Adamo Macri’s Triffid and I
by Kenneth Radu. Narrated by Michael Aronovitch
by Kenneth Radu. Narrated by Michael Aronovitch
“And so the one in our garden continued its growth peacefully, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world. It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots and walked.” (John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids)
I have been thinking about art, botany, monsters and sex. It never fails to impress me how a portrait by Adamo Macri can root itself in my mind like a plume poppy or snakeroot or any perennial of your choice, however common or exceptional. One early morning this past week, I was serving manure tea to my tomato plants, pleased with their lush height, their growth an inevitable process, which I, as a gardener, help along. I don’t make them grow; I do, however, prevent them from wasting away through neglect and inanition like once seemingly solid but now defunct friendships. I encourage their vigour with fertilizing, watering and staking, not having reached the time in my life when I am comfortable talking to plants. That may well be inevitable.
Pouring the tea directly into the soil at the base of the stem to soak their roots, I knelt so close that I inhaled their scent and brushed my cheeks against their leaves. I fancied they could become possessed by sinister impulses and lethal intent, and sting me by a tendril, or strangle me in their vines. At that moment, Adamo Macri’s alluring and strange triffid creations came to mind, just as I pulled back, surprised by my own thoughts.
It seems strange to imagine such a thing, but several days previously I had read John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, a dystopian vision of a society stricken not only by a mysterious plague that blinded people, but also overrun with giant murderous, ambulatory plants, prone to lashing the unwary to death. The worst I had to fear from my tomato plants was the ravenous hornworm, hideous to behold, but easily plucked off, no danger to my person. I was quite safe. My garden existed in a real world, which, however horrific and tragic, didn’t include hordes of flesh eating vegetation. I also have nothing to fear from Adamo Macri’s art, except its inexplicable power to alter, disturb, excite, and lead me down paths of fantasy rather than righteousness.
Influenced by Wyndham’s novel, and recalling Macri’s triffid portraits, I pictured myself in the same room with his creation. It had come alive, stepped out its constricting frame, full-bodied, and sauntered about, at first hungry and amusing, then menacing and provoking. Macri exhibited several of his remarkable portraits in November 2017, in Montreal’s Erga Gallery. As performance and theatre are intrinsic to his oeuvre, he appeared, not as himself, but as a compelling persona, costumed in colours of the underground or decomposition: brownish leather jacket with tendril-like tassels, a heavily cosmeticized face including black-lined lips, eyes covered with a mesh veil of intricate design, his hair arranged in the style of corn rows, one leather gloved hand deep inside the elaborate hand puppet of a silvery, threatening triffid head. The free hand wielded what looked like a riding crop, at least a tool to tame the savage beast within. We know its potential purpose. Ouch!
What is a triffid anyway? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as a fictional “member of a race of predatory plants which are capable of growing to a gigantic size and are possessed of locomotive ability and a poisonous sting.” The word first appears, of course, in Wyndham’s novel. Let me just add that the malevolent creature, the result of genetic manipulation and rearrangement in much the same way Macri metaphorically manipulates and arranges his portraits and other art, bides its time, waits for its victims, and strikes without hesitation. Mysteriously, triffids also communicate with one another. However familiar he may or may not be with Wyndham’s novel, Macri’s triffid isn’t derivative. Aside from using the name and incorporating the vegetative elements of Wyndham’s concept, his work moves beyond science fantasy and botanical engineering into psychological anxieties and complex sexuality(ies).
The figure in Icono Emoter, for example, is richly detailed and adroitly constructed. Bizarre and familiar, the persona tilts towards his right hand encased in a dragon or triffid-like head. It seems to be a combination of the human and the vegetable, as well as the human and the mechanical, the result of a cross-fertilization of species, if you will, of the intermingling of organic and inorganic. The neck is surrounded by an elaborate bronze and brown ruff, a kind of corolla, made of material I can’t determine. Somewhat reminiscent of Elizabeth collars worn by the aristocracy, this ruff occupies centre stage of the piece and rivets attention, directing it away from the muscular, apparently nude body. It is also similar to the quasi-floral ruff surrounding the triffid puppet at the Erga Gallery show.
