The observation of landscape has changed over the centuries with the development of the visual means and equipment used for its representation. Hanna Johansson emphasizes that modern landscapes recorded using technical media seem to transcend their own borders. The viewer is confronted with a representation of a true landscape and the materiality of the medium itself. Johansson calls this a new kind of realism, one that haunts on the surface of a video, like “a ghost in a mechanical machine which refuses to stop for a moment and defies static observation”.
The nature presented in The Observatory is one recorded and played back. The recording gives one the opportunity to possess – for a long time, forever. Thus, the viewer has the possibility to contemplate nature, while being confronted with the mechanicalness of the recording, and, above all, the playback process. The materiality of the medium reminds us that we are not dealing with a pure form of nature, but rather with a specific type of representation, representation in real time. And while a photograph freezes and immortalizes a moment, it kills duration in time – movement and volatility. Video, on the other hand, accentuates this duration, enables meditation extended over time. A video image in projection is intangible, ephemeral, enters into relationships with the environment. It creates the illusion of direct contact, reduces the distance between the viewer and the image. At the same time, it constructs said distance through elements associated with the mechanicalness of the playback. It creates tension between the expectation of illusion and the rough reality of the medium.
The idea of The Observatory includes a process. The landscape is presented here as a process, experience, rather than a view frozen in time and frame. At the same time, the semantic relationships between The Observatory and the need to study and exert control are equally important. After all, an observatory is a product of culture aimed at controlling nature. It is a panopticon, and research tools are tools of power, tools of control. In the Water Tower Gallery, the power of gaze is intertwined with meditation. In the void, the silence, the “not happening”, the space of contemplation of nature is revealed.
Absent Images are kinds of audio-descriptions which,
by definition, do not meet all the requirements of the genre.
In the absence of the image, the word amplifies its overtones.
The word deconstructs the image,
when the image is analyzed.
The word reconstructs the image,
when several different stories form a multi-layered and multi-threaded synthetic description.
The word creates the image,
when each story, reaching the audience, has a chance to reassume the form of an image,
be it intangible, becoming a part of an individual iconography.
Absent images are retold over and over again.
They pass through the subjectivising filter of the tellers-senders.
The tellers become the medium in which transgression occurs, both on the visual and verbal levels.
The stories overlap and intertwine, forming a continuum of the matter of the image and the non-image reality.
The absent image becomes a space in which emotions, memories, and dreams are projected.
Each story has the potential of bringing a new being, many beings – intangible images – into existence.
Absent Images are a largely interactive work – new beings-images cannot come into existence without the presence of the recipient.
It is also a work that merely begins in one of the halls in the Castle (gallery in Poznan, PL).
The beings created there in the presence of the recipient can be passed on, persist and grow in subsequent stories, filtered through the subjective perception of subsequent senders
From the perspective of 18th and 19th century Europe, ruled by the new spirit of capitalism, the sacredness of oversea exotic landscapes was difficult to accept. The space of fascination and expectations was also the space of economical desire. Colonial landscape was a sacrum which had to be conquered, possessed, re-shaped, utilized. Desacralized. Turned into a profane instrument of power.
Inspired by the notion of landscape-power relationship in the context of modern Western European colonialism Sacrum Intolerandus touches upon the notion of artificial mobility and forced displacement of both plants and people. Formations, trans-formations and de-formations of landscape, both overseas and in Europe; the role of plants, plantations (colonial “gardens”), transplantations and hybrids in the colonial system. Colonial urge to re-organize and systematize the Exotic is seen as representing a more universal, human urge to re-organize and systematize the Natural.
The exhibition was a part of my PhD project presented in a room of a Castle Cultural Centre in Poznan, Poland.
Figura Abest draws from the phenomenon of a herbarium page with its beautiful interplay between the visual and verbal. The visual satisfies the need to discover a mystery (eg. of the exotic in the context of colonisation), to learn and see the tiniest details (eg. seeds, all stages of flower, fruit growth) and also to popularize the knowledge outside the scientific contexts (with botanical illustration being not only detailed and precise but also beautiful). But it may also supersede imagination.
