Tulip is a tulip is a tulip

Essay for Jennifer Tee’s monograph, TAMPAN TULIP.

Published by Secession, Vienna. Designed by Cleo Tsw. Preface by Annette Südbeck and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy. With texts by Natasha Ginwala and Sophie J Williamson 

To coincide with Tee’s exhibition Still Shifting, Mother Field at Secession, Vienna and Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam, 2022–23.



Tulip is a tulip is a tulip

By Sophie J Williamson


The variegated bands of dark crimson red slash and splutter in veiny streaks across a subdued yellow in a frenzied clash of colour; a fiery cacophony of activity held within the fragility of a single tulip petal. Or perhaps, if one’s gaze shifts, the mottled feathers of an outstretched wing, proudly displaying its majestically ornate plumage. ‘Rose is a rose is a rose’[1], Gertrude Stein notoriously wrote: whether living or depicted, a rose is so because it is named as such. And yet, here amongst Jennifer Tee’s tulip petal collage, Tampan Natural System of Souls (2019), an equally delicate ephemeral flower momentarily builds a world of creatures, figures, ships, and trees, imbued with mythological and historical symbology. We often mistake objects as having boundaries: a point or edge where they end, and something else begins. Rather than a world made up of ‘things’, ‘things’ only exist because they enter into relations with others, constantly and vigorously as the world tirelessly comes into being, time and time again. As physicist Carlo Rovelli elucidates, ‘A stone is a vibration of quanta that maintains its structure for a while, just as a marine wave maintains its identity for a while before melting again into the sea […] We, like waves and like all objects, are a flux of events; we are processes, for a brief time monotonous.’[2] We live in a world shaped and formed by infinite movement; interactions, flows, vibrations and flux; a multitude of ever-shifting exchanges, each imprinted with their pasts. To look closer, what stories are held within this single fiery-coloured petal-come-feather? How has it come into being, and how has it come to be here precisely, amongst this regal, outstretched bird wing? How does it hold its duality: both the feather of a mythical bird, seeped in cultural histories, and an ephemeral tulip petal, grown this spring and picked by hand?

– – –

Time, seasonality, toil

In June, I joined Tee on one of her annual tulip-picking excursions in the fields of North Holland. The fortnight had been pencilled in our diaries months earlier, but the ideal moment of harvesting was to be confirmed by the farmer a couple of days in advance, following the flowers’ development as the days unfolded. It rained on Friday, so a visit on Saturday was impossible, the petals would wilt and not dry out well; we postponed until Monday, when the clear skies sharpened the flowers’ plumage, and the midday sun radiated off the fields of vibrant stripes of colour, dazzling rows of scarlets, oranges, peaches, magentas, and yellows. The Hortus Bulborum is a tulip garden museum alive with its histories; they seep through the air and rustle with the breeze. Row upon row of heritage specimens, the fields dazzle with the multitude of the flowers’ ancestries, preserving their living lineages for future generations. It’s here, rather than commercial fields, that Tee collects many of her tulips. A Dutch postcard stereotype from afar, walking amongst the tightly planted rows, one’s eye starts to adjust to the multitudes of varieties: colours, petal compositions, leaf shapes, patterning and sizes shift, each reflecting the grower’s fancy and dedication to realising it into fruition, slowly sculpting each variety over many years. Piet Apeldoorn, a soft-spoken, retired tulip grower who takes care of the historic collection, has been working with Tee for years, carefully advising on tulips to pick and relaying stories of their pasts. As we walk through the narrow gullies between rows, he points out specimens and their specificities, amongst the two thousand seven hundred different varieties they maintain. Including these and the contemporary variants, there are over five thousand species of tulips growing worldwide, Piet tells me: though new ones are always evolving, and many more will have already become extinct.

