The title of this newly commissioned work references a base unit for the delimitation of territory that has solidified the borders of land ownership and cultivation in Europe since ancient times. It was the Romans who systematised the demarcation of land into centuries (hundreds) as a method to divide and allocate conquered lands, forming a rigid structure of rectangular grids to facilitated the administration of property and collection of taxes. The size and the shape of the work, in which one are of land is translated into a 100m2 sculpture, recalls the processes of territorial delimitation that turned land into capital and the related problems of soil governance, the enclosure of the commons and the mechanisms of colonisation. By sculpturally inverting the undulations of the land, the installation also draws attention to the materiality of the soil, mapping the earthy imprint of agricultural work in markings and interventions in the ground to produce an amorphous cast of the remnants of tilling, cracking and erosion. While discovering commonalities between the demarcation of land and systems of economic control, the work puts the soil squarely in the centre of attention. Alluding to the concreting over of farmland through the relentless expansion of industrial infrastructures, the work problematizes the depletion of topsoil as a result of over-exploitation and accelerating erosion, as well as the toxic effects of pesticides on biotic soil communities.
The monumental scale of the mural The Song for an Assembly II realised with charcoal and acrylic on the walls of Kunsthalle corresponds to the enormity of the agrarian and ecological crisis unfolding in India. The artist expresses solidarity with the millions of farmers who have taken to the streets to protest against legal and economic changes that they fear will leave them defenceless against the takeover of their land by agricultural corporations, deepening the social problems of landlessness and impoverishment in the countryside. Unsettling figures that are part-machine, part-animal and part-human gather together in a barren and exhausted landscape to deliver a dystopian vision of the destructive forces transforming the countryside. The suffering of the farmers is inseparable from that of the land, which has been poisoned with chemicals and stripped of its biotic diversity by the planting of genetically modified crops. The work points to the inevitability of the rebellion of exploited rural communities advancing with raised fists, but also of the natural world, in the face of the ravages of industrial agriculture and the effects of anthropogenic climate change. It is upon the outcome of the revolt of this terrestrial assembly, taking the form of a revival of traditional seed knowledge and rejection of input based agriculture in favour of care for the soil, that the future of life on Earth now depends.
TAgrologistics is one of a trilogy of films investigating the redefinition of the modes of production, distribution and consumption of food in an era of accelerating environmental transformation. Focusing on the hyper-automation of food production and deployment of imaging technologies in futuristic greenhouses, the artist critically analyses technoscientific solutions that mobilise plants, people and robots as interchangeable elements in agricultural operations. The production of images is revealed as integral to the functioning of the global food sector, while also opening up the possibility of generating a counter-imaginary that makes visible its opaque infrastructures and mechanisms. In the film, just such a counter-narrative with the potential to disrupt the smoothly functioning agroeconomic system arrives after dark in the form of non-human actors whose fictionalising presence breaks the technological spell that rules the denatured setting of the industrial farm. The film is an invitation to a sensory journey in which through moving images the role of high-tech greenhouses in ecological transformations and the future of food production is explored and challenged.
Delivering a reportage about the here and now of Central European rural life from women’s point of view, the film News Medley (2021) grew out of artistic collaboration with a Hungarian village choir. Through a process of collective rewriting of a medley of five songs from their repertoire, the project articulates through the prism of personal experiences the current concerns of this intergenerational community. The updated lyrics reflect on memories of working in the local sugar cooperative, the switch to entrepreneurship in the postsocialist transition and the crisis that youth depopulation has brought to the countryside. The film points to the continuity and adaptability of folk cultures and the potential for rural traditions to be reactivated to express contemporary issues. It also shows the extent to which women have been the driving force in rural transformations and the hardships of gendered labour. The leitmotif of the empowering and non-hierarchical form of circular structures in News Medley emphasises the agency of self-organised collectives as a source of strength, community and care.
