David LaChapelle: Earth Laughs in Flowers

Continuing his beef with our celebrity-obsessed society, the surrealist photographer exhibits work inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry

Image

From Tuesday February 14, the Robilant & Voena gallery in London will play host to a new series of works by American fine-art photographer David LaChapelle. The ten large-scale images, titled 'Earth Laughs in Flowers', will additionally be on display in Milan and at the St. Moritz Art Masters festival this month. 

LaChapelle returns to the Robilant & Voena this year after his successful 2010 expo, 'The Rape of Africa', with an exhibition that continues his furor into the world of fine-art photography and that cements his position as a critical commentator on modern day consumerist society. The show is inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem 'Hamatreya', in which the earth’s flowers ridicule man’s arrogant belief that he holds a permanent and indestructible dominion over the earth he walks on…    

'Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds: and strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough. 
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs; 
who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet,
 clear of the grave.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The photographs reveal a series of themes and images that further LaChapelle’s preoccupation with the degenerative effects of celebrity culture, over-consumption and unnecessary indulgence in today’s media-fattened society

On the first look, the painterly-like photographs appear as vibrant still life images of floral arrangements; colourful and somewhat gaudy, but otherwise beautiful prints. Upon closer inspection, the photographs reveal a series of themes and images that further LaChapelle’s preoccupation with the degenerative effects of celebrity culture, over-consumption and unnecessary indulgence in today’s media-fattened society.

His captivating visual style and use of skulls, flowers and fruit imagery takes influence from traditional Baroque ‘Vanitas’ aesthetics. Literally translating as ‘emptiness’, the reference proves to be a great analogy for the ‘empty’ nature of vanity and vice that the photographs project. LaChapelle brings the genre up to the 21st century by creating a polychromatic version and inserting modern-day objects and products alongside the more traditional motifs, resulting in a greedy clash of colour, style and representation.  

Raw chicken feet, decaying flowers and a gloopy oozing mess of sickly pink slush drink results in glycerol chaos, a somewhat slightly repulsive expression of greed

Furthermore, the images, in their large-scale manifestations, in themselves become wholly consuming – the more you stand and gaze, the more they appear to throb with grotesque excess. The fruit, once readily plump and glossy in ‘America’ and ‘The Lovers’ becomes corpse-like, slowly decaying to withered and bruised waste later on in the series. Raw chicken feet, decaying flowers and a gloopy oozing mess of sickly pink slush drink results in glycerol chaos, a somewhat slightly repulsive expression of greed. Gluttony is not the only ‘deadly sin’ present throughout the series though. Vanity, lust, wrath and envy all rear their ugly heads in quick succession through the use of cosmetics, sexual machetes and weaponry. It is a highly effectual method of averting our attentions, as the viewer, to the frivolous nature of consumer activity, and the throw away fashion of today’s popular culture. 

This sluggish destruction only reminds us of the fleeting nature of the life cycle, and the pathetic attempt to assert authority over nature, which can never be controlled by man. LaChapelle quite definitely reveals our gaping cracks: the inevitable decay of beauty and the fragility of those ‘boastful boys’ who claim control over the earth but who ‘cannot steer their feet, clear of the grave’. It leads us to question whether the photographs are simply a reflection on the material preoccupations of modern culture and the transient nature of life or if they act as a precautionary warning, to encourage us to open our eyes, to waste not, want not?

Earth Laughs in Flowers is exhibited at the Robilant & Voena, Dover St, London from February 14 – March 24, 2012

More Arts+Culture