Two years ago, I moved from London—where I was born and have spent most of my life—to the seaside town of Margate, a couple of hours east of the city. Here I shed the anxieties that had moulded my existence in London—dictated by human-constructed 24-hours and capitalist conceived nine-to-five—and instead attuned myself to the sea. Walking with the dog twice a day, my daily routine fell into rhythm with the ebb and flow of the tides; to the celestial movement overhead and to the lively circadian rhythms of the shoreline, washed up with each tide. This desire to dance to a rhythm greater than the human-composed one, is imbued amongst these tulip fields. They refuse to work to the metronome of exhibition deadlines or market pressures; they cannot be sped up or hurried along. Instead, they necessitate a slow and intimate dialogue with the seasons, the weather and the climate. Writing on the value of time, in his essay ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind’, Robert Smithson describes the impossibility of making art floating in the market’s ‘temporal river’ where only remnants of art history drift, he continues that the artist must instead ‘explore the pre and post historic mind; it must go into places where remote futures meet remote pasts’[3]. Tee’s use of tulip petals not only evokes the fleeting moment of the overlapping nodes of histories from different corners of the world; as we will soon discover, they also absorb time, seep through it and bask in it.

– – –


The story of our intricately mottle-veined petal-come-feather starts deep in the Alborz mountains, stretching from the northern border of modern-day Iran and Azerbaijan down to the coast of the Caspian Sea. Persian legend from the 6th century tells of Farhad, a young man from a modest background who fell in love with princess Shirin. When he hears rumours that she had died, overcome with grief, he throws himself from the top of the mountain and where each drop of his blood fell on the barren rocks, a scarlet tulip sprung up. The tulip remains a symbol of enduring love in Iran to this day. Amongst the craggy edges, clinging to barren mountain ledges, grow the Tulipa eichleri, a hardy low-growing flower. Its petals nipped into sharp points, their silhouettes stand as a spiked crown against the arid mountainscape and their brilliant scarlet petals puncture the vista, brightening the spirit of an otherwise unforgiving environment. During the harsh winters, their flowers, stems, and leaves die away, retreating into their bulb form amongst the rocky crevasses, blooming into vibrancy during spring and again in autumn, after hiding away from the equally harsh summer droughts and scorching suns. Continually exposed to wind, cold, and drought, it is a flower that is made for survival, and has maintained this annual duel for millennia, spreading over the wilds of the Himalayan, Caucasus, Tien Shan, Elburz, and Pamir mountain ranges of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. In the 10th century, however, their ancestors’ stories started to take new paths. Tulips that originated in the wilds began to be cultivated in Persia and Turkey, and so their story starts its long and complex entanglements with networks of human desire and exchange.

In the 11th century, celebrated Persian poets were writing passionately of their beauty, and three centuries later tulips were being transported from the wild to adorn the gardens of the royal palaces. Meanwhile, they were emphatically absorbed into the culture of the Ottoman Empire, commemorated in place names and appearing in the far reaches of its kingdom on tiles, textiles, illustrated manuscripts, miniatures, headstones, prayer rugs and murals. Tulips later became such an obsession that an entire era of the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703–1730) has become known as the Lale Devri, the ‘Tulip Era’. As Anna Pavord writes in her in-depth historical narrative, The Tulip, ‘Three hundred years before the Royal Horticultural Society in England and the Dutch bulb growers in the Netherlands got together to prepare the first Classified List of tulip names, Turkish florists-in-chief were already setting up councils to judge new cultivars of tulips and give them official names.’[4] It is not, however, until the tulip’s emigration to Europe that our petal-come-feather starts to take on its striking appearance.

– – –


At the turn of the 17th century, the world was changing—the first markings of the Anthropocene as we now know it. Since Columbus’ arrival in the New World, wheat, sugar, rice, horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens were shipped across the oceans to be introduced to the Americas for the first time (along with smallpox, measles, and typhus), whilst maize, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, chilli peppers, and tobacco were transferred to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Known as the Columbian Exchange, this radically shifted ecosystem marks the start of precarious state of our contemporary planet. This rapid, repeated, cross-ocean exchange of species was without precedent in Earth’s history, causing irreversible and seismic changes to ecologies, habitats and ways of being in its wake. As Anna Tsing et al. write in ‘Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene’, ‘To track the histories that make multispecies’ liveability possible, it is not enough to watch lively bodies. Instead, we must wander through landscapes, where assemblages of the dead gather together with the living.’ [5]

