The Giant Hogweed
Karlin Studios / PRAGUE (Czech Republic)
25.03.2021 – 06.05.2021

Ingela Ihrman’s The Giant Hogweed and Sonia Levy’s For the Love of Corals are two interrelated solo exhibitions presented simultaneously at Karlin Studios curated by Borbála Soós. They each address issues around nature management techniques in relation to specific species and touch upon colonial histories, breeding, care, landscape management and future ecologies. Which plant and animal persons are invited and welcome in our idealist vision of nature? Who are to be saved from extinction and who are deemed invasive and prosecuted for their specific qualities? The projects question what kind of species and relationships will constitute our future landscapes, and how are the new paradigms constructed for environmental conservation and natural history that emerge in the wake.

As evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano and academic Prudence Gibson explain in their essay The Feminist Plant , 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 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 . 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 , being plant would mean that you have to refashion your body parts 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.

Curated by Borbála Soós

Courtesy of the artist and Karlin Studios
Photocredit Tomáš Souček