Klaus Pichler investigates the worldwide destruction of genetically modified orange petunias

In his latest project, The Petunia Carnage, the photographer documents the petunia’s mysterious “escape from the lab” which led to the flower being “destroyed en masse”.

19 January 2022


You might remember seeing Klaus Pichler’s enlightening photographs of Vienna’s barflies on the site a few years ago, capturing the local drinkers inhabiting the bars, inns and Branntweiner in the city. This was in 2017 and, since then, Klaus has been taking a much-needed rest from his practice. “I wanted to take some time for riding and doing research in other fields in order to get new inspiration and to rethink my photographic approach,” he tells It’s Nice That. It’s something he’s wanted to do for a while, after he started to notice that, over time, his interests had shifted more and more back to the topics of his former profession as an architect and landscape ecologist. “I noticed I had never really tried before to combine these fields with photography,” he says. After realising this, Klaus commenced work on a two-year dive into the relationship between ecology, science and photography. Cue The Petunia Carnage, his first project based on this new approach.

The story behind The Petunia Carnage is an engaging and somewhat bizarre one. After reading about the story of orange petunias in a science journal three years ago, Klaus became fascinated immediately by the movie-like plot of what he was investigating. “It’s about genetically modified petunias, created at a landmark genetic engineering experiment in Cologne in the late 1980s, which made a mysterious ‘escape from the lab’ afterwards and slipped into commercial breeding,” explains Klaus. Like a dove flying free from its cage, the petunias were discovered in Helsinki in 2017 and were thus declared as illegal flowers; they were “subsequently ordered to be destroyed en masse worldwide”. Kind of reminiscent of The Simpsons episode where Bart brings a frog to Australia, these particular petunias were disrupting local ecology. And for Klaus, this made an excellent topic to explore photographically.

Conceived in signature witty and tongue-in-cheek style, Klaus decided to pair speculative documentary photography with stark, almost surreal snapshots of labs, documents, flora, plus scientists posing with equipment and testing materials. He adds: “I was intrigued by the fact that the whole story felt like a blueprint with what can happen if scientific interest, commercial marketing logic, genetic engineering legislation, socio-political values, mass media culture and unexpected coincidences collide – especially in a controversial field like genetic engineering, where discourse is chronically heated.”


Klaus Pichler: The Petunia Carnage (Copyright © Klaus Pichler, 2022)

Klaus describes his project as a kind of “reverse-mockumentary” – a real-life story compiled with staged (fake) imagery. He strives to challenge the truth of photography in this work, which is a prevalent topic considering today’s immediacy of information, fake news and “post-truth”. Within Petunia Carnage, Klaus scripted the work in chronological order, meticulously laying out the story to the best of his knowledge; he reached out to scientists and authoritative voices in relation to the story, interviewed them and asked to provide original material for the case. “Based upon the interviews and the material, I recreated and staged almost all of the imagery (around 90 per cent in total),” he says, which includes taking the photographs, designing the print materials, printing and re-photographing them. He also hosted a petunia breeding station in his flat, “where I grew huge amounts of flowers to include them in the images”.

There are many pictures worth taking note of throughout this project, like the first and last image depicting a bunch of real orange petunias – “seemingly, because the second image, which shows the backside of the bunch, reveals that these are, in fact, paper flowers,” says Klaus. Shot in a staged environment with a pot perched on a ledge, the images represent the entire ethos of the project as it questions the trust in photography. “Since every image can both be ‘true’ or not, depending if you’re looking at the content or the image itself.” Another picture, of a nighttime scene outside a bricked building, depicts the time in which the project was made: during the pandemic. As such, Klaus found it difficult to work with other people over the first few months of the pandemic, so he made the decision to only show himself and girlfriend in the project, “sometimes resulting in multiple images of one of us in one photograph,” he adds. “This image shows a self-portrait in a hazmat suit on the scene of petunia related investigations.”

When you first take a peek at Klaus’ Petunia Carnage, you might not think much of the context behind it. The entertaining pictures, visually engaging sequences and vivid colours almost distract you from the utterly fascinating context behind it: the science. “I hope that the project and its slightly odd and humorous undertone will provide an easy entry into the topic, which is not only the orange petunia case itself, but also the topics linked to it,” Klaus concludes. “Ideally the project is an invitation to reflect upon ‘huge topics’ like the future of science, commercial plant production, mass media culture and, last but not least, genetic engineering, which will be part of our future, especially since the establishing of gene editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9.”

“In my opinion, it is always the mission of artistic comments to provide a mixture of entertainment and education, particularly when it comes to serious and important topics, and I hope my project will be perceived this way.”

GalleryKlaus Pichler: The Petunia Carnage (Copyright © Klaus Pichler, 2022)

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Klaus Pichler: The Petunia Carnage (Copyright © Klaus Pichler, 2022)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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