What happens when the visual is taken away?
Without the visual (Figura abest = absent image/shape) what remains is the decorum of words.
The idea has grown out of my research on European colonialism and landscape and power relations. I turn to hybridity – a concept which is inherent in all sorts of colonial encounters (be it biological, political, cultural).
My new hybrid taxonomies and herbaria are based on names of plants actually occurring in different parts of the world, both oversea colonies and Europe (indigenous and introduced – purposefully or unintentionally, acclimatised and invasive, etc) as well as historical, political and social contexts closely connected to the realm of colonisation.
Figura Abest is a collection of herbarium pages with Latin names (part of them made up) and with no visual representations. Some names are authentic names of invasive plants (results of artificial plant mobility intensified in the colonial era), e.g. Robinia pseudoacacia (false acacia or black locust), Heracleum sosnowskyi (Sosnowsky’s hogweed), Opuntia stricta (erect prickly pear), Solidago gigantea (giant goldenrod). The histories of their introductions and their way to „independence” (and incontrollable spread) are very intriguing and truly scary from the perspective of the endangered indigenous species. Some other names are pseudo-botanical neologisms, with some colonial narratives encoded in them – e.g. Camellia occidentalis (tea + western, originally: Camellia sinensis), Citrus fessa (orange + exhausted), Eugenia avida (clove + greedy), Saccharum alienum (sugar + foreign). Some are names of authentic hybrid plants (results of successful experiments from botanical gardens and natural hybrids), e.g. Primula kewensis (Kew primrose, invented in Kew in 1900), Iris albicans (white flag iris – a natural hybrid).
This lack of illustrations in the herbarium is very significant, probably even more significant than the lack of names. Although, according to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, even the best-preserved and most detailed specimen without a name is useless1, a name with no visual referent may highlight the absence and strengthen the sense of uncertainty. A hybrid name particularly calls for a visual referent – to satisfy curiosity, to compare, to classify. Some hybrids, especially human-hybrids, remained a sort of taboo in the colonial world. Fascinating on the one hand, terrifying on the other. Forbidden and unavoidable. Building up the colonial economic power and threatening it, e.g. by undermining the racial role assignment. Plant hybrids were presented as the emblems of success of colonial landscape transformation systems. Human hybrids were marginalised, pushed outside the sphere of representation, omitted, silenced, unrepresented. Figure Abest is a coded list of absences, not only colonial.
Hybridity is a very important concept when discussing landscape and power, especially in the context of colonial landscapes and transgressions, both physical and metaphorical. Empires, founded on colonial contact, mutual transformations and exchange, were doomed to hybridity, this fact was often rejected, though. The transplantations, acclimatisation, and botanical gardens are all linked to the notion of hybridisation. According to Homi K. Bhabha, hybridity is a “subversive product” of colonial systems2. It has the potential of destroying and destabilising the very system it is the fruit of. Homi K. Bhabha mentions a phenomenon discussed also by Robert Young, a paradoxical desire and rejection of the “Other”3. This category is visible in the realm of landscape. On the one hand, in many colonies there was a strong need to reject local landscapes and reproduce well-known European conventions in real landscaping and its artistic representations (grafting, re-landscaping and drafting). On the other, there was a huge fascination with the Exotic and a need to reproduce it (physically within European landscapes hybridising the metropole)4 or at least to possess its fragments (plant and animal trophies).
