Diary of a Sunflower, Book Two
(book, as original, 176 photographs)
176 photographs in sequence
I was raised long ago in this earthly place,
But I do not care for my home.
I owe my very life to its bountiful moisture,
But the earth is not my sky.
----Muhammad Iqbal (translated from the Urdu by Mustansir Mir)
Here is the Sunflower or Helianthus Annuus: “helios” (sun) plus “anthos” (flower) plus “annuus” (annual).
The dry, attenuated almost plaintive lyricism of the sunflower, the noble-grotty heliotropic sunflower (in that its flower its always facing the sun), its rudimentary petals, powdery with a light-scooping, moisture-holding, almost monastic attentiveness required to nurture, develop and enshrine its payload of close-packed, geodesically arranged seeds of shining jet, lends the plant a more-than-usual protective, almost maternal quality.
The plant’s relentlessly tall, rather rough-hewn stalk and its hairy, primordial leaves seem unceasingly dedicated to the focused production and protection of this glistening seed-bed core at the heart of each flower (called the plant’s “chapter”), its powerful engine of perpetuity.
What of the sunflower’s look? Is the sunflower’s vigorous roughness and raggedness the result of its three-metre quest for extraordinary height—in its search for ever more light and ever more air? Is the plant coarsened by a weariness earned in the fulfilment of its elaborate botanical program (fecund all the time)? Does a sunflower ultimately begrudge its own skyscraper growth? Does it inevitably grow leggy and emptied in the course of carefully generating the florets on its flattened central receptacle and is it poignantly post-partum in the demanding production of its throng of shiny black seeds—which are actually small dry fruits, apparently referred to as “pipes”? Certainly, much is expected of the sunflower.
The sunflower keeps working hours. It is, for example, diurnal. That is to say, it springs to vigorous botanical life during the day and, exhausted, grows gratefully somnolent at night. Just like the rest of us.
Lee Ka-sing’s book, Diary of a Sunflower, Book Two, is beautiful and relentless, attributes not often found together. The book is not a taxonomy, nor a life-cycle, nor a mere progression of images. Ka-sing describes the book simply as “176 photos in sequence.” But a sequence is not (or need not be) a narrative, not a life-story.
For me, Diary of a Sunflower is virtuoso work of photo-conceptualism, a protracted stutter of still lifes that claims meaning—eloquent meaning—from repetition and accumulation and, in the course of that amassing, repeatedly offer, from photo to photo, subtle differences, tonal variants, the rustle of sub-events and nudging revelations. The book is an essay, in the original sense of “essayer,” to try, to attempt.
Like many works of tireless, insinuating anatomization of a subject, nothing much really seems to happen—at least not quickly or obviously: in the beginning there is the flower, with its ragged, upstart petals. Sometimes the blossom hangs down, like a sigh (p.16). Occasionally, the blossom is partly cradled in (and semi-occluded by) a shrouding, protective leaf (p.52). Some of the photographs (p.58) are All Leaf and nothing else. Page 144 offers a view of the sunflower in a sort of swoon or dying fall, whereas, in contrast, p.158 gives the giant blossom the sudden, incoming power of a fiery asteroid hurtling to earth. By p.220, there are serpentine stems and bulky leaves weaving together into a bulwark of fortress growth, while suddenly, on p. 252, there a momentary, inexplicable blackout—in which the mighty flower now hangs down into the photograph as a silhouette—as if someone had pulled a plug.
But then a suite of brisk, steadfast blossoms follows (p.253ff), ending the book: all passion spent, all faith restored, the seed-entrenched blooms baked, crisped, windswept, the sunflower’s essential, eternalizing story.
In William Blake’s famous poem, “Ah! Sun-flower” (from his Songs of Experience, 1794), the rather Christ-like, sacrificial plant is “weary of time” and “countest the steps of the sun,” its whole wracked being seeking “that sweet golden clime” where “the traveler’s journey” comes finally to its end and finds fulfilment.
The other great sunflower poem is Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” from 1955.
In Ginsberg’s poem, the sunflower is a wreck: “…corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb, leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear, Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!....”
This is unforgettable writing, but Ginsberg’s betrayed, industrially-compromised sunflower remains as remote from Lee Ka-sing’s as Blake’s touchingly martyred plant is.
The sunflower of Ka-sing’s Diary of a Sunflower is neither protagonist nor victim. Therein lies its majesty. The plant’s meaning comes in the fullness of time—like breathing.
(from DOUBLE DOUBLE December issue 2022)