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Botanical Belonging

Various artists using different media are invested in the same question: can our collective salvation lie in surrendering our fallible human agency and allowing, instead, for awe?

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Sep 03, 2021

It was only after I had experienced every second of the 93-minute saga that is Kingdom: Ashin of the North that I was exposed to the cliffhanger on which the preceding season, Kingdom had ended. I had been dismissive of the series when I’d watched the trailer because I interpreted it as a Korean adaptation of Game of Thrones, a series in which I retrospectively felt I had over-invested my energy. I was afraid of being disappointed. My partner, on the other hand, had watched and savoured every gorgeously produced episode of season one. A week ago, he suggested we watch the recently released prequel. He promised it didn’t require context and encapsulated, quickly, the premise: an epidemic perpetuated through a plant that turns living beings into zombies. This prequel would serve to contextualise the cliffhanger. I am not exactly into the zombie film genre, but I confess, I didn’t expect to enjoy this season two as much as I did. Apart from being excellently, no, meticulously produced, the plot works on so many different levels it serves as horror but also as allegory. The fact that at its core is a female protagonist made it all the more alluring. What I found most compelling, though, was how the film frequently withheld key narrative developments from the audience, leaving you confused at first, then allowing for the pleasure of a reveal.

03 mins watch Kingdom: Ashin of the North | Main Trailer | Netflix Netflix| STIRworld
Kingdom: Ashin of the North | Main Trailer | Netflix Video: Courtesy of Netflix

It sounds almost ridiculous to recount the plot to someone who hasn’t experienced the production; to talk about how a corpse’s timely ingestion of a blue-petalled plant can return it to life. But the resurrected form the body assumes is akin to the living dead in Game of Thrones. In this prologue, we learn how the plant came to be in wide circulation, how it came to symbolise a severance with existing relational systems. We also witness, first hand, the manipulations of patriarchy, how the whims and cruelties of men in power serve to disempower and other those lower in the caste hierarchy. Ashin, who is directly responsible for the plant’s perpetuation, came across to me like a feminist figure, like a Greek heroine enacting revenge, performing her trauma as she processes it. Metaphorically speaking, it is the dislocation of the plant from its original habitat that has disturbing, even toxic consequences. It reminded me of an essay I read in the catalogue of the 2017 exhibition, Moving Plants, curated be Line Marie Thorsen at Aarhus University in Denmark as part of its research program on the Anthropocene.

Expansion of Japanese Knotweed by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region | STIRworld
Expansion of Japanese Knotweed by US Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region Image: Courtesy of Expansion of Japanese Knotweed by US Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region is marked with CC PDM 1.0

I never actually saw the exhibition, and were it not for the easily accessible catalogue I must have downloaded during some online research, would probably not have known about it. It included work by Koichi Watanabe, Iwatani Yukiko, Camilla Berner, Lai Wai-Yi, Åsa Sonjasdotter, Karin Lorentzen, and Janet Laurence. Each artist’s contribution was explored through an essay by a slew of thinkers and writers. I had been fascinated by the Japanese artist, Koichi Watanabe’s series of photographs, Moving Plants, which were accompanied by text by the anthropologist Anna Tsing. Watanabe had been tracing, through research and documentation, the life and movements of itadori, or Fallopia japonica, known commonly as Japanese knotweed, from Japan to other parts of the world. An introductory text in the catalogue informs us that the plant was brought to Europe by the German physician, Philip Franz von Siebold in the mid-19th century. He was possibly seduced by the plant’s delicate look and heart-shaped leaves, which led to it being propagated as an ornamental plant in gardens across Europe. Except, in new cultural landscapes, the plant turned invasive. Watanabe’s photographs document the plant’s colonisation of spaces in different parts of the world, from Deshima to Leiden, Swansea, Katowice, New York, London and Nagasaki, with photographs from botanical gardens, housing areas, industrial landscapes and parks.

It seemed fitting that Tsing, best known for her 2015 work, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, in which she trails the journey of the matsutake mushroom, should write about Watanabe’s series. Recounting the history of how itadori got planted in gardens in Kew Gardens when Siebold sent live cuttings, in time for the ‘wild garden’ movement in the UK, “where imperial sensibilities were aestheticised in gardens whose ease and beauty required plants from all over the world,” Tsing proceeds to tell us how the plant spread, not just from plantings, but also on its own force, growing up from even tiny fragments in the soil as well as from its copious seeds. “Itadori moved,” she writes.  “… first it seems such a pleasant companion, giving ramblers delight and shade, and then suddenly it turns to destroy the whole house. But itadori is not to blame. It grows; it spreads; it flourishes: it engulfs our feeble attempts at civilisation. Itadori carries no malice but rather our imperial civilisation that suddenly seems out of joint. What is this world we made for the malice-less conquest of itadori?” she asks.

