Artwork of the month November

John Baldessari, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, 1972

John Baldessari

* 1931 in National City, CA, USA, † 2020 in Venice, CA, USA

Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, 1972

Video, b/w, sound, 18' 4''

Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz


In Baldessari's video Teaching a Plant the Alphabet from 1972, we see a potted plant, a banana plant to be precise, on a stool against a white background. With patient, repetitive slowness, the artist's hand holds up a series of primary school alphabet cards to the plant. We hear Baldessari tirelessly repeating the letter on each card: A A A A – B B B B – C C C C … In a working note that gave rise to the video, the artist asked, "Does it make sense to teach a plant the alphabet?".

So does it make sense? According to the general understanding, the viewer is confronted here with a grotesque, absurd arrangement. The artist reversed the logical act of teaching into an illogical exercise of futile repetition, putting the situation on the level of humorous bemusement. Playfully and with subtle irony, Baldessari questions an uninspired system of teaching based on the monotonous transmission of knowledge. The absurdity of the act confronts our preconceived ideas and expectations of art and teaching.

In his book What a Plant Knows, plant geneticist Daniel Chamovitz puts it as follows: "Think about this: plants see you. In fact, plants monitor their visible environment all the time. Plants see if you come near them; they know when you stand over them. They even know if you're wearing a blue or a red shirt." Are Baldessari's visual acts or his phonetic sounds of interest to the observing plant? Perhaps in some atypical way that does not make immediate sense to our general understanding?

In Teaching a Plant the Alphabet Baldessari made reference to structuralist theories regarding the artificial order of language. Nature, in the form of the plant, is juxtaposed with the sense-making sign system. The paradoxical constellation is a tongue-in-cheek illustration of the artificial nature of the structure of language.

Denise Rigaud



"I don't try to be funny. It's just that I feel the world is a little bit absurd and off-kilter and I'm sort of reporting."

John Baldessari

<b>John Baldessari, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, 1972</b>
Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein highlights a work from the permanent collection each month throughout the year. Works from the collection of the Hilti Art Foundation are also included in this series on a regular basis.