave an emotive fabric together.Through it all, I continue to manipulate my photographs into becoming a series of moving parts,pushing their capacity to change and to transform experimenting with the many ways that I can alter the sensation of reading a photo. 

Where does meaning appear on the surface of things captured?Propelled by the provocative nature of the push and pull between recognition and abstraction,I fill openings, re-write moments and rework experiences, as is often the case in the act of recollecting.While the individual photographic components may be easily reproduced it is my hand that makes each of these thousands of cuts.I never bring all of these elements together in precisely the same manner more than once.

Subjects are veiled, environments turned upside down, cut open and apart. Before cutting up any photographs from Gertrude’s archive, I transcribe all of her captions.On the back of her fading, partial view of Hawaii from October 1965, she wrote: “Put these rainbow pictures together and you see whole rainbow.”[6]I keep looking for all of the others. While photography offers a realistic window onto the world I continue changing the shapes of my windows.


Giovanni Aloi:How are your intricate installations stored after they come down, and of course you can reverse that question, how are they set up? They look extremely laborious and delicate. So, that's my question ‘A’. My question B which is “what's the role of beauty, in a classical sense, in your work?”

Aimée Beaubien: I've lots of different storing methods. A lot of things are affixed to my ceiling. Oh, I will say that I was the first artist to ever deliver artwork in giant garbage bags to the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and the curators thought it was hilarious. So, yes, there's artwork all over the place in bags, underneath, and on top of things, everywhere. I do reuse all materials, and so I am always trying to take things apart and put things back together and find new ways to push the material around. 

Our relationship to beauty isn’t purely subjective when external influences shape beauty standards. While my work possesses characteristicsof beauty I haven’t felt compelled to isolate a flower to proclaim its supreme beauty. Rather, I build lush, layered environments and create a complex of interconnectedness that embraces the complicated nature of beauty.

Audience:Plants have been objectified in the history of representation — this applies to painting as well as it does to photography. Does your work comply or challenge past notions of objectification?

Beaubien: I use my camera to look closely at plants. Through this open-ended close-looking approach I create collections of printed records to look at again and again. Often, I distort scale relationships, push color around and cut my notations up to completely reorganize the material and experience. I weave together prints on paper to build a series of interdependent components used to construct immersive environments. These paper-objects are not fixed in order to explore alternative configurations for each exhibition. I pay attention to plant movements and explore potential sensations through the many ways that I weave my impressions together. While observing plants and following vines, I think about ways to translate their gestures and patterns of growth through the conditions that I create. 

Aloi:What are the specific technical challenges that working with collaged three-dimensional pieces entail? I am thinking more specifically about the materiality of the photographic medium, its durability, and fragility.

 Beaubien:At first, I built terrible fragile sculptures of woven photographs that teetered and wobbled on precarious stacks of furniture. Only the tension in the weave of the prints held my photo sculptures together making everything ridiculously difficult to transport. Now I make components that are much easier to move around and manipulate in direct response to each specific exhibition space. I play with weight and balance while constructing makeshift networked systems. Everything I make is laborious. The processes I naturally gravitate towards require time, energy, patience, and skill. I have tested many different inkjet paper types to determine what materials hold up to a certain degree of handling required in the making of my layered installations. Some physical stresses can be too much for the paper to bear. Through experimentation, I continue to discover crucial make-or-break thresholds in my studio to be better prepared for what may occur when on location installing new works.  

Audience:What plants do you grow in your garden and what framework of ideas justifies the inclusion of some plants and the exclusion of others? Do you have favourite plants? 

Beaubien:A scraggly rose, hens-and-chicks, bee balm, daylilies, mint, wild strawberry, Queen Anne’s lace and moss were in the yard before we arrived and have a strong will to survive. We transplanted much from the first garden I worked on with my husband when we moved about a decade ago. Spring flowers may be my favorite after extra-long cold seasons in Chicago. During the waning days of winter excitement builds with the first emerging crocus followed by patches of daffodils, hyacinth, tulips, allium, bleeding hearts and every year I regret having not planted more bulbs. We introduce a little something here and there to see what might happen in relationship to already established Solomon’s seal, lungwort, brown-eyed Susan, clematis, peonies, purple coneflower, lupine and varieties of hostas, columbine, sedum, lilies, ferns, and hydrangea. Pots are placed on shelves running along the length of the garage and are filled with herbs and some annuals. A wild grape vine from three houses over began wrapping itself around our garage a few years ago and now climbs one side of our home. I fight with morning glories throughout the growing season but let some grow along our shared fences. I track their growth patterns and yank them out in bulk whenever their stranglehold on neighboring plants appears to threaten. Some of our oldest plants were gifts from friends splitting specimens in their thriving gardens. We never have a master garden plan but after answering this question I actually have greater appreciation for what is happening in such a tiny city yard!



[1]Batchen, Geoffrey, and Fox Talbot, William Henry (2008) William Henry Fox Talbot.Phaidon Press

[2]Handwritten on verso, c-print, circa 1950’s, from archive: Gertrude Bastien, born 12, Mar. 1985, died Sept. 1982.

[3]“Botanical Speculations Symposium.” School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 29 Sept. 2017,

[4]Farr, Judith (2016) The Lost Gardens of Emily Dickinson, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 

[5]Barthes, Roland, and Howard, Richard. (1981)Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. (New York City: Hill and Wang)

[6]Handwritten on verso, c-print, Oct. 1965, from archive: Gertrude Bastien.