In ‘The Cultivar Series,’ Uli Westphal Gets to the Root of Crop Diversity and Agricultural Modification
Earlier this year, Russia’s war in Ukraine obstructed the global food supply in a way that exposed just how precarious the entire system is. The conflict confined 25 million tons of corn and wheat to the country, making such a crucial stock inaccessible and compounding the effects of an already urgent crisis.
Combined with disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and the continual issues of the climate crisis, the war helped propel global food insecurity to levels unseen in decades. It’s estimated that approximately 800 million people around the world don’t have enough to eat due to skyrocketing prices caused by increased demand for a reduced supply. These problems are predicted to decimate local economies and prompt widespread unrest in the coming years.
Part of combating such an emergency involves understanding the core of modern production and how growing practices have evolved over time. Back in 2010, artist Uli Westphal took an interest in the ways farming and cultivation were affecting the availability of certain plants after a visit to VERN e.V. The German nonprofit cares for thousands of specimens, makes obscure or rare varieties available to the public, and is also “a regional network of gardeners, farmers, and local garden sites.” “They have a large garden plot in a tiny village two hours north of Berlin, where they grow a kaleidoscope of rare and forgotten crop varieties,” he shares. “I walked into a greenhouse full of tomato plants bearing fruits that I had never seen in my life.”
This encounter prompted what’s become a years-long project of documenting the planet’s incredible agricultural diversity. Encompassing both the wild and the domestic, Westphal’s “ongoing and endless” Cultivar Series illuminates a vast array of specimens through striking flat-lay photos. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other produce arranged by color capture the breadth of the world’s crops, comparing their shapes, sizes, and molecular makeup—higher levels of chlorophyll promote the verdant pigments of leafy greens, for example, while carotenoids are responsible for bright orange carrots.
From Amsterdam and Potsdam, Germany, to Mexico City and Tucson, the sources of Westphal’s subject matter are broad, with some fare coming fully grown from farmers and others as seeds to be cultivated. “Cucumis sativus I” features fifty cucumber varieties the photographer grew in a greenhouse once connected to his Berlin-based studio from seeds gifted by a Dutch organization, for example, while the pumpkins and peppers in two of his other works were a collaboration with Peaceful Belly Farm in Boise, Idaho.
Whether depicting potatoes or pears, the images offer a rare glimpse of species that often aren’t available in the grocery store or markets. “Since the industrialization of agriculture, our focus has shifted to only a few modern, high-yielding, robust, ‘good looking,’ uniform, and predictable varieties. This change has led to the displacement of traditional crop varieties,” Westphal writes, noting that when a plant isn’t actively cultivated, it often falls under threat of extinction, and such strains tend to be protected by conservation organizations like the seed banks he’s collaborated with in the past. “A majority of all varieties developed by humans have already become extinct during the last 50 years. With them, we not only lose genetic diversity but also a living cultural and culinary heritage.”
The photos also elicit questions about contemporary domestication practices that are of increasing concern as biodiversity dwindles. Westphal tells Colossal:
Synthetic biology is evolving at a rapid speed, out-pacing public awareness, debate, and regulation and is altering life in ways that are unprecedented. My main concerns about synthetic biology (and genetic engineering) are the havoc that the inevitable release of significantly altered organisms into ecosystems can cause and the increasing consolidation of corporate control over what we grow and eat.
Three photos from The Cultivar Series are on view as part of the group exhibition Food in New York through September 30, 2023, at the Museum of the City of New York, and Westphal is currently working to document the seeds of the world’s edible plants, of which he’s culled a shortlist of 3,000 species. Prints of his flat lays are available on his site, along with similar collections centered on fruits and other consumables, and you can follow his practice on Instagram. (via Present & Correct)
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A glimpse into Konekono Kitsune’s workspace in Tokyo likely resembles a farmer’s market stand more than a fiber studio. Using countless layers of thread and the occasional felt base, the artist stitches curly kale, collard greens, and other fare that bear a striking likeness to their real-life counterparts: dense tufts in green form broccoli florets, a broad bean pod splits open to reveal a soft downy inside, and tight rows line the undulating surface of a sweet potato.
In a note to Colossal, Konekono Kitsune shares that their grandmother frequently embroidered, although they only began working in the medium a few years ago. “I’m not a farmer, and I’m not particularly good at cooking. I happened to embroider vegetables and got convinced. Embroidery threads are great for expressing vegetable fibers,” they say.
For more of the artist’s produce-based works, visit Instagram.
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Make sure you’re plenty caffeinated before snacking on one of Ann Wood’s blackberries. The Minneapolis-based artist, who is half of the creative team behind Woodlucker (previously), crafts a vast array of florals, fruits, and insects so realistic that it takes a second glance to realize they’re made from paper. Delicate oyster mushrooms with wide caps and thinly folded gills grow from a hunk of wood, fuchsias with softly curved petals hang from a branch, and bundles of radishes with long, spindly roots appear like their plump, juicy counterparts.
Exquisitely sculpted and detailed with paint, wax, and colored pencils, Wood’s realistic creations are based on plants she grows in her garden and other forms she encounters. “I do this because I can see the intricate detail and have live fresh models longer. My paper botanicals take four days to a week to create each specimen,” she says, noting that she spends a significant amount of time observing the variations of a single bloom or sprout. “All plants are individuals, each with its own uniqueness. Many times it’s the flaws and the blemishes that make a specimen most interesting.”
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Ben Denzer cultivates what could be the next trend in sustainable fashion with a green redesign of the classic Hermés Birkin bag. The artist and designer whipped up these vegetable versions of the iconic, high-end accessory by arranging asparagus stalks, cucumber slices, and cabbage leaves into a trio you’d be more likely to find in the produce aisle than a luxury shop.
Denzer is known for his playful food pairings, including books bound with cheese slices and condiment packets and an entire account dedicated to matching his favorite reads with ice cream. Find more of his quirky designs on his site, and check out his Instagram for the apple and banana bags that didn’t make the cut. You also might enjoy Nicole McLaughlin’s edible attire. (via The Morning News)
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A new photo series, titled Table For One, takes the proverbial saying that “you are what you eat” literally as it transforms model Tin Gao by sandwiching her between layers of cheese, lunchmeat, shredded lettuce, and sliced tomato in a bulging hoagie. Shot by photographer Annie Collinge, the bizarre series sees Gao morph from one food group to the next, whether as a stout tomato fashioned from a red jacket that covers the model from chin to ankle or stuffed into a peeled banana that mimics a sleeping bag.
With styling and art direction by James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks of Rottingdean Bazaar, the humorous photographs were shot for Luncheon Magazine. Watch the video of the resting chicken below to see a somewhat unsettling part of the project, and follow Collinge and Rottingdean Bazaar’s future collaborations on Instagram. (via Inag)
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Adam Hillman (previously) has taken recommendations to choose a balanced diet seriously. For each slice of Granny Smith apple, the New Jersey-based artist pairs a quartered cucumber, halved kiwi, and peeled plantain in a meticulous, color-coded arrangement.
Using produce, candy, and breakfast fare, Hillman organizes an array of perishables into patterns and geometric sequences, which he often shares on Instagram. “There’s something beautiful about working with something so transient, and the beauty of the materials is something that can only be preserved through photography long after the food within the photo has either rotted or been eaten,” he tells Colossal.
For those in need of another dose of nutrients, Hillman offers prints from Society6.
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