Curated by Terezie Zemánková
Text by Maja and Reuben Fowkes and Terezie Zemánková
September 8 – October 28, 2022
Heracles of Hogweed: Plant Invader or Guest Species?
Text by Maja and Reuben Fowkes
The divisive politics of populist governments that have come to power in Europe and across the world in the last decade is charged with xenophobic sentiments of hostility toward foreign influence and heightened fear of migrants. Their nationalist and anti-globalist agenda is also transposed onto zoological and botanical realms, where plants with different geographic histories are vilified and labelled as non-native or invasive and subject to public campaigns of eradication, with media coverage further fuelling the atmosphere of intolerance. The myth of native purity has been corroded, however, by climate disruption bringing in its wake the unstoppable resettlement of species across the planet. Ecological crisis has sharpened the critique of Invasion Biology as a subdiscipline with a guiding assumption that foreign species pose a vital threat to the native flora and fauna of local ecosystems, disclosing it as unwittingly echoing populist rhetoric and misconstruing scientific evidence. Intervening in the entangled domains of politics, science, and ecology, artists have challenged the demonization of so-called invasive species, uncovered complex histories of their redistribution and engendered collaborative scenarios in which the agency of non-native pioneers is released to restore and revivify devastated post-industrial environments.
A new wave of environmental thinking, which goes to the lengths of proposing the term “guest species” to denote those beneficial “non-native species that we welcome into our ecosystem,” has acknowledged the integral role of newcomer plants in the dynamic response of the natural world to intensifying ecological crisis. Advocates of the “new wild” see signs of natural resilience in the “strength and colonizing abilities of alien species,” who often become in effect, “the new natives,” in novel ecosystems that combine introduced and indigenous varieties. The emphasis that Invasion Biology placed on deliberate or accidental “human assistance” in introducing non-native species to new environments has given way to greater recognition of plant agency in migration. Ecologist Chris D. Thomas has correspondingly observed that in response to climate disruption, “around two-thirds of the species that researchers have studied in recent decades have shifted their distribution,” to become “commoner in those places where the climate has ‘improved’ for them.” He goes on to predict that “in the long run, it is the species that keep moving and successfully exploit new environments that will survive and prosper and thus ensure the survival of their kin on planet Earth.” Anthropogenic alterations to habitats and climate chaos therefore necessitate the pragmatic embrace of novel assemblages of human and non-human entities to accommodate new forms of coexistence.
Adam Vačkař’s film Giant Hogweed (2022) tests emotive responses to a pioneering plant, whose spread westwards from Central Asia and the Caucasus was entwined from the beginning with histories of colonial collecting. Like many vegetal migrants that are today denigrated as non-native invasives, the giant hogweed journeyed from exotic lands to the colonial hothouse of Kew in London in the early nineteenth century, before escaping from ornamental gardens to flourish along uncultivated riverbanks. This five metre tall giant of the genus Heracleum, which was named by Enlightenment botanist Carl Linnaeus after the bravest of ancient Greek heroes, has kept its serendipitous association with strength and steadfastness. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the plant, which is also known by the derogatory moniker ‘The Hog’, is today ‘widely distributed in the wild and poses a serious risk to people who are unaware of its potential for harm.’ Fear of the giant hogweed, the sap of which is phototoxic and can cause blisters when contaminated skin is exposed to sunlight, is dramatized in Vačkař’s film with scenes of eradication teams in full-body PPE scything and decapitating the unwelcome invader. However, another point of view is suggested by night-time footage that gently illuminates its capacious leaves, thick stalks and glorious heads, the eery, sylvan ambiance of which is heightened by the unsettling score of composer Natálie Pleváková. An alternative modus operandi to the objectifying, scientific-technical gaze, which since Linnaeus has named, confined, exploited and despised newcomer plants, is also hinted at in the closing sequences of the film. A bare hand reaches out to lovingly stroke the leaves of the giant hero hogweed, daring the viewer to imagine a different relation to plants based on care, respect, coexistence and an acceptance of the obligation to atone for and repair the dislocation and destruction of the natural world in the Anthropocene era of colonial modernity.
