Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “his idea was to fill the space in a beautiful way,” explaining the revolutionary approach of artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow, which greatly influenced her work. Exquisite flowers occupy much of that work: hundreds of renderings of natural forms unfurling through space. “When Georgia O’Keeffe paints flowers, she does not paint 50 flowers stuffed into a dish,” wrote Time magazine of her work in 1928. “On most of her canvases there appeared one gigantic bloom, its huge feathery petals furled into some astonishing pattern of colour and shade and line.”
Elements of O’Keeffe’s approach are present in Spring — Alice Zoo’s enchanting series shot during the lockdown, which started on 23 March in the UK. The project, which was photographed in and around a friend’s house in Whitstable, comprises magnificent images of flowers juxtaposed with those of her friend, sleeping and slowly waking in the solitude of isolation. The images, taken on an iPhone — an unfamiliar medium for Zoo, who mostly uses film — evoke O’Keeffe’s paintings, aesthetically and in their ability to transform familiar subjects into something else. The flowers overwhelm the frames that contain them: fiery buds erupt against a blue sky; jagged petals ascend across a hazy stretch of the horizon; voluptuous blooms jostle before the lens.
“When I started taking these pictures it was very spontaneous — something I did playfully and experimentally,” says Zoo. “I’d never thought of the iPhone as a tool I could use in my practice, and so, in a way, I did not feel any pressure.” Zoo observed the flowers along a suburban road, depicting them as abstract, amorphous forms; beautiful in their deformity, soothing and uncanny.
As Zoo continued photographing, a series took shape. “It was when I started editing the pictures together, arranging them into diptychs and sequences, that I realised how much they reflect how I felt at the time,” she says. The flowers are ethereal: too vivid, too wild, too bountiful for suburban Kent. They embody the disconnect with reality that Zoo experienced during the first weeks of lockdown; confusion in the absence of the familiar structures and everyday norms eradicated by the pandemic — “everything familiar, suddenly seemed bizarre”.
Ultimately, the work does not address the pandemic but the crisis very much lingers within it: “It could not have been created in any other circumstances; it is born out of this situation,”. Emotions and thoughts provoked by the context of isolation shape the series; it exists as a record of a moment, which has already passed — a visual diary of sorts, which means one thing to Zoo today, and may mean something else in the future: “I’ve been thinking about how our relationship to personal work changes over time,” continues Zoo, “our relationship to pictures evolve particularly when they are created from a very instinctive place.”
Images of her friend, engulfed in the residue of sleep, accompany the flowers; diptychs that encapsulate the reality of humanity having to hibernate while nature revives, in the wake of the pandemic. “These pairs of photographs reflect this new way of being and its two sides: the outdoors and the indoors, the new scrutiny and the slowness, the jarring beauty and the repetition,” writes Zoo in a statement, which accompanies the work. Indeed as our immediate worlds slow down — becoming smaller and more confined — the world outside continues. In the UK it was spring and now it is summer and the flowers bloom and blossom, utterly wild and totally free.