A Conversation between Norman Rosenthal & Robert Grunenberg
Palm trees are symbolic mutants. They cushioned Jesus’s donkey ride to Jerusalem, lined the streets of Los Angeles’s televised police chases, and became the torch for the tanned leisure class. Between April 27 and June 30, the most recognizable tree on Earth is presented at Salon Dahlmann and Robert Grunenberg Berlin. “Paradise Is Now. Palm Trees in Art” features palmy works from artists like David Hockney, Simon Speiser, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Alicja Kwade, Secundino Hernández, and Raf Simons. As the exhibition’s curators Robert Grunenberg and curator Norman Rosenthal discuss in this interview, the perennial plant casts a mercurial shadow, rolling through happiness, devastation, and decadence.
Robert Grunenberg: I wanted to start with a personal question. What is your idea of happiness?
Norman Rosenthal: (…)
Norman Rosenthal: What is yours?
Robert Grunenberg: Being with loved ones and music – music is perfect happiness.
Robert Grunenberg: Why do you think there is a longing for a place like paradise?
Norman Rosenthal: We all want a better world, don’t we? We all want a world of peace, we all want a world of plenty, we all want a world of pleasure, all those things. Peace, plenty, pleasure – three Ps, if you like, as I would call them at this moment. And maybe palm trees are a very good symbol of that for all sorts of different reasons. One looks at David Hockney’s pictures of paradise in Los Angeles, which is definitely at least an illusion of peace, plenty, and pleasure.
Robert Grunenberg: Art takes you away. It can have an escapist power. The palm tree as a symbol encapsulates this idea of “Fernweh,” a longing for distant places.
Norman Rosenthal: I agree, and would add that the palm tree is one of the very best symbols for that hope and one of the best emblems for that state of paradise. Palm trees and references to them occur throughout the visual and literary remnants of all the ancient Mediterranean cultures, from Sumer to Egypt and beyond, down to our own times. The very first depictions go back to Egyptian and Greek ornament. They usually represent luxury and triumph – witness the famous “entry into Jerusalem,” Palm Sunday, with everyone waving palm tree branches.
Norman Rosenthal: Do you know of the earliest depiction of paradise where palm trees played a role?
Robert Grunenberg: Notions of paradise are cross-cultural and difficult to date. They go back to the old Egyptian beliefs of an otherworld called Aaru. Ideas of paradise are often depicted with pastoral imagery and may be cosmological or eschatological. In paradise, there is only peace, prosperity, and happiness, a “higher place,” the holiest place, in contrast to the world, underworld, or hell. In classical Greek you find the Elysian fields, a land of plenty where the heroic dead hoped to spend eternity. The word paradise goes back to the old Iranian word “paridayda,” “walled enclosure.” Which could be connected to the idea of the Garden of Eden, that later in medieval time was called “Hortus Conclusos.” Palm trees appear in many art historical depictions of Eden.
Robert Grunenberg: The palm tree, nowadays, in a world that is mostly secularized, still keeps a promise of happiness. Would you agree?
Norman Rosenthal: Our own culture now at every level, high and low, has been obsessed with the palm tree. As soon as you start looking, there they are – from the proverbial Hawaiian shirt to the Bacardi advertisement. It’s dangerous to take it too seriously, you just have to take it as a poetic metaphor. There is something that is worth exploring in art. There’s a variety of how artists have used the palm tree: the David Hockney type of palm tree, the Kiefer kind of palm tree, if you like, even the Marcel Broodthaers kind of palm tree. As the idea of paradise.
I had a very funny experience recently when I was at Art Basel in Hong Kong. There was this very long, wide corridor to the men’s bathroom and along this long corridor on both sides were these wonderful palm trees and they looked like a Marcel Broodthaers installation. I said this to a friend of mine who was absolutely ravished at my idea, took masses of photographs – and there you are. Palm trees have a pleasurable aspect to them, even on the way to the bathroom.
Robert Grunenberg: I think that today most artists and other cultural producers reference the palm tree as an emblem for hedonism, exoticism, and wanderlust, and often also for the downside of these associations. If the nineteenth century discovered the palm as an image onto which to project utopian notions of the departure for a new world – in the paintings of Paul Gauguin, it is the quintessentially exotic and foreign sight – these treatments of the tree in postwar and contemporary art illustrate that the iconography of the palm has become a complicated affair.
Norman Rosenthal: You have an example for that?
Robert Grunenberg: Marcel Broodthaers employs the potted and domesticated date palm, an erstwhile ensign of imperialist power, as a physical component in his sprawling installations and constituent part of the institutional critique they articulate. His iconic Jardin d’Hiver (1974) is represented in the exhibition by a series of photographs taken by the artist. Sigmar Polke creates images of palms with ironic overtones that satirize postwar Germany and the petit-bourgeois aspirations of its citizens, but he is also not above associating his own yearnings with its shape. The Dutch artist Willem de Rooij’s art evinces a more contemplative cast. He gathers dried palm fronds spotted in the streets of Los Angeles and ties them together in a large bouquet. The palm trees in the poorer neighborhoods of the megalopolis are dying, and in de Rooij’s work, the withered palm makes a sober gesture as a symbol of the impermanence of prosperity, social decline, and the brutality of global trade as well as ongoing environmental devastation. Still, most of us continue to see the palm as a symbol of happiness.
Robert Grunenberg: The idea of paradise is connected to a state of happiness and bliss. If you look into what sociologists write about the current state of the world and societies all over the world, not only in the Western world, it’s said there’s never been this much peace, there’s never been so much plenty, there’s never been so much pleasure.
Norman Rosenthal: Obviously, we, who are born in the West and privileged to grow up in the West with a certain amount of prosperity behind us, we’ve never had it so good. At the same time, things can turn around in the flip of a moment and, you know, world wars can start and suddenly this becomes a nightmare. Paradise can become a nightmare. Equally, the nightmare can turn into paradise. You never quite know, but artists at times have been very good at describing paradise.
Paradise is Now. Palm Trees in Art is published by Hatje Cantz (2018). The exhibition “Paradise is Now. Palm Trees in Art” at Salon Dahlmann can be visited until June 30th, 2018.