Lucas Gehrmann

Symbiotic Unions*

The title of this book—which is also the title of a group of works Karin Pliem began in 2016—has been borrowed from a scientific debate on the origin of species diversity and natural selection. In her Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution1 published in 1998, US geneticist and cell biologist Lynn Margulis arrived at the conclusion that “all the inhabitants of the Earth belong to a symbiotic union.”2 Based on her Serial Endosymbiosis Theory3 she had already put forward in the late 1960s, she “contended that symbiosis, not chance mutation, was the driving force behind evolution and that the cooperation between organisms and the environment are the chief agents of natural selection—not competition among individuals. She says that ‘Darwin’s grand vision was not wrong, only incomplete.’”4 Though Margulis was not alone in her approach, some of her thoughts have been heavily disputed.5

If Karin Pliem were a biologist, she would probably join the proponents of this “other evolution”; as an artist and private naturalist, she at least sympathizes with the idea that the origin and spreading of living beings are not only determined by individual mutation, recombination, and selection but also by symbiotic connections—i.e., in a wider sense, by forms of cooperation achieved by communication. These and perhaps other forms of exchange can be found going on in her pictures—long before the painter learned about Lynn Margulis’s theory. They are actually going on in the artist, in the process of painting, in which what exists and what comes into being are permanently changing through feedbacks.6 The following considerations outline how this “symbiotic union” comes about in the end and in each picture individually.

Like for the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, there is no satisfying answer to whether her pictures’ beginnings lie in their concept or in their (visual) material. Be that as it may, we have both: an essentially stable concept and an essentially homogenous store of materials to start with. This steadily growing arsenal comprises a collection of selected real and virtual (pictorially reproduced or remembered) plant, animal and—in recent years—anthropogenic props. Their selection is not only based on subjectively aesthetic criteria rooted in an “interest-free pleasure” but primarily on that part of the concept that favors future components of the picture which, as it were, paradigmatically represent the complex diversity of relationships between creations of nature and those of civilization and culture.

I would like to present two from Karin Pliem’s comprehensive collection of representative examples which feature prominently in her painting Concursus naturae IV dating from 2015 [see ill. p. 15]. The blue inflorescences dangling from the picture’s left top and its center to the right margin are free interpretations7 of the papilionaceous Pueraria montana, better known as kudzu. In China, the fibers from the plant stems provided an essential component for the manufacture of textiles from the Neolithic Age and, later, of paper; containing starch, kudzu root tubers still serve as a staple food in Japan today; kudzu is also regarded as an effective remedy against alcoholism and is intended to be used for the production of bioethanol. According to IUCN,8 however, Pueraria montana ranks among the one hundred most aggressive invasive neophytes of the world: this plant species may completely smother and destroy an existing vegetation within a few years. The artist often relies on this plant for her pictures because of its manifold qualities and possibilities of use.

In the present case, kudzu plays a part in the painterly “overgrowth” of a second, equally exemplary (pictorial) element from the artist’s collection of materials: the cloisters of the former Benedictine Abbey S. Maria Nuova in Monreale built in the twelfth century. Founded by King William II of Sicily, Monreale ranks among the key structures of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style, a symbiosis of Western-Romanesque, Eastern-Roman and Islamic architecture and ornamental art. An eloquent witness to the fruitful cross-border and cross-culture transfer of knowledge, these cloisters provided Karin Pliem with the ideal ground for the oil painting discussed here. In the course of the following working process, this architectural underpainting was increasingly pushed into the background and can only be divined in a few places of the finished picture. Looking at the two intermediate stages in the work’s genesis documented by the artist photographically and reproduced here for reasons of comparison [pp. 9, 12] leaves no doubt that the cloisters’ niches and structural elements played a decisive part in the construction and composition of the painting—possibly also in the achieved overall atmosphere resulting from the placement of light and shadow, the bundles of flowers, and the depth opening up here and there. Not all of Karin Pliem’s pictures depend on “real” architecture as a supportive background to make their hidden constructive composition tangible. It is rather the way in which the individual pictorial elements as such find their place and articulate themselves that more or less establishes order in the end—very much in the sense of a “symbiotic union” of all forces involved.

Not only Monreale’s small forest of columns but also kudzu have lost something of their dominance between the intermediate state and the final appearance of Concursus naturae IV. Other plants that already flourished in the early phase of the picture could, partly in alliance with newly emerged kinds of vegetation, later regain or fully develop their position and dynamic potential. The light that pervades the signed painting in several places as if from behind, creating larger light patches and thus something like free areas for the passage of color and form transfers between individual regions, has also blanched kudzu in various places. Like other plants (and animals) from Karin Pliem’s collection of materials, kudzu’s original identifiability as a scientifically clearly defined botanic species or genus had to be given up anyway. For the painter lends each of the specimens of her collection an individual new identity during the genesis of the picture. She creates hybrids from existing plants as well as completely independent specimens not to be found in nature (yet)—“not (yet)” because we live in a period in which “man is (at least theoretically) capable of bringing evolution through natural selection to a close by means of modern GM technology. With his knowledge of evolutionary theories increasing, man might one day be in a position to control the development of all living creatures according to his will.”9 Not only genetic engineers and futurologists but also artists attentively follow such visions. In the early 1980s, US bio-artist John Davis already employed new materials “which literally brought the work of art to life, making it a living bio-mass.”10 And the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac noted in the late 1990s that “molecular genetics offers artists the opportunity to manipulate the plant or animal genome to create new forms of life. The nature of this new art will not only be determined by the emergence and growth of new plants or animals but, above all, by the kind of relationships between artist, public, and transgenic organism.”11