Vitally, the consequential making and unmaking of worlds were not only direct physical imprints. In the late 16th century, travellers brought back stories of the brilliant, much prized lils rouges tulips, as yet unheard of in Europe, that adorned the botanical gardens of Turkey. ‘From that flower and from its wild cousins’, writes Anna Pavord, ‘gathered over the next 300 years from the steppes of Siberia, from Afghanistan, Chitral, Beirut and the Marmaris peninsula, from Isfahan, the Crimea and the Caucasus, came the cultivars which have been grown in gardens ever since’.[6] These newly imported blooms became the must-have commodity. The start of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, believed to still be the largest company ever to have existed and making its fortunes within these newly configured global trade routes, marked the beginning of an era of great prosperity in the Netherlands; and with wealth came the means to spend excessively. The gardens of rich merchants were adorned with fountains, aviaries of rare birds and Greek-style temples; but the tulip was the ultimate status symbol, the definitive emblem of how much you were worth. As botanists started to hybridize the flower, making even more decorative and tempting specimens, mutations of the greatest rarities claimed higher and higher prices.  Even Adriaen Pauw, one of the richest men in the Netherlands at the time, could not afford to plant thousands of tulips; instead, clusters of tulips were multiplied by carefully positioned mirrors. ‘They do vaingloriously hunt after strange herbs and flowers, which having gotten, they preserve and cherish more carefully than any mother does her child‘, philosopher Justus Lipsius wrote, ‘These be the men whose letters fly abroad into Thracia, Greece, and India only for a little root or seed. These men will be more grieved for the loss of a newfound flower than for an old friend.’[7] At the height of what became known as Tulipmania, a bulb of a highly prized ‘Rembrandt’ tulip, with its rare bold broken-colour exquisitely variated petals, could fetch sums equivalent to 15 years’ wages of the average Dutch bricklayer or the price of a town house in the best quarter of Amsterdam. The madness came abruptly to an end in 1637. Tulipmania is thought to be the first example of a speculative financial bubble, when market prices are based not on intrinsic value but on the desire of those buying and their willingness to pay. Many speculators lost vast fortunes; those likely to have profited the most were those who ran the tavernas where the haggling was held. These delicate living items of beauty had stimulated a force that could make or break the futures of those whose hands they passed through. These two major developments to global market societies—the Dutch East India Company, as the first vertical supply chain, and Tulipmania, representing accumulation of wealth and capital on speculation rather than objective value—presented new vehicles for world-making that would irrevocably change our planet and way of being.

At the very far end of the Hortus Bulborum fields, we eventually come to the rows we have travelled here for: rows of bi-colour tulips, bases of reds, pinks and purples, startled into effervescence with feathered flames of white or yellow: the flower from which our petal-come-feather has been picked. These are the infamous so-called Rembrandt tulips, the most highly prized of Tulipmania and cause for such extravagant speculation. Unknown at the time, the striking pigmentation is caused by a virus in the bulb: at once the cause of their exquisite markings but also the fallibility of the crop. This virus, working within its micro-organic world of genetic biomes, shifted the fortunes of individuals and meta-realities inscribed by international economic exchange and cultural legacies. It is now forbidden to grow Rembrandt tulips commercially, they are only allowed to be cultivated in specialist heritage gardens: history living on in the most precarious of ways. At the Hortus Bulborum, these diseased flowers are banished to the far-flung side of the furthest field. They must remain isolated to prevent infection spreading to the other tulip fields, and aphids that might travel between them are ruthlessly destroyed. These diseased but beautiful specimens grow poorly; only the strongest ones make it into bloom. Surviving beyond the odds, our petal-come-feather is the product of a multitude of mishaps, misfortunes and uprootings, transformed into a spectacle of strength, resilience, and elasticity.