Taking issue with monocultures that deploy heavy machinery to work the land, represented in their installation by a giant tractor tyre, MyVillages draw attention to the countervailing diversity of rural economies, communities and knowledges. Showing how rural products emerge from the convergence of local identities and situated knowledges, a series of short films explores the relationships between the creativity of the makers, traditional crafts and collective exchanges. The countryside is revealed as a site of trans-local connectivity, signalled by a wordsearch of the more than 100 rural localities across Europe and beyond that MyVillages have worked with since the international collective was established in 2003. Inviting further collaboration, a table is set for social transactions to assess the value of rural cultures in urban-dominated artworlds, explore the commons as an alternative economic system and come to terms with the challenges that climate change poses to agricultural production. Instead of romanticising the rural, MyVillages propose a complex vision of the countryside as a space for cultural experimentation, social creativity and ecological practice.
The two signs rotating in the exhibition space were salvaged by Ilona Németh from the roof of the derelict offices of the demolished sugar factory in Dunajská Streda, the fate of which during the postsocialist transition was the starting point for the artist’s long-term Eastern Sugar research. The fading socialist era insignia of Juhocukor, meaning southern sugar, was covered up when the plant was taken over by multinational corporations and replaced by Eastern Sugar, symbolising the expansion of Western capital into former Eastern Bloc markets. The new sign was in turn made redundant following the permanent closure of the factory in 2007, as the investors took advantage of a compensation scheme to reduce European sugar production. A particular chapter in the demise of the sugar industry in Slovakia belongs to the Sladkovičovo manufactory, which in its heyday consisted of more than 50 farms, a hydroelectric power plant, railway network and cannery, as well as a school and public swimming pool for the local population. The unrealised potential of Slovak agrarianism is uncovered in the Dioszeg method, a pioneering agricultural model that anticipated the principles of contemporary sustainable agriculture based on zero waste and the circular economy.
Growing up in a family of farmers, Italian artist Marzia Migliora is well acquainted with the issues arising from the intensification of agriculture through mechanisation, dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the genetic modification of seeds. Her series of collages Paradoxes of Plenty (2017-19) investigates food production under global capitalism and its weighty footprint on people, animals and the planet, resulting in top-soil depletion, pollution and the ‘complete transformation of products of the land we consume and the quality of life of those who cultivate that land, including my own family.’ In outlining the costly path of agricultural development, she drew on her grandfather’s collection of farming manuals, which in their advocacy of monocultural methods bear the ideological imprint of twentieth century agrarian history. Realised especially for the exhibition is a new collage entitled C’est a ce prix que nous mangeons du sucre (2021) in reference to a line in Voltaire’s Candide that alluded to the price of consuming sugar in Europe. The work investigates the entwined histories of slavery, colonialism and extractivism in the bitter rivalry between Caribbean sugar cane and European sugar beet. Juxtaposing the positions of farmers, their produce and global networks, the collages shed light on the conflict between the idea of progress and the ecological impacts of industrial agriculture.
The experimental documentary Nocturnal Gardening (2016) is the last part of Night Soil Trilogy, a series of immersive film installations by Melanie Bonajo that address ‘the huge disconnection most Western people feel to nature.’ It tells the story of four women, each of whom has developed pioneering practices to reassemble communities, reconnect with nature and restore non-capitalist ways of being in the world. The first is bringing up her family in union with plant spirits, foraging and harvesting fruits of the forest and applying its healing powers. The second woman left her city career to establish a farm where pigs are stroked and appreciated to counteract the monstrosities of the meat industry. Another started an organic gardening project to oppose ‘food apartheid’ in the United States, cultivating resistance to racism, capitalism and other oppressions through spiritual activism and the reconnection of black communities to the land. Finally, a Navajo woman voices indigenous position in which plants, horses, clouds and trees are understood as relatives of the Earth, extending the invitation to anyone who thinks that ‘life is sacred’ to join the ‘indigenous renaissance.’ Through their attentive ways of land use, crop growing and animal husbandry, and by bringing people together on the land to deal with historical traumas, these women show how to practice anti-capitalist values of agrarian justice and care.