Karin Pliem does without bio-mass, molecular genetics, and costly research laboratories in her attempt to convey her ideas and perspectives concerning the presently extremely problematic relationship between man and living nature. She holds that man is neither more nor less than a part of nature—a position he should become aware of in order to be able to enter into a synergistically effective dialogue with nature and, thus, with his own species. Her pictures, for which she quite traditionally uses linseed oil, paint, and canvas, invite us to enter a world of constructive communication between a polycultural society’s various living beings. Man is not necessarily represented in these pictorial worlds “in the flesh,” since he inevitably fits into them as their viewer. Just considering this there can be no doubt that Karin Pliem’s views of nature are never “naturalistic.” It could not be her intention to factually “create new forms of life” along the lines of the above-mentioned bio-art.

The works to be found in the present book, which date from after 2012, not only show the (to my knowledge very independent) “path into abstraction” the artist came to take in 2010 at the latest but also reveal her equally visible endeavors for an inherently formally and conceptually conclusive and ultimately “consistent” picture. This intention ties in with the objective of evolution to effectively organize and functionally optimize living beings. Whether work of art or organism: we just “cannot take away or exchange some part of it without causing the most serious damage,” Wolfgang Welsch notes in his critical examination of possible parallels between artistic and evolutionary creations: “The orientation of works of art toward consistency is perfectly analog to the biotic tendency toward the generation of optimized entities. It is in this structural sense that art always (even where the traditional principle of mimesis has long since been abandoned) emulates nature. However, the correspondence is not to be found on the generative level (where chance plays an evolutionarily important part) but on that of the product (where chance has been absorbed, so to speak).”12

Just as symbiotic connections between living beings hailing from different ecosystems and regions of the world or generated by the artist “happen” to Karin Pliem in the interplay of conceptual considerations and the painterly process, the moment in which the picture achieves a degree of “consistency” acceptable to her—i.e., has been finalized in the sense of a “symbiotic union”—is also one that “happens” to her. As she immediately starts working on her next picture after that, her world knows more than just one symbiotic union. Which is also why the title of this book is Symbiotic Unions .

1 Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 1998).
2 Quoted after Matthias Glaubrecht, “Die Biologin Lynn Margulis hält Symbiose für die treibende Kraft in der Evolution,” Der Tagesspiegel, January 26, 2000.
3 See Lynn Margulis, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970). For further information, see, for example, Ulrich Kutschera, “Lynn Margulis: Symbiogenesis-Theorie und Anti-Darwinismus,” Biologie in unserer Zeit, vol. 42, issue 1 (Weinheim, 2012): 67–70, (last accessed on October 28, 2016).
4 “Lynn Margulis: Microbiological Collaboration of the Gaia Hypothesis,” in The Gaia Hypothesis, proposed by Dr. James Lovelock in collaboration with Dr. Lynn Margulis, section 3 (web publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia, 1996), (last accessed on October 28, 2016).
5 “Whereas the endosymbiosis theory is hardly seriously questioned today, many colleagues in the field found that Margulis’s commitment to the British atmospheric chemist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis went too far. Lovelock describes the Earth as a self-regulating system that maintains the (partly energetically very improbable) conditions under which life is possible. Margulis steered clear of Lovelock’s metaphor of the Earth as a ‘living organism,’ however. Being a scientist, she regretted that the Gaia hypothesis was mainly embraced by esoterics and rejected by the majority of her colleagues.” Ralf Neumann, Christine Kost, “Lynn Margulis: Nachruf und Interview,” Laborjournal, November 24, 2011, (last accessed on October 28, 2016).
6 “An aspect not understood by Darwin yet is that evolution is a process informed by feedback. Which is to say that living creatures do not only adapt to their environment but also change it, doing so just through their very existence. The feedback effect being that living creatures have to newly adapt to the changed environment. The living creatures’ influence differs from species to species.” Eberhard Schöneburg, Frank Heinzmann, Sven Feddersen, Genetische Algorithmen und Evolutionsstrategien. Eine Einführung in Theorie und Praxis der simulierten Evolution (Bonn, Paris: Addison-Wesley, 1994), Chapter 2, 96–140. Here quoted after Mirko Wölflick, Evolution als Optimierungsprozess (TU Chemnitz, 2002), (last accessed on October 28, 2016).
7 At first, the hanging inflorescences bring blooming wisteria to mind, whose seeds are poisonous. The artist turns the kudzu blossoms upside down, though, regarding this as the better solution for her pictorial idea.
8 IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, sees its mission in exercising its influence all over the world in order to ensure that the integrity and diversity of nature are respected. It works for an ecologically sustainable and fair use of natural resources. See
9 Schöneburg et al. 1994, see note 6.
10 (last accessed on October 28, 2016).
11 Eduardo Kac, “Transgene Kunst,” in Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schöpf, eds., LifeScience. Ars Electronica 99 (Vienna, New York: Springer, 1999), 296.
12 Wolfgang Welsch, “Kreativität durch Zufall. Das große Vorbild der Evolution und einige künstlerische Parallelen,” in Kreativität – XX. Deutscher Kongress für Philosophie, Kolloquienbeiträge (Hamburg: Meiner, 2006), 1185–1210.

* Publ. in: Karin Pliem: Symbiotic Unions, Hohenems–Wien–Vaduz: Bucher Verlag 2016, S. 7-11 (d).
ISBN 978-3-99018-387-8

© 2016 Lucas Gehrmann; Bucher Verlag