– – –

New rhythms, new futures

Once in Europe, the tulips and their human stewards were confronted with a different rhythm. In the wildness of the Alborz mountains, the ancestors of Piet’s bulbs stay in the ground all year round, but here in Holland they cannot survive without intimate human mediation. Tee’s hand is palpable in the careful formation of Tampan Natural System of Souls, painstakingly picking, drying, and shaping the fragile petals with delicate care. So, too, is the hand of the farmer: each year the bulb that formed this petal-come-feather, has been protected from the elements of its—still foreign—environment. The summers are too cold and wet for the bulbs to lay dormant, they must be removed dried and replanted every season, rotating fields to maintain the biodiversity and mineral richness of the soils. Piet talks me through the intricacies of cultivating them: having both seeds and bulbs, the tulips cover multiple possibilities of reproduction and survival. In the wilds of the Central Asian mountains, bees and insects jostle from flower to flower, pollinating them in the temperate months; but just in case the weather fails, squirrels, rats and other rodents also secrete the bulbs, each ‘mother’ bulb spawning a collection of offshoot bulbs ready for dispersal by their animal distributors. For Piet and his fellow farmers, the bulbs—direct genetic facsimiles of the mother bulb—are the main valuable asset to the plant, multiplying their crop with each season. The seeds, though genetically unstable, are used to cross-pollinate into new varieties. Outside of the Hortus Bulborum, Piet takes us to the commercial fields he worked his entire life, now passed down to his son and nephews. Here, in the far corner Piet, along with a cooperative of growers, develop new species for future markets. Each bulb takes six years for its first bloom, and twenty years to develop to commercial viability: it is a slow process of dedication, patience and care. Tee has been drawn to the tulips because her own grandfather was a tulip producer. Looking out over the expansive blanket of deep sultry and vivacious bright reds, I imagine him at work in fields—analysing the season’s crop, their progressing growth, the colour they suggest before they open into bloom—the markets that awaited them and the living-room tables they adorned. Which of these tulips did he have a hand in nurturing into the present day; which are part of her specific story; and who else did they touch along the way?

In 700 BCE, focused on relationships between farming techniques, economic thought, astronomy, and time-keeping, Greek poet Hesiod proposed that the true essence of time lay in the continual dialogue between nature and culture, necessitating close and careful observation. In Anthony F. Aveni’s, ‘Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures’, through Hesoid’s poetry and writings, he outlines: ‘Nature speaks to the farmer through a repetitive, oscillatory chain of events that can be associated with one another—the appearance of a star, the migration of a bird, the blossoming of a flower, the arrival of a gust of wind […] When we listen to his calendar song, we can be sure that we are hearing about entities that sing along together harmoniously—they are part of a holistic world view […] and if we pay close attention to the collective order, we can use her behaviour to help structure a better society.’[8] Piet’s attunement to the land holds the lineage of centuries of tulip growers, and farmers beforehand, knowledge passed to him through his father and grandfather: he has worked in these tulip fields since he was six; the land is an extension of his family and himself. Despite this personal intimacy, which is unarguably one of nurture, care and dedication, the tulip cultivation industry is situated within its historical makings. Soils, climates, farmer, and artist: they are each the midwives or stewards, without whom our petal-come-feather would not come into being.

But the tulip fields do not exist in an autonomous biome; global warming has meant that the tulips bloom earlier and earlier; Piet and his fellow growers, now have to ‘cope’ the flower heads ten days earlier than they used to. ‘Capitalists exploit ecologies not only by reshaping them but also by taking advantage of their capacities’, Anna Tsing writes in The Mushroom at the End of the World. The exquisite virus-infected tulips were a marker of these beginnings: actively destructive to be extractive of intangible speculative capital. Now, several centuries later, colonial and capitalist devouring of planetary resources imprints itself back on the tulip fields of North Holland. Tsing continues, ‘When humble commodities are allowed to illuminate big histories, the world economy is revealed as emerging within historical conjunctures: the indeterminacies of encounter.’[9]

