preserve ‘beauty’ is an installation work composed of bright red flowers arranged in four adjacent rectangular compositions underneath large panes of clear glass. The flowers are presented in a single layer with their heads facing out towards the viewer, and their stalks are positioned downwards, so that the lower edge of each panel features a band of green made up of the stems of the bottom row of flowers. The type of flower used in the installation is a hybrid between a gerbera and a daisy that is known by the name ‘beauty’. During the period in which preserve ‘beauty’ is displayed, the flowers wither and die, and this decay process is visible to viewers through the glass. Due to the shrinkage of the flowers as they rot, the glass panels require adjustment over the period of display, and the dead flowers often fall out of the glass and decompose further on the floor. Viewers experience the installation through their sense of smell, as well as visually: they encounter either the smell of the flowers when they are fresh or their rotting odour as they decay, depending on the amount of time that has lapsed since the work was put on display.
The work was made by the British conceptual artist Anya Gallaccio in 1991 for an installation in the window of Karsten Schubert gallery in London. For this display, Gallaccio used eight hundred flowers and compressed them between the gallery window and a single plane of glass, so that the flowers faced outwards for passersby to see. The natural decay that the flowers undergo over time means that Gallacio has reassembled the work many times since 1991, and in different locations. To install the work each time, Gallaccio lays one of the glass panels on the floor, arranging the flowers in rows and attaching them to the glass with long pieces of dental floss. The panels are then raised vertically and secured to the wall, and the dental floss is cut and removed, leaving the flowers in place. The number of flowers used each time varies, but Gallaccio generally includes between sixteen hundred and two thousand for each installation, depending on the sizes of the flowers’ heads.
Gallaccio has made several installations throughout her career that incorporate materials which decay over time, including ice, fruit and sugar, as well as other works using real flowers. The title of this installation makes reference to the act of preservation that Gallaccio carries out by placing her flowers under glass. It also employs the double meaning of the word ‘beauty’ – referring to the name of the type of flower and the concept of beauty in general. Gallaccio used this title formulation for another 1991 work, preserve ‘cheerfulness’, which is a much larger work consisting of more than eight thousand narcissus flowers pressed between two six-foot-square panes of glass and laid on the floor. When viewed with their titles in mind, especially when the flowers have begun to decay, these works suggest that positive experiences such as those of beauty and cheerfulness are by their nature temporary, and that attempts to preserve them may be futile.
Positioned neatly behind glass, the flowers in preserve ‘beauty’ recall still-life and romantic landscape paintings, as well as traditionally feminine pursuits such as flower arranging and pressing. Gallaccio has described the gerbera daisies she uses as a type of readymade – an everyday, often mass-produced object that is made extraordinary through appropriation by an artist for use in an installation (Horlock, Reitmaier and Schama 2002, p.43). As the curator Ralph Rugoff has observed, ‘[s]centless and mass-produced all year round as disposable commodities, there is in fact little that is “natural” about gerberas’ (Rugoff 1999, p.12). Gallaccio’s work focuses on this overlap between commodity culture and natural objects, specifically in relation to the wastage and decay that is usually hidden from consumers. In an interview in 2000 she stated that: ‘[w]e experience so much of the world at a mediated and sanitised distance, so I try to make art that is not complicit with this structure’ (Gallaccio 2000, p.3).
Given the ephemeral nature of the flowers used in preserve ‘beauty’, the appearance of the work changes continuously as a consequence of organic processes that are beyond the control of the artist or the viewer. Both parties act as witnesses to the work’s inevitable decomposition, and as such preserve ‘beauty’ can be understood as a kind of performance. Gallaccio has described her work as ‘theatrical’, claiming that ‘[w]hat interests me is the performance between myself and the material and being alive to the particularities of each individual opportunity’ (Gallaccio 2000, p.3). Accordingly, Gallaccio does not see herself as the sole ‘author’ of her work, and instead views installations such as preserve ‘beauty’ as a temporary collaborations between her and the viewer that invite reflection on the themes of ‘place, time, life, decay, death, beauty and renewal’ (Gallaccio 2000, p.3).
Ralph Rugoff, Anya Gallaccio: Chasing Rainbows, Glasgow and Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1999, reproduced pp.40–1.
Anya Gallaccio, ‘Response to a Space’, a-n (For Artists), November 2000, p.3.
Mary Horlock, Heidi Reitmaier and Simon Schama, Anya Gallaccio: Beat, London 2002, reproduced p.41.
Supported by Christie’s.