I came across the term “Ruderal Plants” while reading my curator friend, Sarah Oberrauch’s beautiful thesis, Notes on Margins. She introduces the term in order to speak about the practice of the late artist, Lois Weinberger, whose work from the last few decades is currently on view at Belvedere 21 in Vienna in an exhibition titled Basics, curated by Severin Dünser. I have spent the last year falling asleep and waking up in the company of two artworks by Weinberger, a Tyrolean artist I have come to know more intimately after moving to the region. He was a friend of my father-in-law, who was moved to receive an artwork by him after his death, sent over by his wife and collaborator, Franziska, a sketch referencing his well-known installation, Wild Cube. The sketch evokes the skeletal core of the installation, an enclosed space within which nature was allowed to run its course. Weinberger describes it as a form of “reforestation left to the wind, the birds and the seeds already existing in the soil, growing relentlessly on the post-industrial wastelands and the margins of urban existence, thriving on the waste products of human society.”

Wild Cube, Lois Weinberger | STIRworld
Wild Cube, Lois Weinberger Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

Ruderal plants, I learned, are an adaptable plant species that emerge, often, on disturbed lands, growing in the aftermath of natural disasters or construction, or even agriculture. It was this principle that Weinberger worked with for his installation Das über di Planzen / ist eins mit Ihnen, involving the planting of weeds not necessarily native to Kassel along a 330-foot-long stretch of disused railway track. Through Sarah’s thesis I was also introduced to the work of Precious Okoyomon, which I have still not had the privilege of seeing first-hand. For the 2020 exhibition, Earthseeds, Precious Okoyomon worked closely with kudzu, a plant that is apparently illegal to cultivate in most parts of the United States, since it is considered an invasive species. Kudzu is commonly known as “The Vine that Ate the South” because of its history of being transplanted to counter-act the level of soil erosion caused through the over-production of cotton in the American South. Kudzu is thus also connected to the history of slavery in America.

Wild Cube Drawings by Lois Weinberger, seen at an exhibition in a museum in Graz | STIRworld
Wild Cube Drawings by Lois Weinberger, seen at an exhibition in a museum in Graz Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

While reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lovingly written book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, I learn that Skywoman, the mother of all people, was first an immigrant. Kimmerer combines her botanical expertise with her lived experience of being a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation to remind readers that the natural world is a gift. She speaks frequently about what it means to become indigenous to place through botanical belonging. In a chapter called The Sound of Silverbells, she recounts her experience of having to move to the South because her husband’s job took her there. Teaching in the “Bible belt” was challenging for her. Motives were ascribed to God, but she found among her students an insufficiency of awe. “Have you ever wondered how the world got to be put together so beautifully? Why certain plants grow here and not there?” she asks them. They respond with blank faces. She decides to organise a three-day field trip, to allow a chance for deep immersion at the Great Smoky Mountain and dutifully introduces them to numerous wild plant species while they took copious notes. Until at one point, she tries to administer the class from the perspective of an endangered spruce-fir moss spider, and speaks evangelically about how humans have no right to take away the habitats of other species. Which leads a student to ask her if this was like her religion or something, to which she responds somewhat defensively.

76 mins watch Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer, The Teachings of Plants: Finding Common Ground Between Traditional and Scientific Knowledge | STIRworld
Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer, The Teachings of Plants: Finding Common Ground Between Traditional and Scientific Knowledge| Pauline Oliveros Video: Courtesy of Yale University

On the bus ride home, she has doubts about her methodological approach. “How will people ever care for the fate of moss spiders if we don’t teach students to recognise and respond to the world as a gift? I’d told them all about how it works and nothing of what it meant. We may as well have stayed home and read about the Smokies. In effect, against all my prejudices, I’d worn a white lab coat into the wilderness. Betrayal is a heavy load and I plodded along, suddenly weary.” Until one of her students breaks out into a rendition of Amazing Grace and the others join in with various forms of harmony until the spontaneous singing turned into a moving chorus that registered and surrendered to a sense of immense awe and wonder, which Kimmerer found deeply validating. “In their caress of that old hymn I came to know that it wasn’t naming the source of wonder that mattered, it was wonder itself. Despite my manic efforts and my checklist of scientific names, I knew now that they hadn’t missed it all. Was blind, but now I see. And they did.” Kimmerer concludes that it is the land that is the real teacher and, as students, we need mindfulness. “Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.” I continue to reflect on this as I think about the bouquet of herbs lying in a vase in our apartment’s corridor; each element grown, plucked, and arranged by my partner’s aunt, Maridl; a gift to me on Maria Himmelfart, the Assumption of Mary, which is celebrated in South Tyrol as the day when herbs are blessed. They are then meant to be hung upside down and left to dry, so they are ready to be burned if the need arises to appeal for divine intervention, another way of acknowledging awe.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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