I have commented elsewhere on this portrait, especially on the significant word icon, but here I will shift ground and consider the portrait in terms of the triffid. My views of Macri’s portraits are always volatile, dare I say organic, subject to change, growth and variations. I am not nailed to the cross of my interpretations. Nothing is static in plant life or the human mind. Out of the centre of the puppet (the word doesn’t do justice to the elaborate device), a monstrous head emerges, animated by the artist, as if it has risen from inside the flower where the sexual parts of stamen and pistil are hidden. It looks as if it could leap away from the hand, attack, and ultimately devour.
There’s a quietly fierce and erotically intense aura to this portrait. Notice how the eyes are not directed at the viewer, not inviting us in, as if the creature is utterly indifferent to our fantasies and preoccupations. The shaving of the sides of skull and the style of hair on top, the effect of the dramatic mascara, the decorated forehead, as well as the creature’s seeming indifference: all aspects heighten the subdued savagery of the portrait. I use savage in the sense of morally neutral wildness rather than brutality, sauvage rather than féroce. And I am drawn by the essential and magnetic wildness of Macri’s imagination, however artistically controlled.
If one can be amused by the artist acting the part of a triffid in a gallery, one can also be intimidated or perplexed, uncertain of what position to take vis-à-vis a creature who is part human, part animal, and part vegetable. It doesn’t dress like us; it’s all sharp edges and peculiarities; it’s alluring flesh and theatrical persona; it’s a man in costume having fun; or a priest enacting pagan beliefs; or a stylized monster whose intent isn’t clear. I mean monster in the sense of the unusual, the not entirely human, its range of capabilities for good or ill not fully fathomed, a distortion of ordinary perspectives and perceptions, something beyond the range of expectations and knowledge.
Nor is it a stretch to recall stories about the Green Man in folklore, a manifestation of natural impulses, represented by gargoyles of foliate heads on medieval cathedrals. Several Macri portraits also remind me of Cernunnos, the horned god of the ancient Celts, a denizen of a pre-Christian world, and often associated with demonic energies, fertility, the underworld, deep roots of the forest, stags and alternative sexualities. I think especially of Zoophily. And even his Prospero Sycorax Ariel portrait, of which I have written in a different context.
I use the plural of sexuality because in Macri’s world identities are plural. They shift and blend, elicit many responses and embody a multiplicity of feelings and fantasies having little to do with social conventions and preconceptions. I also hear echoes of Pan’s syrinx, that priapic satyr, as the sun rises over my garden. Behind him, Dionysus, the quasi-mystical master of mirth and excess to whom certain groves were sacred, not to mention the grape, invites my participation.
Admirers of this artist understand his fascination with organic life at the cellular level, not only living cells but also inorganic activity. A cursory look at his online portfolio will reveal brilliant and often startling images of the interaction between human and plant, a manipulation of organic matter as small as seeds to stunning effect, as well as the microscopic activity of chemical reactions. A study of the Exuviae and Epizoochory series, or a specific portrait like Hinterland, reveals Macri’s deep affiliation with the grace, paradoxes and multiplicity of natural phenomena. Not coincidentally, the human character in Epizoochory sports a mesh veil similar to that worn in the triffid portraits.
Because of Wyndham’s novel, we generally associate triffids with hostility, something inimical to our superior status as lords and ladies of the universe who control and manipulate nature, except for hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and the nefarious activities of any number of hidden bacteria, parasites and viruses. I sometimes feel menaced by a Macri portrait, a strange, inexplicable unease if I immerse myself too long in the subtle depths of a particular portrait. The longer I study any one of them, the stronger grows the compulsion to blend in with the portrait, or at least, to inhabit the alternative worlds of Macri’s imagination and vision, and to frolic in his fields of other-worldly flora and fauna.