The installation Corn Song (2012-21) investigates the tension between indigenous practices of growing corn and its industrial cultivation under conditions of monocultural modernity. In the video piece Corn Song, the artist is shown performing a musical improvisation to a field of corn plants in the agricultural belt of the United States. While the Native American tradition of interspecies care and understanding towards the plant world was expressed through their practice of singing to the corn to help it grow, by playing music to a field of genetically modified corn Hudec drew attention to the mechanistic and unfeeling attitude towards vegetal life of modern industrial agriculture. Further explored in this new installation are the visual connections between traditional Iroquois architecture and cobs of corn, reflecting its importance as a food source and sacred status in Native American cultures. The corn motif is also recognisable in the painting of a container ship, trading vessels that plough their way across the oceans, suggesting a circularity between unsustainable agricultural methods, the global food industry and the profit-fuelled economic system.
Annalee Davis’s native Barbados was Britain´s first sugar island. Once the wealthiest colony in the English Americas, this is where Britain perfected its colonial machinery via the plantation system, contributing to the modernization of Britain on the back of the transatlantic slave trade and the profitable sugar industry. To realise her new work, A Walker’s Diary – An Effort at Disalienation (2021), Annalee Davis walked in the fields behind her studio on family property, a former sugar cane plantation dating to the seventeenth century, the topographical contours of which form the backdrop for this display. Her findings from regular walks on land steeped in brutal histories are recorded on ledgers salvaged from an abandoned sugar factory. Appropriating their surfaces and countering their economic rationale, this personal diary of reconnections with the land holds the potential for counter-knowledges to emerge. The photographic series Sweeping the Fields (2016) documents performative gestures to remember and cleanse the land from its violent past and the ecological damage caused by the monocultural farming of sugar that devastated the biodiversity of the Caribbean island. The wild botanicals which are repopulating the fields point to the possibilities of post-plantation ecological resurgence.
Soil Affinities traces lines and networks of terrestrial connection between plants and people across different geographies and temporalities. It takes as its starting point the agrarian history of the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, which until the end of the nineteenth century when the region was industrialised had a rich tradition of market gardening. Noting that the decline of food production in the area coincided with the development of colonial agriculture in Africa, the artist set out to research the connections between (post)colonial history and the assisted migration of plants. This included the founding of a colonial test garden in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris by the French authorities as a hub for the transplantation of plant species between the Americas, France and West Africa. The experimental cultivation of European staples such as tomatoes, peppers, green beans, onions and cabbage for the French settler population paved the way for the wholesale reorientation of Senegalese agriculture to serve European markets in the era of globalisation. Consisting of video, photography and other documents gathered in France and Senegal, the installation is structured in a horizontal, non-linear manner to allow human and vegetal histories of trans-oceanic mobility to intersect and cross-fertilise.
The vision of creating an artificial sea in the middle of the Sahara dates to the late nineteenth century, when fuelled by the French colonial imagination geoengineering plans were developed to turn the inhospitable desert into the breadbasket of the Maghreb. The installation Sea of Sahara excavates the pre-history of contemporary terraforming schemes to redesign and reorganise the planet on a massive scale, leaving no place on Earth free from technocratic control, even if it entails domesticating the desert. Archaeological records reveal however that the Sahara was not always so dry, with lost riverbeds and lakes evidence of a Neolithic wet period when the region was a fertile savannah. The representation of La Semeuse or The Sower references the productivist ethos of colonial modernity, which sought to dominate the land for profit, power and the nation, engendering the unfolding ecological crisis. The threat of the desertification of the world’s fertile land posed by climate change casts such geoengineering efforts in a new light, with the altering meteorological realities represented in infographics depicting the uncontrollable reactions of sun, air, land and water on a heating planet.
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