Corner College, 01 April - 6 May 2017
Opening on Saturday, 01 April, 16:30h
17:00h Discussion between Uriel Orlow and TJ Demos
In his exhibition at Corner College Uriel Orlow looks to the botanical world as a stage of history and politics at large. The work in the exhibition was developed over the last two years and engages with the legacies of botanical exploration, plant migration, flower diplomacy and botanical nationalism from the dual vantage points of South Africa and Europe.
European colonialism in South Africa – as elsewhere – was both preceded and accompanied by expeditions that aimed at charting the territory and classifying its natural resources, in turn paving the way for occupation and exploitation. 'Newly' discovered plants were often named after the botanist who first described them and eventually classified according to the Linnaean system and its particular European rationality.
What Plants Were Called Before They Had a Name (2016-17) is an audio plant dictionary created from nine indigenous South African languages. Conceived as a surround sound installation, the work serves as an aural repository of local knowledge that was originally passed from generation to generation through oral tradition but was displaced by European writing and nomenclature, which it now confronts in the exhibition space.
Geraniums are never Red (2016-17) revisits the bright red geraniums that trail from the balconies of Swiss chalets and clamber up palm trees in California. Botanically speaking they aren’t geraniums at all–nor are they Swiss or Californian. They are in fact pelargoniums. They were first brought to Europe – and misidentified – after 1652, when the Dutch East India Company established a permanent settlement and a Company Garden at the Cape and started to explore the surrounding flora to bring back new botanical treasures, which apart from pelargoniums included proteas, ericas and many other mainstays of European gardens. By the time the confusion between the two species was resolved, ‘African geraniums’ had been around for 150 years and British commercial growers and gardeners were reluctant to give up the familiar name.
In 1963, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Kirstenbosch, the national botanical garden of South Africa in Cape Town a series of films were commissioned to document the jubilee celebrations and their ‘national’ dances, pantomimes revisiting the colonial conquest, the visit of international botanists and the history of the botanical garden itself. The films’ cast of botanists and visitors are mostly white and when we see Africans they are engaged in menial labour.
These films have not been seen since 1963 and were found by the artist in boxes in the cellar of the library of the botanical garden. The Fairest Heritage (2016-7) is an attempt to watch these documents today and speak back to the archive. Orlow collaborated with the actor Lindiwe Matshikiza who inhabits and confronts the found footage and its politics of representation, sending up the botanical nationalism and flower-diplomacy of apartheid era South Africa.
Exotics were the pride of European gardeners for a long time. But new species were not just brought to Europe to satisfy horticultural demand and other colonial economic interests. Some plants also arrived as stowaways; seeds in animal feed or other shipments. The consequences of newly introduced species were not always predictable and in recent decades botanists have highlighted the threat of some of these new-arrivals to local biodiversity. A number of national organisations deal with the problem of invasive neophytes producing information campaigns and so-called blacklists of exotics that are illegal and need to be eradicated. The management of ‘invasive aliens’ and the language accompanying it produces new forms of botanical nationalism that inadvertently mirror public discourse on human migration. The series of posters Blacklisted (Was wir durch die Blume sagen) re-mixes information gathered from the Zurich office for the control of neophytes and uses quotes from literature and websites across Switzerland.
The work in this exhibition is part of Uriel Orlow's ongoing research entitled Theatrum Botanicum. The project considers plants not solely as passive objects of nature, aesthetic pleasure, classification, cultivation or conservation; but as both witnesses and actors in history and as dynamic agents linking nature and humans, tradition and modernity– across different geographies, histories and systems of knowledge, with curative, spiritual and economic powers.
Mit der freundlichen Unterstützung der Stiftung Erna und Curt Burgauer und der Ernst Göhner Stiftung.