Plant hybrids had a special status in the colonial world. Many of them were of significant economic value (cash crops or rare specimens for collectors). They proved the effectiveness of innovative methods of control tools such as landscape. Casid points out that even though the word hybrid was rarely used until the 19th century (according to The Oxford English Dictionary), experiments in cross-breeding were carried out already in the late 18th century5. While cross-breeding of plants was an example of commonly accepted and popular colonial transgressions, a method of strengthening empires on the global market, mixing of races was commonly condemned. Plant hybrids were presented as fruits of the colonial new order, innovation, creativeness, while human hybrids were presented as evil. To effectively discourage mixed-race relationships, races were presented as separate species, and since separate species cannot produce fertile offspring, they were against God’s will6. Plant hybrids were accepted and desired, human hybrids – rejected and marginalised.
Colonial landscapes, too, were the embodiments of hybridity. Plantation is an interesting example of a hybrid – with plant hybrids, human hybrids, hybrid technologies. Hybrids within a hybrid. What happened on the plantation grounds encapsulated numerous colonial practices and could be referred to as “a hybrid production of an Empire”7. Slave gardens are specific examples of landscape hybridity referred to by Casid as “countercolonial landscapes”8 or black counterdiscources of landscape9. They were introduced on both British and French plantations in the Caribbean in the late 18th century as “Negro Grounds and Provisions”10. They were clearly hybrid – neither European nor African, neither fully controlled by colonial administration nor truly independent. Officially, they were given to plantation workers to grow crops for their own use. In practice, they were intended to bring direct profit to plantation owners by minimising the costs of food for the workers. The grounds intended for slave gardens were of the worst quality, located where no profitable farming of any cash crop was possible. Despite all the logistic obstacles, slave gardens were not only places where plants were grown for everyday use but also where successful transplantation experiments took place11. Knowledge, which white colonisers often did not possess, would be mixed there with European technologies and fruits of European artificial mobility. These gardens were not simple copies of African or European practices but a useful and successful mixture of both. They were hybrids in the purest form. Functioning on the basis of appropriation and mimicry, they threatened the plantation machinery from inside because of this apparent similarity. Slave gardens grew in strength enabling some degree of financial independence (some rare plants were sold on the black market), possibility of aesthetic expression (some slaves would grow mainly decorative plants), and finally they facilitated the resistance movement (providing food and shelter for rebels and fugitives, and poisonous herbs to frighten the plantations’ owners). Slave gardens were presented by the European authorities as doubly negative: neither orderly organised according to European gardening patters, nor picturesquely diverse12. Plantation owners would not admit that these were the places where some important transplantation and acclimatisation experiments were successfully conducted, since it would be tantamount to admitting that the agricultural success of plantations was not purely European and that colonisers were not able to act independently, relying solely on their knowledge and experience. When independence riots started, slaves were destroying what was the most valuable to white plantation owners – the plants13. Their rage was not as insane as colonial authorities tried to present. Destroying “innocent” plants was not a sign of primitive aggression but a carefully planned and perfectly logical move.
1 S. A. Harris, “Scientific context of Botanical Illustration”, 187, 190.
2 Cited by J. H. Casid in: Sowing Empire. Landscape and Colonization. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press 2005, 106.
3 Ibid., 192.
4 Ibid., 51.
5 Ibid., 2.
6 Ibid., 3.
7 Ibid., 213.
8 Ibid., 191.
9 Ibid., 197.
10 Ibid., 197.
11 Ibid., 203.
12 Ibid., 106.
13 Ibid., 230.
J. H. Casid, Sowing Empire. Landscape and Colonization. Minneapolis & London:
University of Minnesota Press 2005.
S. A. Harris, “Scientific context of Botanical Illustration”, in: S. Sherwood, A new Flowering. 1000 years of botanical art. Oxford: The Ashmolean 2014, 186-191.