The relationship between Macri’s art and his viewers, myself included, can be intensely close, intensely symbiotic, as if he creates out of our fascination, and we become more aware of our own contradictions and layers of being through his creations. He doesn’t ask us to admire so much as suggest that we cast off blinkers and recognize that what we see in his portraits may well be the face of our many and often secret identities. And the name of Macri’s show in November in the Erga Gallery was in fact Identity Matrix. Nor should we forget the meaning of the word matrix.
There are other portraits where danger is implicit, however, and one is advised to tread carefully lest, like the ever-hungry triffid, the creation strikes at the heart of the viewer, or strikes it across the eyes, not to blind but to enlighten and reveal. The Non Grata portrait, to name one, wherein the serenely sly and nude persona holds a firecracker (symbolic dynamite) in a black-gloved hand to his mouth like a cigarette particularly intrigues me. A red gash scars his cheek, and he wears a cross, which is a paradoxical element. A visually complex and witty portrait, Non Grata exemplifies the satirical humour in Macri’s art and his deliberate play with conventions and stereotypes. I would be anxious in the presence of this man who is capable of putting explosives in his mouth or mine. After all, the missing word in Non Grata is persona. We don’t know why this man is persona non grata, but viewer beware.
Wyndham’s triffids wait for the bodies of their human victims to decompose before they feed upon them. I am reminded that manure tea is the consequence of decomposition of once living matter. Macri’s triffids, as complicated in their structure as Wyndham’s, startle his viewers into an awareness of the multi-dimensional aspects of the body, of its participation in the natural processes of the world, and of its ultimate decay. It’s not the same thing as saying we’re all a part of nature and dance in an asexual Wordsworthian field of daffodils, but rather a manifestation of pre-Christian understanding of the world and symbiosis. Much of Macri’s art is imbued with the compelling and enduring significance of ancient myths and allusions: demonic and human, erotic and spiritual, vegetable and mineral, or a combination of them all.
I don’t care to be eaten by a giant, carnivorous plant, or seduced by a horny, semi-divine oak or cypress (well, maybe the latter, if only for the experience, but I don’t want to risk hugging the wrong tree). Moreover, it’s naive to reduce a Macri portrait to simplistic allegories derived from a viewer’s own opinions and projections, whatever they may be. Any one portrait is greater than a single meaning.
So, in that early morning light before the sun burned the sky, I knelt by my burgeoning tomato plants laden with the promise of juicy, blood red fruit. Green grows vegetable desire. Prolonged immersion in the many faces and facets of Adamo Macri’s’ art, including the fantastic triffid portraits, altered my sense of place and identity, even as they led me into the hidden complexities of everyday life. The heat intensified, and I experienced dizziness as I, entranced, raised my eyes. The tomato plants seemed to break free from their stakes and assume strange, human-like shapes. I became acutely aware of another dimension of experience and trembled among my vegetables. Sudden fissures in the garden soil and portals opened in the sky beckoned.
Momentarily displaced from familiar time, unsettled and forgetting my watering can of manure tea, my head filling with myriad images and portraits, I sensed the possibilities of daring to enter what I didn’t entirely understand. I had plucked a hefty ripe tomato off the vine and held in one hand, as if it could keep me secure in the so-called real world. I raised it like a sacrifice to a pagan god whose myriad shapes shifted in the dizzying light of the rising sun. One thing remained clear: Macri’s compelling and provocative art, the seduction and threat of his savage triffid, was transporting me to an imaginary garden of unearthly delights. And there I was lashed and elevated to the pitch of organic and alternative ecstasies.
Kenneth Radu has published books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Cost of Living, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. His collection of stories A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers' Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is also the author of the novel Flesh and Blood (HarperCollins Canada), Sex in Russia: New & Selected Stories, Earthbound and Net Worth (DC Books Canada).
Adamo Macri’s Triffid and I
Essay by Kenneth Radu - August 2018
Narrated by Michael Aronovitch
Essay by Kenneth Radu - August 2018
Narrated by Michael Aronovitch