Laleh Motlagh’s plants have been in her care for more than ten years. “We’ve become acquaintances, companions. I call them my collaborators,” she says. Her childhood home in Iran was filled with houseplants, and Motlagh only remembered this when she found a photograph of herself at a young age kneeling in front of two large plants. The Monstera plant in particular, noticeable in the corner of the photograph, became of interest to her. It is a common houseplant in her friend’s homes in Chicago, but it is not local to here. Motlagh finds this to be an interesting reflection on the fact that she is not native to Chicago and is herself a “transplant.”
Her fascination with non-humans is at the core of her artistic career. She first started to work with animals. You might have seen her recite verses from the Qur’an to sleeping and snoring pigs, or cuddling a dog. “There’s a lot of language in silence,” she tells me over tea in her studio. The tea leaves are from her hometown, and she suddenly began to examine them in the same curiosity and fascination as the dozens of plants that surround her at her BOLT residency space at Chicago Artists Coalition. She was born in Tabriz, Iran and moved to Chicago with her family about seventeen years ago.
Motlagh’s exhibition at CAC, “Contemplation,” consists of a video, a photograph, and drawings tucked away in a small corner space. The video performance, “Quiet Chaos,” features herself holding a Monstera plant on Lake Michigan’s windy shore. She is in a kneeled position, mimicking the pose from her childhood photograph. Originally, she was wearing a headscarf, but while she was working on this piece, the Women’s Rights Movement in Iran made it clear to her that she wanted to take off her headscarf, so it is attached to a stick and blowing in the wind. The roots of the plant are exposed as well, a strong metaphor for her own feelings of rootedness and lack thereof.
Her process is mostly defined by observing and responding, attempting to be on the same level as her “collaborators.” She is perceptive and is able to understand the animals or plants that she is performing with. The results are not scientific, however, but gestural. In previous performances, she was speaking to animals. However, now that she has made the transition to focus on plants, she is silent and still. The drawings she includes in the exhibition are almost invisible, until at close observation one can notice lines that visualize roots or leaves. They are based on gestural contemplations from the Monstera plant.
As she refills my tea cup, I notice more details on the walls surrounding her. She finds a dying leaf in one of her plants and places it on a table where the dry brittle remains of other plants lay. “They are still changing.” She shows me. Two flowers from different years, for example, where one has lost more of its pink shade than the other. There are also beautiful, curled-up leaves that remind me of dancing bodies, twigs and petals, and a box filled with dirt. On the other wall, she hung fragments of her past performances with animals. Motlagh makes it clear that animals and plants have so much more to say than we consider, and she is simply the messenger. (Mana Taylor)