A word often used to describe colonial practices is relandscaping. The key thing here is the small prefix re– which suggests that what colonisers did was not pure landscaping understood as employing different sorts of human activities to transform the Natural. There had already been some forms of previous cultivation, landscaping by indigenous inhabitants, evidence of their agriculture, their relationship with Nature, their traditions and history. This, of course, was not what colonisers would have liked to admit. According to an ancient Roman law, terra nullius (nobody’s land), the land which had not previously been cultivated became the property of those who first started to cultivate it. To claim the right to newly discovered or conquered territories, European colonisers would often literally turn them into terra nullius, e.g. in the Caribbean, where vast territories were stripped of indigenous flora and all signs of previous cultivation. Ruined local landscapes were then transformed according to European patterns, and native inhabitants deprived of their land, history and traditions. The newly introduced plants changed the land on which they were planted into plantations and factories, thus helping to build European wealth. At all costs.
Earthworks refer to the tensions connected with the realm of plantations, both from historical and contemporary point of view. Land (and consequently soil) has always been a stage but also a subject of domination struggles – colonial in the past or neocolonial today. Earthworks is a looped video presenting the process of cleaning up soil, resembling the routine of a gardener preparing it for planting. It was inspired by the colonial procedure called defrichement. In the French Antilles, a habitation (land ready for the planting of sugar cane) first had to be properly prepared. The process was called defrichement (fertilisation) but it was a euphemism used to refer to what was in fact an agricultural purge. Local forests and smaller plants were grubbed, remaining roots burnt down. Special care was taken not to leave any traces of indigenous nature. Paradoxically, exotic vegetation, so fascinating to scientists and collectors, was too overwhelming, chaotic and unproductive in comparison with the European orderly and utilitarian ideas of capitalistic landscape. Conquered lands were transformed into “construction sites”, where solid foundations for cash crop plantations had to be laid. Not only local plants but also native inhabitants, their traditions and history were disposed of. And just as new plants were transplanted from the metropole, so were newly invented histories and traditions. Collective memory was manipulated to justify and naturalise the presence of the conquerors. E. W. Said points out that some elements of the national past were suppressed, others elevated, turning memory into something not necessarily authentic but rather useful, not a continuum but an easily manipulated instrument.
The repetitive gesture presented in the video is a gesture of a relentless gardener cleaning the soil of redundant elements, disciplining it, mobilising it and forcing to being productive, introducing a new order. It is a gesture of constant formation, transformation, deformation. It can be read from both historical and present-day point of view as an urge to discipline and organise colonial or neocolonial soil for profit or, more generally, a human urge to discipline and organise Nature. However, this organising gesture is made with bare hands, which may suggest some sentiment, a need for direct contact with soil, something concrete and symbolic at the same time, something on which almost all kinds of life depend, the matrix of life.
Jardines Secretos shows an example of a very tiny yet diverse community in the south west of Spain which owes its today’s shape to a mixture of different social and historical events, the most influential being the construction of the dam. The video is based on interviews with 12 women living in Spain in Castillo de Castellar de la Frontera, an old fortress, and a neighboring Castellar Nuevo, a new town built in the 70’s together with a new dam and a water reservoir – Guadarranque. The starting point for these meetings was an idea of making a symbolic community garden with women from these two towns exchanging stories and plants which are important for them.
Jardines Secretos is a mixture of very private narratives, about finding a new home and growing roots, with a history of a nationwide modernization, intensively changing the landscape and directly influencing lives of thousands of people around. Spain is on the top of the list of countries with the highest number of dams per citizen. According to the International Commission on Large Dams with over a thousand of dams Spain is number 9 in the world and number 1 in Europe. This community and its story can represent similar ones in Spain and beyond, thus – Jardines Secretos could be a starting point for a wider research on the notion of landscape and power focused on how huge natural forces have been tamed and controlled.
The key figure of A beast of no burden project was a water buffalo, a beast of burden, which used to dominate the rural landscapes of Thailand and many other SE Asian countries. It used to provide vital power but, as it happens in almost all corners of the world, as an animal helping people make the living and produce food, it would often become almost a family member. The presence of water buffaloes was not only a necessity but a part of tradition, culture, heritage. The work was inspired by changes in the rural landscape of Thailand following the agricultural mechanization, spread of technology and the replacement of traditional farming animals by machinery. With this change, also very close relations of farmers and their families with animals were lost. However new technology has made lives of farmers easier in many ways, it has also deprived them of this unique bond with nature.
