Kate Owens: 28 Day Flower Diary by Laura Noble
From Hotshoe, summer 2010
Cecil Beaton once said, ‘Keep a diary. One day that diary will keep you.” In Kate Owens case this may turn out to be true. In her series 28 Day Flower Diary Owens explores her own diary entries over the course of 28 days through profound imagery - utilising the components of her photographs with the aesthetics of text - to procure beautiful deeply multifaceted meaning within each print.
By extending the visual language to incorporate the text, her work is akin to a Victorian botanical study. Complete with carefully chosen fonts - separated into a diary entry and the naming of the flowers pictured with their meanings - Owens constructs a fuller picture to take us into her psyche. Each day brings changes in language, mood and floral assemblages. The inherent beauty of the flowers draws the viewer closer. This beauty however is fleeting. Her flowers cut down in their prime poised to wilt and die, yet stay frozen, perfect before Owens lens for time in memorial. The flowers in Bouquet 26 burst out of the darkness like a firework display, reflecting the chaotic and profound thoughts and questions Owens asks her diary. She escapes the usual linear form of narrative, choosing instead to address the erratic nature of life with all its twists and turns and illogical conclusions.
This visual and literary pursuit acts as a self-portrait without seeing the subject in the traditional way. Owens use of language is honest and revealing without the ultimate reveal. Because of this we are invited to impart our own ideas about ourselves as well as the artist who created them.
28 days is in itself a beginning and an end - like the tides or a menstrual cycle - destined to return each month. This cyclical narrative keeps the series in constant flux. Its fluidity allows one to pause and meditate on one photograph for a prolonged period of time, contemplating the words and imagery in relation to our own life experience. In choosing specific flowers to reinforce the text - through their individual symbolic connotations - she pulls apart their petals and leaves, to re-examine their splendour that is so often taken for granted.
Owens project began by selecting around one hundred flowers based on their symbolic meaning to illustrate her diary, which she then embarked on growing herself. Having no prior experience in horticulture and no garden Owens her attic was filled with germinating seeds. She spent a year – in order to encompass flowers from all four seasons - growing and photographing all the individual flowers to later arrange into bouquets. As a result of many trips to florists, garden centres and tending her own flowers, each symbol was eventually captured in camera. Only two of the flowers - namely the black and white dahlias - were not photographed by Owens. They were however, as with the entire series personal; sourced from glass plate negatives taken by her stepmother’s great grandfather.
In her attic studio each flower was photographed at least one hundred times. Occasionally as many as five or six frames were taken with a digital SLR to make up a portrait of an individual flower. She also used medium and large format cameras to photograph with in order to record in implicit detail the many nuances of each specimen. As a result of this extensive research and record Owens has amassed a huge library of flowers with which she could arrange her bouquets from in Photoshop.
The use of a floral subtext was prevalent in Victorian times also. Coded messages to express unspoken feelings were made through flower arrangements. A diary often procures the same function to the writer, where the most intimate details of ones life can be articulated but never uttered. Owens entries sometimes contradict the floral displays, further supplanting the many levels of consciousness within the work.
What at first glance may seem like an innocuous image can be fuelled with potent and sometimes forceful communiqué. Bouquet 6 exclaims, ‘Fuck you. I’m glad I scared you. I’m glad you didn’t want me” telling a story of anger, rejection, loss and empowerment in three short sentences. This brutal yet poetic delivery contiguous to the display of monkshood, rhododendrons, yellow carnations and chrysanthemums becomes a wreath to the love that was lost. The bright colours however, imply the celebratory waving goodbye to a romance never destined to stay in bloom.
Associations of flower arranging can be somewhat domestic in the west. The Victorians believed it was a safe occupation to tame idle female hands and minds, but in Japan it is considered a high form of art. Owens questioned this by turning these traditions on their head, allowing her bouquets to be wild, silly, sickly, weird and physical as well as emotive displays of her inner thoughts.
In her late thirties with two children and caring for a chronically ill mother dying from a brain disease her bouquets became a momento mori of her life and the closeness of death. By encompassing her womanhood into the work she was able to visualise the dichotomy of sex and death through this cyclical form of expression, utilising floral language whilst celebrating the beauty of the blossoms.
Inspiration came in the form of Dutch painting and 1970’s flower arranging books whose photography and displays were a favourite of Owens. The mixture of sublime lighting coupled with the occasional kitsch vase – sourced by Owens also – embrace the cliché ‘Say it with flowers’ whilst retaining their art historical roots.
Presented in box-like frames with the edges of the paper visible they become museum pieces from another place, not truly arranged in the physical world yet manifested in a physical form. The text becomes anthropologically charged, pagan and feminine. There is a wildness present here, untamed yet confined, bursting from the black background. Rejecting the over-civilisation of the world Owens rejoices in her uncultivated imagery. In her own words, “There is no one final meaning to be got at. Just lots of meanings appearing and disappearing. In my flower diary there is no definitive image of me to discover – there is no grand meaning. There is also no god or nirvana – no grand narrative - just life.”
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