The Cultivar Series

Since the dawn of agriculture we have shaped and transformed a broad number of organisms towards our needs, while at the same time promoting their survival and geographic range. Through breeding and artificial selection we have developed a seemingly infinite diversity of shapes and colors from the wild ancestors of today's domesticated plants. However, since the industrialization of agriculture our focus has shifted to only a few modern, high yielding, robust, 'good looking', uniform and predictable varieties. This change has led to the displacement of traditional crop varieties. A vast majority of all varieties developed by humans have already become extinct during the last 50 years. With them we not only loose genetic diversity, but also a living cultural and culinary heritage. Without growing, using and eating them, the remaining varieties may only survive in seed vaults, through the work of dedicated farmers or in our own backyards and gardens. Yet, the genetic plasticity and adaptability of these plants are of critical importance for the sustainability and security of our global future food supply.
The Cultivar Series is a continuously growing collection of photographs that reveal the mind boggling diversity of crop cultivars.


2010 - Present | photographs


Comment on a recent article that appeared on synbiobeta.com:

I have no connection to Synbiobeta, I do not know or endorse them.

The Cultivar Series is referred to in this article as an example of artworks that depict "humanity's role in biological manipulation", arguing that this process 'is not a new one', and that 'for thousands of years, humans have manipulated natural systems for their own purposes.'

Yes, but the history of domestication is something fundamentally different than the recent advances in synthetic biology. Domestication of plants and animals has been a slow process that took shape over Millennia, driven by millions of farmers and breeders, utilizing mechanisms that already existed in nature, and moving at a pace that was slow enough for ecosystems and societies to adapt. Synthetic biology is evolving at a rapid speed, out-pacing public awareness, debate and regulation, and is altering life in ways that is unprecedented.

My main concerns about synthetic biology (and genetic engineering) are the havoc that the inevitable release of significantly altered organisms into ecosystems can cause and the increasing consolidation of corporate control over nature and our livelihoods.

I'm not opposed to fundamental research in genetics, but I'm opposed to rushing towards synthetic biology as a design tool and technological quick fix, especially when it comes to food production.

For critical reading on this subject I suggest to visit www.etcgroup.org/issues/synthetic-biology.


Zea mays I - Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, USA

2018 | 224cm x 112cm

Special thanks to Liz Fairchild, Nicholas Garber and Sheryl Joy.


Zea mays I focuses on the diversity of maize cultivars grown before the age of industrial monocultures. For this work I collaborated with seed banks in Tucson, Arizona and Texcoco, Mexico, visiting their locations and documenting hundreds of specimens.

The collection of Native Seeds/SEARCH (image above) has a focus on cultivars from the Southern US and Northern Mexico, while CIMMYT's collection (image below) contains samples of maize from around the globe.

Thousands of years of selection by humans have yielded dramatic changes to corn, including non-shattering ears, more kernels, bigger cobs, more rows of kernels and greater edibility. Each region has developed its own shapes, colors, flavors, culinary and cultural uses.

The US Cornbelt, an immense area roughly the size of California, almost exclusively grows a single type of corn called yellow dent. Nearly all of the seed is genetically modified and intellectual property, controlled by the few remaining multinational corporations that rule todays seed market. Most of the harvest is turned into ethanol and animal feed to produce cheap meat in concentrated feeding operations. Just a fraction of the harvest is directed towards directly feeding people, and that in the form of sweeteners, particularly high fructose corn syrup. This transformation of corn from a nourishing food into actual poison is reflected in the related work Suicide Soda.

Zea mays I was commissioned for the exhibition Biodesign - From Inspiration to Integration at Woods Gerry Gallery, Providence, USA, curated by William Meyers and RISD Nature Lab (2018).


Zea mays I - CIMMYT, Texcoco, Mexico

2018 | 224cm x 112cm

Special thanks to Dr. Denise Costich, Dr. Martha Willcox and Dennis Baldwin.



Lycopersicum III


2013 | 120cm x 240cm

+ view cultivar index +



Cucumis sativus I


2014 | 120cm x 240cm

+ view cultivar index +



Capsicum I


2016 | 120cm x 240cm

+ view cultivar index +



Phaseolus vulgaris I


2013 | 120cm x 240cm

+ view cultivar index +



Pyrus I


2018 | 120cm x 240cm

Special thanks to Dietmar Frick





Brassica oleracea I


2018 | 120cm x 240cm




Phaseolus vulgaris II

- work in progress -




Cucurbita I

- work in progress -




Solanum tuberosum I

- work in progress -





Many thanks to Peaceful Belly Farm, Boise, Idaho, VERN - Verein zur Erhaltung und Rekultivierung von Nutzpflanzen e.V., in Brandenburg, Germany, the genebank of IPK in Gatersleben, Germany, the Dutch genebank for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture in Wageningen, the Netherlands, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, USA, the genebank of CIMMYT, Texcoco, Mexico and all the individuals who have provided me with advise, cultivars and seeds for this project.
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All content © Uli Westphal. Please respect the copyright.