part of Rehearsing the Future (2021)
a group exhibition curated by Sofie Burgoyne
feat. Nadia Refaei, Jon Smeathers & Alex Last
at Contemporary Art Tasmania
“Time is not a given, it is not that we have or do not have time, but that we make it through practices.”
- Making Time for Soil, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa
Almost two years before the gathering, a gardener ripped several Agapanthus plants out of their backyard in order to make space for a herb bed. Torn leaves bled sap and fell on skin in a burning rash, while thick tentacular roots were cracked and gouged apart with shovel and axe. Hours of toil passed until every plant was extracted, thrown in a heap against a backyard fence, exposed to the elements and poised to shrivel.
Agapanthus has a mostly underground stem called a rhizome that is used as a storage organ. The roots, which grow out of the rhizome, are white, thick and fleshy. The inflorescence is a pseudo-umbel subtended by two large deciduous bracts at the apex of a long, erect scape, up to 2 m tall. Agapanthus is considered by some to be an environmental weed.
Uprooted, each agapanthus refused decay, absorbing sun and rain, suckling on nutrients locked up in crevices full of rotting leaf matter. Seasons passed, their long blade-like leaves remaining emerald green. One plant urged forth a long stem which erupted into a lavender florescence, calling out to bumblebees with its aroma, eager to reproduce itself and usher in a new generation.
The Agapanthus also called to the gardener. Walking past each day, each plant appeared together as one gnarled being, a hybrid singularity slowly pulsating in the sun; but as time passed, individuals revealed themselves, becoming-visible thru their runic scars and distinctive root clusters. The gardener felt captured, curious. A year had passed and together the winter frosts, spring gales and dry summer spells had made little impact on the vitality of these plants… how were they able to thrive where others would perish?
↑ Graphite and ink portraits, made by participants ↑
Agapanthus evolved in what is now called South Africa. In the language of the Xhosa, the First Nations of this region, Agapanthus is called ‘umkhondo’. Umkhondo has multiple beneficial roles in Xhosa culture, working as both a herbal medicine and serving as a ward against witchcraft. As guardian, it protects the ubuhlanti, a structure which doubles as a livestock enclosure and as a temple where ancestors reside. Umkhondo is grown on either side of the entrance in order to prevent evil forces from entering. It is also used in pre-natal and post-natal medicine, and is used by pregnant women to induce labour. A necklace is made from the roots of the plant and worn by Xhosa women to ensure strong, healthy children.
The gardener felt incapable of comprehending the ontological niche of these uprooted vegetal beings, and this in turn dislodged the gardener’s own sense of belonging, eating away at the edges of their worldly certainty; how should they proceed with these creatures which did not belong, yet persisted and flourished? Responsibility was paralysing and traced itself across generations. Who would bear the burden of responding? The colonists who first introduced Agapanthus to lutruwita were dead. The people who perpetuated the species, cultivating and selling them across the island for profit, were dead or fading away. Maybe none of these people were accountable -- perhaps the locus of agency was vegetal. Had humans been captured and seduced by the reproductive desires and sensory capabilities of Agapanthus? How else had the species spread its rhizomal existence halfway across the earth?
To uncover some kind of resolution, the gardener called out for the help of others, for their time and their attention. An invite was put out through public and private channels, to form an assembly in a public gallery in order to ‘become responsible for, and familiar with, an Agapanthus plant,’ and to ‘rehearse a relation with uprooted vegetal beings.’
To begin with, a temporary home was installed inside the gallery and rigged with enough hydroponic UV light to provide the plants with a steady photosynthetic diet. Ten people were brought together per session to encounter and assume temporary responsibility for a single plant each, initiating an experiment in tactile, sensory, dialogic and ecologically-aligned decision making. Participants explored together through sketching, comparing, touching, watering, listening, writing and conversing. At the end of each session, there was no demand to decide ‘What might be done?’ — instead, attendees were asked to return and to rehearse again. The word rehearsal has its roots in the Old French word rehercier, "to go over, repeat," literally "to rake over, turn over soil.” It was hoped that, seven days later, all attendees would re-assemble at the gallery in order to illuminate a path forward.
Agapanthus has buried itself somewhere deep in the colonial imagination; over the last century it has crept across the stolen territories of the Australian State and populated the contours and crevices of suburbia. Renowned for its ability to stabilise hillsides and sandy banks with its stubborn root clusters, to what extent did wary settlers hope this gift might also impose symbolic order on a burgeoning industrial empire? Was the Agapanthus’ ability to thrive under duress a stimulant for the colonial imagination, as if by sympathetic magic it would empower desperate efforts to domesticate and stratify the living world?
Fragile plant-human bonds are easily weakened without constant renewal. Of the thirty who took part in the initial sessions, only seven returned. Reasons varied, with some never given. Under the strangled temporality of the State, time is scarce and rarely available for gradual and multi-layered ecological problem-solving. The group who returned grappled with lines of responsibility; they assembled questions and tentative answers, thinking with and through the Agapanthus as the conversation traversed a terrain of intersecting desires and concerns. One person eventually decided they would take their plant-companion home, giving it soil and a terracotta pot to inhabit, to live out its days contained but cared for. To quote their written commitment, “My plant will live inside with me - not entirely free to live, but living in the least harmful way that we are able.” Two people from two different initial sessions discovered they had formed a relationship with the same plant, and together they resolved to donate the plant to a biochar facility where it would be engulfed in flames but “live on in the soil.” From this process, six of the ten plants found a new life, a new home or a new state of material existence. Four plants were left behind, banished from limbo to become the gardener’s responsibility once again.
“Care time can be enjoyable and rewarding, but also tiresome, involving a lot of hovering and adjusting to the temporal exigencies of the cared-for. I have noted earlier how future, urgent, speedy temporality suspends and compresses the present. It could be said that care time suspends the future and distends the present, thickening it with a myriad of demanding attachments. Even when care is compelled by urgency, there is a needed distance from feelings of emergency, fear and future projections in order to focus on caring well.”
- Making Time for Soil, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa