THE GIANT HOGWEED by INGELA IHRMAN + FOR THE LOVE OF CORALS by SONIA LEVY two interrelated solo exhibitions curated by BORBÁLA SOÓS at KARLIN STUDIOS [from 20210325 to 20210506]

[Photos: Tomáš Souček]

Ingela Ihrman, The Giant Hogweed

As evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano and academic Prudence Gibson explain in their essay The Feminist Plant [1], historically, vegetal life has been regarded as passive, silent, sessile and inferior. And while some, especially spectacularly flowering species (such as water lilies), have been revered as iconic for their beauty, often their other qualities, including their versatile sexuality, have been kept flat. A feminist approach to plant life involves dismantling these conventions. The giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is an exceptional plant to consider in this context, endowed with a unique agency including a rhetoric of malignant intentions. Native to the Western Caucasus, it was introduced in Britain in the 19th century as an ornamental plant. Subsequently, it escaped from gardens and quickly spread “out of control” as an “aggressive invasive species” to other areas in Europe and North America. Its reputation comes from the fact that the phototoxic sap in its stem, roots, leaves, flowers and seeds can cause skin burns in combination with sunlight, including serious blistering and scars. Moreover, the affected areas can continue to react when exposed to the sun for up to 7 years. Deemed unwanted and dangerous, this plant has been actively persecuted. As far as creating an enemy goes, in the English rock band Genesis' 1971 song [2] the giant hogweed even became a Russian agent in the shadow of the Cold War. As the lyrics also points out, this sinister, noxious weed often colonises riverbanks and spaces left by humans. Nothing can stop them / Around every river and canal their power is growing / Stamp them out / We must destroy them / They infiltrate each city with their thick dark warning odour... Despite considerable efforts, the plant evades eradication through the agency of certain feral qualities [3]. The unique resilience is due to its capacity to spread quickly, outcompete other vegetation through rapid growth and withstand most weed killers. While being feral can be regarded as a feature of uncontainability, queerness and activist resistance, the subjective measurement of wildness is also a significant factor defining the management policies that have accompanied the species.

Ingela Ihrman’s Giant Hogweed sculpture is a replica of the plant enlarged to a degree where it becomes absurd. It feels like it is from another time or another world altogether. Hanging from black straps, the elongated, hairy and ribbed stem, gangling leaf, soft, drooping flower heads and light petals have a prop-like materiality. Approaching the sculpture from the entrance of the exhibition hall and staring down the hollow, fleshy, pink interior of the stem, the plant turns into an abject body. While the detail of this colour is slightly botanically incorrect, it helps create a sense of tactility and uncanny corporal familiarity. As the artist described, this wild, toxic plant engulfs landscapes similarly to "the way love and desire overwhelm body and mind". The sculpture of the fallen wilting giant losing its petals is a reminder of how plants have to regrow their sexual organs each year. As philosopher Emanuele Coccia describes [4], being plant would mean that you have to refashion your bodyparts not only in response to the environment but also to seasons. Having sex would require you to reconfigure and rebuild your flowery bodyparts each time. Imagine that after you used them they would fall away. While the giant hogweed’s flowers are simultaneously male and female, they need someone else, namely insects to pollinate them. So imagine that to transform life into something other than the pure repetition of yourself, you have to call upon partners from other kingdoms, and build intimate relationships with other species.

1 Prudence Gibson, Monica Gagliano, The Feminist Plant: Changing Relations with the Water Lily. In: Ethics and the Environment 22, no 2 (2017), pp. 125-147.

2 The song The Return of the Giant Hogweed was part of Nursery Cryme, 1971, the third studio album by the English rock band Genesis.

3 Feral Qualities as an idea is described in Feral Atlas. The More-Than-Human Anthropocene. Curated and Edited by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou. https://feralatlas.org/

4 Emanuele Coccia, Sex Through a Third Party: Flowers and Pollination. Lecture as part of PLANTSEX, symposium organised by Serpentine Gallery (curated by Lucia Pietroiusti, Filipa Ramos and Kostas Stasinopoulos) at Ciné Lumière at the French Institute / Institut français, 12 April 2019.

Sonia Levy, For the Love of Corals

In an age when biologists push their research to its limits – by using computer simulation to model living things, by scouting for extreme organisms in sea and space, by seeking to synthesize new life forms in laboratories – the definition of “life” is becoming unfastened from its familiar grounding in existing earthly organisms. The relation of life to possible materials, circumstances, and processes is multiplied, moved toward uncertain limits. [1]

What is life? According to biologist and pioneer of symbiosis Lynn Margulis, life is a chimeric process, a gathering and compounding of creatures into new assemblages. In her approximation [2], living things are those that grow and multiply. Life is a pulsating collection of cells that separate inside from outside through a semi-porous membrane. They create copies of themselves and construct their own scaffolding structures. Occasionally they merge with one another with far-reaching consequences. In this sense, life describes multiplying entities that breathe, love and consume.

From water, light, oxygen and carbon dioxide, all living beings were able to grow and colonise this planet. We are implicated in all of them through water that courses through and replenishes us in waves and swells. Liquidity is an immersive experience of being-in-the-world together with other species. This rhythmic dance of particles and cells in the ocean comes to its crescendo on a moonlit night when once a year corals spawn in unison. Life reverberates as the tiny egg and sperm bundles float away with the ocean currents. They find one another and create new life in an ecological orgy. Through the spawning, a large web of relations unfold and new sorts of corals come into being through the process of recombination and hybridization. As the corals find their footing on rocks, it is the beginning of something bigger: they are not only themselves symbiotic, but their structures will eventually constitute environments for a large variety of other beings contributing to all surrounding ecosystems.

Sonia Levy’s For the Love of Corals is a case study that documents the techniques of care employed by the scientists to successfully induce coral spawning in a laboratory for the first time. To find out more, we go underground and behind the scenes of the Horniman Aquarium in South East London. Here, in a series of small, but highly specialised tanks, Project Coral is a pioneering research project led by marine biologist and aquarium curator Jamie Craggs. The context of the aquarium is the Horniman Museum and Gardens, where, in many ways, the Victorian and colonial heritage and values of human mastery over nature are still encoded in the historic displays. Levy examines how a living collection within this museum can however become a base for a research project for collaborative multispecies survival.

Simulating the environmental conditions of the Great Barrier Reef in the small laboratory, the chatter of the reef is replaced by the constant noise of pumps and other electrical devices. Instead of the light of celestial bodies, lamps mimic the sun and the phases of the moon. Coral IVF happens through both highly specialised devices and basic DIY tools, however, these technological infrastructures alone wouldn’t be enough. As revealed by Levy’s film, the most important are the intimate knowledge and care of the scientists. Through paying close attention to corals, Levy’s cinematic inquiry subverts the categories of animal, vegetal and mineral as well as nature and culture and bridges them by providing fertile ground to speculate about responsibilities and the importance of acts of care and relationships for future landscapes.

Corals are especially vulnerable due to the human-induced climate crisis, pollution and exploitation of the oceans, and they are quickly disappearing. Hence research into possibilities of saving them, including potentially creating more resilient individuals that can withstand higher levels of ocean acidity is pressing. It is important work, even though the re-introduction of corals is at best a patchy solution and no substitute for the much-needed systemic change.

As part of the installation and accompanying Levy’s video piece, a large cyanotype tapestry echoes Anna Atkins work. In the 19th century, the scientific world was dominated by men, and botanical collections and illustrations were some of the few acceptable ways for women to engage with such subjects. Featured in Levy’s film, a surviving copy of Atkins’ pioneering collection of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions is kept at the Horniman Library. Published in 1842, it is the first book to be illustrated by photographic images. The beauty and simplicity of the seaweed images are captivating as they document not only a large biodiversity but the processes and knowledge involved in collecting, handling and arranging them. Cyanotype images were especially fitting for her project as they document a direct physical connection with the plants each time, while they also require exposure to sunlight and submersion in water, much like the seaweed themselves. Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes are surfacing today – a time defined by species’ loss, ecological collapses and political turmoil. Their re-discovery is a call to revisit our past, the stories we inherit, and the ones we now want to tell our world with. [3]

*The video Coral and Algae, Blue and Unblue, shared on Karlin Studio’s website was developed by Sonia Levy and Stefan Helmreich as part of the online symposium, The Camille Diaries, organised by Art Laboratory Berlin (curated by Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz) on 26 September 2020, and accompanying the exhibition The Camille Diaries. Current Artistic Positions on M/otherhood, Life and Care (28 August - 4 October 2020).

1 Stefan Helmreich, Sounding the Limits of Life. Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond. Princeton
University Press, 2016

2 Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution is a feature length
documentary film directed by John Felman, 2017.

3 Sonia Levy, Anna Atkins; Sun-Pictures & Ghosts of the Anthropocene, French version published in Billebaude
N°12, Cueillir, Ed. Anne de Malleray, Glénat, 2018

[Text: Borbála Soós]

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