The idea this project was to produce a floor made of clay tiles with a unique pattern of water buffalo hooves imprints to symbolically bring back the presence of the animal back to peoples everyday life. Floor is a part of every house requiring everyday and direct contact. While walking on it barefoot (which is more typical in eg. Thailand than it is in Poland) a physical contact with the animal traces will be naturally encouraged.
The size of the floor is designed to be approximately 2x2m – an area which could possibly fit a sleeping buffalo.
At the beginning of December I started a walk. The slowest but also one of the most intense. In the shadow of a Yang Na tree. Number one. There were around 1000 more ahead. Hundred and thirty years old. Some of them 40m high. 12 km long unique ecosystem along the old Lamphun -Chiang Mai road no 106. Glowing with saffron. I have seen historical tree alleys before – they would usually be beautifully and peacefully located far from cities, towns and even villages. But not this one. Almost constantly wrapped in everyday life, for good and for bad.
Undoubtedly graceful but it was not solely the picturesque beauty that I would be looking for discarding the common reality. Quite on the contrary – all those ordinary examples of people’s almost intimate coexistence with the trees are significant. As I walked, each tree was given a separate moment of attention. The slow process of photographing and filming of every single one caught me in time and space providing an opportunity to observe closely the everyday hectic lives lived along the road. In some areas it felt more like walking inside a long busy and crowded home corridor. A unique experience, a kind of daily routine, discipline, meditation. It allowed me to truly experience the almost claustrophobic presence of the trees in local peoples’ lives and the respect they are being paid in simple gestures.
The trees are wrapped in saffron textile just like the monks in saffron robes. And they do resemble monks walking in a line collecting the morning alms. Though saffron is the color of respect, it was often covered by a thick layer of dust. After twelve days my eyes were full of orange light and silver reflections of the trees bark, yet my lungs full of air pollution. It is not a „green” project. It is far from idyllic. It is a „coexistence” project and coexistence often happens to be complicated.
The tree lane along 106 road between Chiang Mai and Lamphun is a great example of a cultural landscape with both cultural and ecological benefits for the community. Even though the trees are chocking with air pollution themselves, they are the local lungs and filtering systems, providing also dense and precious shade and cooling the area. They are habitats for many non-human organisms. They should be therefore strongly protected and carefully maintained. These living monuments deserve attention, care and recognition.
This lane is an example of many ecosystems threatened by a too overwhelming human presence but also of an intense negotiation of space and tradition where sacrum mixes with profanum on everyday basis.
There has always been a considerable degree of a kind of negotiation of living space and conditions with natural actants, in some regions clearly more than in others. Due to climate change, however, we are now witnessing a huge change in the pattern of the occurrence of abrupt natural events turning the whole world into a potential danger zone. Since living on the edge of a disasteris no longer an isolated experience of a few communities in most geologically active places in the world, it seems essential to take a closer look at the surviving strategies (practical, emotional and metaphorical) of peopledealing with natural hazards on regular basis, learning from them how they have been coping, adjusting, preparing, managing. It is also important to see that landscapes can be traumatized after such incidents too („trauma” in Greek means „ a wound”). Iceland exemplifies very well this complicated relationship in the shadow of hætta.
„Kwiaciarnia” (The Florist) is a place where you can collect plants coming from green areas in the city which are threatened by different sorts of investments which usually include cutting down big trees and replacing them with concrete. It is a story-telling&plant-sharing event. In exchange for a personal story about Nature in the city the visitors will get a plant chosen for them, with its own ethnobotanical description and a story of the place of origin. Plants in „Kwiaciarnia” will be representatives of other plants from the threatened areas which can still be saved, a starting point for discussions about the importance of green areas in the city, particularly those requiring our protection now.
Poznań, Park Wieniawskiego 25 & 26 June