– – –

Movement and entanglement

As well as the indulgent gardens of 17th-century Dutch merchants, this petal-come-feather belongs to a bird of fluid and melded identities; a hornbill, garuda or some altogether other mythical bird. Tampan Natural System of Souls, like Tee’s other tulip collage works, borrows its designs from the tampan cloths of the Lampung region of southern Sumatra, with their striking depictions of ships, cargos of people, and surrounding ecologies. Situated along the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, it has been a crucial trade route since antiquity and a crossroads of cultures and artistic traditions. The Lampung’s opulent tampan textiles—found in almost every home, exchanged for ritual occasions—often incorporate hornbills and garudas as a motif. Both are birds that move through space and time in different ways: the hornbill is a symbol of death and reincarnation, whilst the mythical garuda with its outstretched wings, is a protector with speed and martial prowess. Movement, flow and flux are imbued in Tampan Natural System of Souls: whilst the tulips evoke the movements that underpin our societies, cultures, politics, and ecologies in often less visible ways, the ship cloth designs wear these movements on their surface.

Although the exact lineage of the region’s name is unknown for certain, in his book Ship Cloths of the Lampung South Sumatra, Achmad Djajadiningrat suggests that the most likely is from Si Lampung—the great founding ancestor of Lampung according to local tradition—whose name means ‘drifting, floating on the water‘[10]. In her seminal essay, ‘Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water’, cultural theorist, Astrida Neimanis, writes: ‘Even while in constant motion, water is also a planetary archive of meaning and matter. To drink a glass of water is to ingest the ghosts of bodies that haunt that water […] Just as the deep oceans harbor particulate records of former geological eras, water retains our more anthropomorphic secrets, even when we would rather forget. Our distant and more immediate pasts are returned to us in both trickles and floods.’ This analogy of water can also be reflected in Tee’s tulip petals and the tampan designs they now ephemerally form; an organic entity that is in a constant state of absorbing and morphing. Neimanis continues, ‘And that same glass of water will facilitate our movement, growth, thinking, loving […] An alchemist at once profoundly wondrous and entirely banal, water guides a body from young to old, from here to there, from potentiality to actuality. Translation, transformation. Plurality proliferates.’[11] Tampan Natural System of Souls, holds a slower temporality, one which has morphed slowly over the years and centuries, disappearing and resurfacing time and again; yet carrying the histories of ecologies, desires, societies, and cultures innately within their being. This single petal-come-feather is the marker in a crossroads of planetary and human histories, converging momentarily.