HerbariumText by Terezie Zemankova
"How can people live without some sense that there is an unltimate truth or ultimate scale of values. (...) I don’t any longer think that this is just a transitional phase and that we’re moving on to some other settled period. I think we’re culturally in a phase of permanent revolution "
And God said: "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed on the face of the whole earth, and every tree bearing fruit yielding seed. This shall be your food. Also to all the beasts of the field, and to every bird of the air, and to every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, in short, to everything that has life in it, I have given every green herb for food." God saw all that He had done, and behold, it was very good! ...... It is as if plants, from the moment of Creation, had no value in themselves and were condemned only for the benefit of other living creatures. The revision of this hierarchical approach to nature, established in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, has long been a central theme of Adam VACKAR, artist who formed his artistic experience during studies and creative stays in Europe, Africa and Asia. "Plants have shaped the history of mankind. They determined the routes of game and thus of prehistoric hunters. Precious spices and plant dyes were the prized spoils of conquering expeditions. Potatoes, corn, beans and other crops from the New World fed the population of the Old Continent, allowing it to grow. The massive cultivation of tobacco, sugar cane and cotton in North America, in turn, led to an exodus from Africa and cemented the slave order... Our lives are influenced, perhaps even controlled, by plants," Vackar argues. He considers the root cause of the global ecological crisis to be the self-centered optics of Homo sapiens, who apply only the standards of their own utility to nature and, based on this limited perspective, perpetrate even well-intentioned attempts to save it. The possum seeks to overthrow this postulate and calls for the decolonization and emancipation of plants. This strategy emerges from the experimental film, which offers a key not only to the installation at Kabinet T, but also to the artist's broader work.
The main protagonist of his Herbarium project is the contradictory herb Giant Hogweed (Heracleum Mantegazzianum), which was brought to Europe from the Caucasus in the early 19th century to become an exotic ornamental plant in the royal gardens of London. But the Giant Hogweed is a rapidly reproducing invasive plant that follows a very different evolutionary plan than becoming a humble decoration. And so it soon expanded into the wild, destabilising the natural situation of local plants. If flowers in culture have always symbolized almost exclusively positive values - love, innocence, faith, new life... the Giant Hogweed, on the other hand, has become a victim of moral condemnation. It is generally perceived as an invasive enemy that must be fought, preferably with power mowers and poisonous sprays. But nature is not a museum where everything is rigidly in place. The ecosystem is a living organism that is constantly changing, points out Adam Vačkář, who is rehabilitating the bolshevik and building its "sanctuary" in the Herbarium. He dries and presses the several-metre-long plants, and covers the broken stems with a layer of metal (as well as fragments of other plant or animal remains). The galvanisation accentuates the decorative structure and pure shape of the natural plants, which thus become cultural objects - jewels or precious relics. At other times, they are encased in a mixture of resin and wax and dry fruits and leaves are transformed into laboratory preparations. He then arranges the resulting artefacts into unlikely juxtapositions as beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table. He turns them into totems and idols, post-apocalyptic landscapes or sacrificial sites of mysterious rituals. Vackar's approach can be described as speculative fiction. He evokes a sense of a temporal and geographical vacuum, in which he uncovers archaeological sites of collective memory and the spiritual currents hidden within them that connect the human species with the plant world. Together with Josef Kotzian's meduim drawings, it thus reminds us that fiction can become as tangible as so-called reality.
Josef Kotzian (1889-1964), a mining official and a prominent member of the Brotherhood in Radvanice, was one of the most important drawing mediums in what was then Czechoslovakia. Guided by his "guiding" spirit Solferino, between 1918 and 1951 he produced hundreds of drawings of astral flowers from other worlds, whose beauty and perfection defy simple human imagination. During his lifetime, he participated in many exhibitions of medium drawings, and later his works became part of "art brut" exhibitions.