Mitsu Salmon at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology Credit: Mitsu Salmon

In Japan, nobility and samurai cultivated orchids as symbols of bravery, and businesses gifted with them would be graced with prosperity and success. In China, orchids have been used for thousands of years as medicine, prized for their fragrance, and revered as a virtuous plant by gentleman scholars. The Aztecs extracted orchid essence and drank it to enhance their physical strength. “Testicle,” thought the Greek botanist who gave the flower the name we call it by for its tuberous roots. (Orkhis = testes; mythologically, Orchis, the son of a nymph and a satyr, was torn to pieces by beasts for attempting to rape a maenad, then redeemed by being transformed into this flower.) 

Orchid: Dormancy and Becoming, an interdisciplinary performance by Mitsu Salmon with a soundscape by La Spacer performed outdoors at the Ragdale Foundation on July 17 and in a private backyard in Humboldt Park at the end of the month, examines the history, ecology, myths, and metaphors of the flower one popular delivery service markets as “exotic” and erotic (“associated with fertility, virility, and sexuality,” “aphrodisiac,” etc.). 

Salmon’s interest in orchids began with her family history: her maternal great-grandfather, Ryōzō Kanehira, was a botanist who studied orchids and other plants on Orchid Island off the southeast coast of Taiwan. “He collected orchids and has several orchids named after him,” she says. “His history combines working in conservation and being part of a colonialist agenda as part of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan [from 1895-1945]. I contrast that to my grandmother, who had orchids in her house but experienced American occupation in Japan after World War II. It became this symbol in my ancestry of being colonized and being a colonizer.” 

Mitsu Salmon at Tsung Yeah Artist Village in TaiwanCredit: Rich Matheson

Initially Salmon focused her research on her family, botany, and imperialism, but protracted incubation during pandemic shutdowns and cancellations prompted the project to develop in more directions. After a cancelled work-in-progress showing in March 2020, Salmon left Chicago for Utah, where she and her partner thought they would remain for just a month or two in lockdown. But as time passed, and opportunities vanished, she found herself considering broader approaches to her theme. 

“I got some orchids and most of the time they’re not blooming,” she says. “Creating this work and having these orchids that were not blooming—it really felt connected. All my performances, all my teaching, everything for me had been cancelled. I didn’t have access to rehearsal space. So I was thinking about rest, dormancy, and growth.” A surgery also complicated matters, preventing Salmon from developing movement for the piece for several months. “I was reading and writing like crazy, so I have all this text”—some of which she has collected into a booklet that will be distributed at performances. “I was thinking about this piece while I was just twiddling my thumbs not knowing if it would ever be shown. It’s gone all over the place now in terms of looking at the history of orchids, the importing of orchids, growth patterns of orchids, the environment.”

As reported incidents of violence against Asian Americans increased over the year, Salmon also began to consider her work in the context of racism. When the Atlanta shootings happened, Salmon was beginning a residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Otis, Oregon. “For the first time I was completely healthy and could get into the movement, but the first days in the studio, I was not able to do anything because I was processing. I was feeling very vulnerable. It started to seep into the work,” she recalls. “The orchid we’re most familiar with and see everywhere is called Phalaenopsis, from the Philippines. It’s mass-produced. All the other kinds are harder to get. Because of that orchid, orchids are often connected with Asia. Orchids are a sexual symbol—people think of them like female genitalia. I connect my own experience of race with being sexualized—they’re often conflated—so I’m thinking of the difference between being sexualized, when you’re made into an object or people project onto you, a negative experience, versus internal sexuality.”

“Orchidelirium,” the mad pursuit of orchids by wealthy English collectors in Victorian England, partially funded by the Opium Wars, also reflected imperialistic conquest of lands and people. “People went into these newly ‘discovered’ places in Asia and the South Pacific to find beautiful and rare orchids,” says Salmon. “At times after collecting the orchids, they would burn down these lands so other people couldn’t collect them. It was like tulip mania, but there they took from their own country, whereas this was going to other countries and extracting and destroying.”

Tropical areas of Latin and South America were also targets of orchidelirium and territories with particularly sought-after orchids. Conversations with musician and DJ La Spacer (Natalie Murillo), who is creating electronic music for Orchid: Dormancy and Becoming, has opened another global perspective on orchids for Salmon: “Mayans use a certain kind of orchid in their food. La Spacer was studying Mayan beats. So I’m looking at relationships between Asians and Latin Americans through the orchid.”

Yet as far-reaching as Salmon’s project ranges, she also notes that orchids are native to North America—and grow (with some difficulty) right here. “Half the orchids in North America are endangered. The prairie fringed orchid is native to Illinois and is an endangered one. The really fancy-looking ones are imported from the tropics—South America, Asia, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil. But there’s a lot of little orchids that are not flamboyant in North America. They pretty much grow on every continent except Antarctica.”  v

Orchid: Dormancy and Becoming, Sat July 17, 6 PM, Ragdale Foundation, 1260 N. Green Bay Rd., Lake Forest, and Sat-Sun 7/31-8/1, 7 PM, private backyard in Humboldt Park (limited audience), mitsusalmon.com, free.