Of immigrant roots yet undeniably Dutch, there is a kinship Tee has found in the tulip. As the tampans are stories that travelled over oceans, the tulips are stories that have travelled over era. Movement is of two-fold significance for Tee: boat journeys have played vital roles in the formation of her plural identity. A vessel carried her father to the Netherlands from Indonesia with his sister and parents in 1950; meanwhile her maternal grandfather travelled frequently to and from America for his business, Leen van der Mey & Son, a wholesale tulip bulb export company established by his father in Heemstede, trading flowers grown in nearby Lisse. Found within this single petal-come-feather, are two distinct traditions from Tee’s personal heritage—Sumatran tampans and tulip growing—in doing so she enfolds a multitude of entangled histories, read in a multitude of directions of exchange, communication and influence, as cultures, commodities and natures have flowed across the globe throughout the centuries. As the tulip’s ancestors travelled—through Caucasus and Kurdistan, Ankara through Yerevan and Baku to Turkmenistan, through Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent to the mountains of the Pamir-Alai and Tien Shan, through Constantinople, Vienna, and Haarlem—it collected stories, influences and personalities along the way. Tee’s lineage is likewise one of movement and amalgamation; through Fujian, Guangdong in China, to Makassar in Sulawesi, and Ponorogo and Semarang in Java, Indonesia, melding with routes through West Ham in Britain, and Lisse and Heemstede in the Netherlands. These bodies—human, flower and tampan bird—are inscribed with their forgotten and misremembered histories. Scientists have traced in the DNA of Caribbean populations, from Barbados to Puerto Rico, from Jamaica to Cuba: the history is read clearly in the predominance of indigenous and black female chromosomes, coupled with the vast majority of male white chromosomes in the contemporary populations: clear narratives of violence, colonisation, slavery, murder and rape. Tee and the tulips’ stories may be harder to delineate, but they are innately held within their bodily make-up nevertheless. While the tulip was first cultivated in the intricately designed pleasure gardens of Sultan Mehmed II in 1451 to his delight and the admiration of others, the great arts-patron dukes of the Low Countries—which eventually became the Netherlands—indulged in the exquisite oil-painted panels of Hieronymus Bosch and in China Shen Zhou painted his famous ‘boneless’ renderings of flowers. While, in 1593 in the Netherlands, Carolus Clusius planted the first tulip in the Botanical Garden in Leiden, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English fought wars across Indonesia’s archipelago Maluku islands, seeking to monopolise sources of valuable nutmeg, cloves, and cubeb pepper. In 1641, the Dutch captured the port city of Malacca in Malaysia from the Portuguese, a narrow strait, through which all seagoing trade between China and India was concentrated; meanwhile prominent tulip florist Peter Voorhelm, in the wake of the Tulipmania crash, was shifting to his customers’ new lust for hyacinths. All this time, chromosomes—of Tee’s and the Rembrandt tulips’ streaked petals—were twisting and melding with others, coming into their contemporary being. In 1825, Tee’s great-great-grandmother may have read of the first railway being opened in Britain, while peers of her Dutch ancestors exported bulbs to Mr Lawrence of Hampton who would grow the stud tulip ‘Polyphemus’ the following year. And whilst tulip fanciers grew in popularity in Britain—potteries translating the love of the flower onto painted china plates—large numbers of Southern Chinese immigrants were migrating to Indonesia. A century later, whilst her Chinese-Indonesian paternal grandfather travelled by boat from Tandjong Priok, Indonesia to Rotterdam, Netherlands, tulips were being eaten in the Netherlands during the  winter famine of 1944/45, Piet’s father’s re-sowing crop dwindled, and in Iran tulips were being printed on postage stamps, later to become a symbol of revolution.

Within this single tulip petal-come-feather can be read the complex entanglements of the flora and fauna as they have shaped the cultural imagination, embedded into our histories, our world views and our sense of collective identity. This fragile, ephemeral petal-come-feather has equally been shaped by politics, economics, and commodities; transformed through history by wars, empires, trade routes, colonialisms, capital flows, extraction, pollutants, and ideologies of progression. Fictions of desire that solidify into transformed realities. As the collective writers of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet eloquently put it, ‘The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts—the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present’[12]. Imbued with mysteries, spectacles, disasters, and triumphs, amongst its bright unruly streaks is a multitude of unspoken histories that have brought its being into existence. Our vibrant and complicated petal-come-feather is entangled time and space, and the embodiment of stories that are melded and intertwined, continuing to forge ahead into a multitude of unknown futures.

[1] Gertrude Stein, Geography and Plays, Open Road Media, 2022.

[2] Carlo Rovelli et al, Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, Riverhead Books, 2018.

[3] Robert Smithson et al, Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings, University of California Press, 1996.

[4] Anna Pavord, The Tulip, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

[5] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing et al, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

[6] Anna Pavord, The Tulip, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

[7] Justus Lipsius and R. V. Young, Justus Lipsius’ Concerning Constancy, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011.

[8] Anthony F. Aveni, Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks and Cultures, University Press of Colorado, 2003.

[9] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton University Press, 2015.

[10] Toos van Dijk and Nico de Jonge, Ship Cloths of the Lampung South Sumatra: A Research of Their Design, Meaning, and Use in Their Cultural Context, Galerie Mabuhay, Amsterdam, 1980.

[11] Astrida Neimanis, Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water, 2012.

[12] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing et al, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.