Conversations I: Rob Carter, the first in a new series by resident curator Oana Tanase


TYPOLOGY is pleased to announce the launch of Conversations, a new series exploring research-based arts by Curator-in-Residence, Oana Tanase. Her first interview features Brooklyn-based artist, Rob Carter. 

Rob Carter was born in Worcester, UK and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He received his BFA from The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University and later received an MFA in Studio Art from Hunter College in New York. He has shown his work internationally, with solo exhibitions at Art In General in New York, Galerie Stefan Röpke in Cologne, Station Independent Projects in New York, Galeria Arnés y Ropke in Madrid and Fondazione Pastificio Cerere in Rome. He has also exhibited at Centre Pompidou-Metz in France, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan, The Field Museum in Chicago, Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

Carter has been awarded a Workspace residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (2011-12) and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship (2010). More recently, Rob Carter was an artist-in-residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (Omaha, Nebraska) and this year he will participate in the exhibition Demarcate: Territorial Shift in Personal and Societal Mapping, at the ICA in San Jose, CA

Oana Tanase: Please tell us about your research-based practice and your interest in exploring the ‘living’ spectrum, more specifically plants, their meaning and history. Is it true to say that plants are your favorite characters in your work? And if so, how do you situate your own practice within the wider context of contemporary theory and of others’ artistic approaches?

Rob Carter: Yes, plants do seem to have become my recent favorite characters. Generally, I approach each project through historical, scientific and experiential research, but part of the beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability, making them seem almost human in their unique movement and grace. In this way, the plants become their own “characters”.

Architecture is another character in my work. However, as opposed to plants and our increasingly complex relationship to them, buildings seem to me to represent human activity, rather than imitate it. Buildings can act as excellent characters for understanding tourism, politics, commercial and human development, and desire. Rather than taking on human qualities and movement, these characters remain “fixed” in place, and it is actually the people (tourists, consumers, and citizens) who continually change around them, and “grow” the architecture.

The way humans relate to plant life is fascinating. I am interested in how we perceive and use it, and how plants, in turn, use us. Our relationship to the natural world, and plants specifically, is an environmental conundrum in terms of climate change and our complicated history. We seem to have come, politically, to a divisive intersection with respect to this the war on drugs and biofuel monocultures, for example. As a result, it’s difficult to say that I “situate” my own practice in the contemporary art world, although, of course, that’s where it does belong. Instead of over-studying other contemporary artistic approaches, I find it more conducive to my work to pull from politics, sociology and environmental theory, infusing it with visual language inspired by video and land art of the 1970’s.


At the core of your artistic practice one could find the urban landscape and architectural sites serving as theatrical stage for plants to perform. Could plants be looked at as some sort of curators of our constructed world? What did they teach you so far? Are there methodologies that you, as a visual artist, have derived from close observation of their growth/un-growth journeys?

The fascinating similarities between scientific and artistic practice often drives my work. Recently, I have been recreating the methodology of Charles Darwin to explore and plot the movements of Soybean and Kudzu plants. At the very least, such close observations of plants emphasize their preternatural and inspirational instincts to live and grow.

Sometimes architecture is used as a stage for the ‘action’ of plant movement, but the buildings are usually the starting point. For example, a large seed-bed sculpture I made in Denmark started with the significance and history of a neighbouring building, which took me to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. There I confirmed the building’s complicated financial origins in slavery, trade and sugarcane. In the final piece, the model building, with living sugar plants surrounding it, demonstrated that what the viewer was viewing was a plantation, rather than a flowerbed.

What kinds of experiences or readings infuse your interest and what role do the new technologies play?

New science is certainly an influence, especially food science, GMO research and plant neurobiology. However I am usually behind the curve with really new visual and computer technologies. Of course, when comparing Darwin’s 19th Century ability to chart plant movement with ours today, my time-lapse photography is a technological leap forward.

Although my experience as a tourist of nature is not as wide-ranging as I would like, I continue to be inspired by it wherever I am. This spring, I will be travelling to Spain and visiting the Canary Islands and Mallorca to research and photograph tourism, palm trees and bananas. I read as much as I can about the subjects that interest me and influence my work. Recently, I’ve found Dan Koeppel’s excellent and well-researched book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World influential to my work.


How did the residency at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts shape your approach/studio work?  

The Bemis Center was such a gift to me, as it provided endless space and three months of uninterrupted time to focus and work. The residency gave me the opportunity to dive into projects impossible to pursue in my ‘normal’ day-to-day life in Brooklyn. For example, I shot a time-lapse video capturing the painstaking documentation of soybean plant movement, using both GMO and organic varieties, which involved being present with the plant every 15 minutes for 24 to 36 hours straight. This was something of an endurance performance, and one which also involved attempting to predict the plants’ movement in order to maintain the plotting process.

A large raw installation space permitted me to install a soil “carpet” over a 5 by 9 foot area of concrete floor. A pattern of geometric shapes created the illusion of a mosaic rug made of soil. I then seeded these sections of earth with poppy seeds purchased from baking aisles of various local Omaha supermarkets. The tens of thousands of seedlings that germinated conformed to the soil pattern, creating what could either appear as a soft, green, living tile floor or carpet, or, with a more ariel eye, a microcosm of an opium farm. This and other developing works seek to highlight the paradox of our removed, yet very involved, often individual, relationship to this plant, whether in terms of our desire for pain relief or an altered state, our laws, our international politics, or the complex moral dilemma opium farming often presents.

What are you currently working on?

I am editing the time-lapse video mentioned above, as well as creating a series of plant ink drawings of the movements of these soybeans as well as previously documented poppy seedlings. I am also delving into research for my upcoming project in Spain. My projects tend to evolve organically when I travel, so I avoid going with too many set notions. Typically, I let the landscape and energy of my environment direct me, rather than the other way around. In addition, I’m gearing up for the New York Art fairs, where I will be exhibiting work with Catherine Clark Gallery, at ‘Art on Paper’.

See more of Rob Carter’s work on his website at

images, from top to bottom

Poppy Field 1 (detail), 2015
Sand, peat moss, Papaver somniferum, water, HPS grow lamp and audio
Floor section 60 x 100 inches
Courtesy of the artist and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE

Sweetness and Light, 2013
Mixed media including live plants
Dimensions variable, 60 x 84 inch table-top
Courtesy of the artist and Traneudstillingen, Denmark

Poppy Field 1, 2015
Sand, peat moss, Papaver somniferum, water, HPS grow lamp and audio
Dimensions variable, floor section 60 x 100 inches
Courtesy of the artist and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE

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