[urban interfaces] research group at Utrecht University

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Guest blogpost: Noa Mes – Painting Nature, Growing Buildings: Ghosts and Ecological Mourning

For our [urban interfaces] seminar series on the theme The Magic City (2021-2022), we invited participants to write blogposts. The best and most interesting ones we publish on our website.

Below is the blogpost for seminar session #3, written by Noa Mes :

Noa Mes is a student of the Gender Studies research master at Utrecht University and has a background in Media and Culture Studies. Her interests lie in posthumanist and new materialist thinking in relation to media and arts. She focusses on the imaginative potential of metaphors and figures in artistic expression and asks how they gesture towards conversation and convergence of the human and non-human.

Painting Nature, Growing Buildings: Ghosts and Ecological Mourning

by Noa Mes 

London, May 7th 2022

I am in a bus driving into London. As the bus rolls into the city, I am looking out the window, seeing the bus station appear in front of me, just around the corner. Yet, before we turn the corner, we stop at a red light, and my eyes are caught by an artwork:

Image 1. The photo depicts a scene of a building site. In the background the construction of the buildings is visible. In the front a protective wall and container, painted with a nature scene, are visible.

When seeing this view, I am taken aback by the morbid feeling this scene gives me. Why does it feel like this picture is haunting me? I immediately feel the painful irony of the fact that the wall and container, as elements of the building site, are chosen to be painted with a nature scene. Are building sites and nature not the opposites of one another? I take a picture of it, because an uncanny feeling emerges out of the strange imagery of the painted trees flowing over into the new buildings, as if these buildings are the treetops. I get a sense that they are parallels; the trees and the buildings are both growing. Yet the irony of the situation is that in this urban space humans are growing buildings, not plants. I feel like the wall is the actualization of a paradox, namely that if we have a blank canvas on which to depict anything we want to see, we choose a picture of nature, which conflicts with the reality of what we are actually creating namely a space of concrete (which is the only reason why that blank canvas wall is here I the first place). Thus, the wall feels like a mask, hiding the growing buildings with a more soothing picture of nature. Yet far from being soothing, the picture haunts me. It haunts me by making visual the ghosts of the ‘real’ trees and plants whose absence become painfully clear. I feel like I am mourning these plants.

Yet I wonder, if I am haunted by these trees and plants, what temporal dimension they come from? Which plants am I exactly mourning? Firstly, the flowers and trees feel like the depicted ghost of a lost or destroyed nature from the past, a landscape that once was, but is no more. In that sense, the wall starts to feel  like a shrine to the devastated nature that had to make room for the growing of buildings. Yet this is not all that constitutes my mourning. Some other temporality must be at work here. I feel like there are more ghosts, other ghosts, the ghosts of potential plants and trees trapped beneath the concrete building site. Trapped even beneath the concrete road I drive on. These plant-ghosts are not dead, but in a dormant state, impatiently waiting to grow. This ghost is not coming form the past, it is not the ghost of something lost, but the ghost of a potential future flowers and plants. Yet another piece of the haunting is still missing. I am haunted by the ghosts of the past and the future, but what about the present? More than anything, the wall seems like a portal, a small peak into a could-have-been present, an alternative universe. It makes painfully clear how I could have been seeing trees growing here at this moment instead of buildings. I realize, the painted plants are ghost of an alternative present. The ghosts are coming for me from every direction. They comingle and blur any temporal distinction of where the haunting and mourning is originating from.

I realize this artwork has affected me in such a way that I am in a state of ecological mourning. Yet more than understanding the wall as a somber shrine to a lost nature, I understand this sudden visibility of the absent trees and flowers as an act of nature speaking back to humans, asserting its presence (albeit in painted form). It reminds me nature is still here in ghosting form. As nature is asserting its presence through this wall, I want to ask back to these ghosts, which dimension are you coming from and, most importantly, what are you trying to tell me? Are you the ghost of dead plants, and am I to mourn the devastation of lost nature? Are you the ghost of an alternative present, forcing me to reflect on the present actions of humans? Or are you the ghost of the unborn plants, urging me to make this potential future happen, to make the unborn flowers bloom? I suspect the wall and its ghosts would answer me they are neither and all at the same time.

All temporal dimensions are present in the artwork, and the temporally ambivalent ghosts urge any spectator to acknowledge all concomitant feelings and actions: to mourn, to accept, to change, to hope. With this realization I suddenly start to notice the sky on the wall. This sky seems to know how the picture has made me feel. It represent all these ambiguous and conflicting feelings by the strange comingling of gloomy dark blue shades and hopeful orange and yellow shades. Most importantly, my questioning of what these ghosts are urging me to do invites me to step away from an oppositional logic between nature versus technology, and to truly stand still and reflect on what is going on in this whole scene. I am reminded of Haraway’s cyborg (1991) and confronted with my immediate binary thinking of nature versus technology. Can there not be nature and technology together? Does one have to push out or master the other? When the scene from the bus gives me the uncanny view of the trees flowing over into the building where the buildings are the treetops, is there a glimpse or possibility of a cyborg there? Perhaps I need to notice the potentiality of this scene, a tree-building, a co-mingling of trees and building, both growing into each other. Then I can rethink this wall, not as a masking, but as an unexpected ‘happening’ and an imagery of conviviality. Perhaps the haunting ghosts distracted me to such extent that I could not see the potential and conviviality that this picture already is, to see that real trees are present in this photo, that they are already mingling with the wall, part of a mutual space that they co-constitute. Perhaps then that distraction and haunting is exactly the wall’s agency, to attract my vision in order to make me stop, ponder, and, most importantly, notice, so I can see what is already or potentially here. Maybe all we need to do is stand still, to notice. But then the light turns green again. The bus starts to drive and once again we move on.



Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149-181. New York: Routledge.