How to appropriate a plant

Visiting “Rooted Beings” at Wellcome Collection, London for the Telegraph, 24 March 2022

“Take a moment to draw a cosmic breath with your whole body, slower than any breath you have ever taken in your life.” Over headphones, Eduardo Navarro and philosopher Michael Marder guide my contemplation of Navarro’s drawings, where human figures send roots into the ground and reach with hands-made-leaves into the sky. They’re drawn with charcoal and natural pigments on envelopes containing the seeds of London plane trees. When the exhibition is over, the envelopes will be planted in a rite of burial and rebirth.

What are plants? Garden-centre curios? Magical objects? Medicines? Or trade goods? It’s hard for us to think of plants outside of the uses we put them to, and the five altars of Vegetal Matrix by Chilean artist Patricia Dominguez celebrate (if that is quite the word) their multiple social identities. One shrine contains a medicinal bark, quinine; in another, flowers of toxic Brugmansia, an assassin’s stock-in-trade; In the third sits a mandrake root, carved into the shape of a woman. Dominguez’s artistic research sits at the centre of a section of the exhibition entitled “Colonial violence and indigenous knowledge”.

Going by the show’s interpretative material, the narrowly extractive use of plants is a white western idea. But the most exciting exhibits reveal otherwise. From 400 CE there’s a fragment of the world’s earliest surviving herbal, painted on papyrus (we have always admired plants for what we could get out of them). Also from the Wellcome archives, there’s a complex map describing the vegetal “middle realm” of Jain cosmology — obviously a serious effort to establish an intellectual hold on the blooming and buzzing confusion of the plant world. Trees and their associated wildlife are reduced to deceptively simple and captivating shapes in the work on paper of the artist Joseca, whose people, the Yanomami, have been extracting foods and medicines from the Amazon rainforest for generations. His vivid plant portraits are not some classic Linnaean effort at the classification of species, but emotionally they’re not far off. Joseca is establishing categories, not tearing them down.

Bracketing the section about how imperial forces have “appropriated” useful plants (and thank goodness for that! cries the crabbed reviewer, thinking of his stomach as usual) are more introspective spaces. Ingela Ihrman’s enormous Passion Flower costume dominates the first room: time your visit just right, and you will find the artist inhabiting the flower, and may even get to drink her nectar. Not much less playful are the absurdist visions — in textile, embroidery and collage — of Gözde Ilkin, for whom categories (between human and plant, between plant and fungi) exist to be demolished, creating peculiar, and peculiarly endearing vegetal-anthropoid forms.

“Wilderness” is the theme of the final room. There’s real desperation in the RESOLVE Collective’s effort to knap and chisel their way towards a wild relationship with the urban environment. Made of broken masonry and pipework, crates and split paving slabs, this, perhaps, is a glimpse of the Hobbesian wilderness that civilisation keeps at bay.

Nearby, Den 3 is the artist SOP’s wry evocation of the old romantic mistake, cladding misanthropy in the motley of the greenwood. Rather than vegetate on the couch during the Covid-19 pandemic, SOP built a den in nearby woods and there enjoyed a sort of pint-size “Walden Pond” experience — until lockdown relaxed and others began visiting the wood.

At its simplest, Rooted Beings evokes a pleasant fantasy of human-vegetable co-existence. But forget its emolient exterior: at its best this show is deeply uncanny. The gulfs that exist between plant and animal, between species and species, between us and other, serve their own purposes, and attempts to do as Navarro and Marder suggest, and experience the world as a plant might experience it, are as likely to end in horror as in delight. “As you are very slowly dying while also staying alive,” they explain, “your body becomes the soil you are living in.” Crikey.

The old heave-ho

The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind by Jan Lucassen, reviewed for the Telegraph 14 August 2021

“How,” asks Dutch social historian Jan Lucassen, “could people accept that the work of one person was rewarded less than that of another, that one might even be able to force the other to do certain work?”

The Story of Work is just that: a history of work (paid or otherwise, ritual or for a wage, in the home or out of it) from peasant farming in the first agrarian societies to gig-work in the post-Covid ruins of the high street, and spanning the historical experiences of working people on all five inhabited continents. The writing is, on the whole, much better than the sentence you just read, but no less exhausting. At worst, it put me in mind of the work of English social historian David Kynaston; super-precise prose stitched together to create an unreadably compacted narrative.

For all its abstractions, contractions and signposting, however, The Story of Work is full of colour, surprise and human warmth. What other social history do you know writes off the Industrial Revolution as a net loss to music? “Just think of the noise from rattling machines that made it impossible to talk,” Lucassen writes, “in contrast to small workplaces or among larger troupes of workers who mollified work in the open air by singing shanties and other work songs.”

For 98 per cent of our species’ history we lived lives of reciprocal altruism in hunting-and-gathering clan groups. With the advent of farming and the formation of the first towns came surpluses and, for the first time, the feasibility of distributing resources unequally.

At first, conspicuous generosity ameliorated the unfairnesses. As the sixteenth-century French judge Étienne de la Boétie wrote: “theatres, games, plays, spectacles, marvellous beasts, medals, tableaux, and other such drugs were for the people of antiquity the allurements of serfdom, the price of their freedom, the tools of tyranny.” (The Story of Work is full of riches of this sort: strip off the narrative, and there’s a cracking miscellany still to enjoy.)

Lucassen diverges from the popular narrative (in which the invention of agriculture is the fount of all our ills) on several points. First, agricultural societies do not inevitably become marketplaces. Bantu-speaking agriculturalists spread across central, eastern and southern Africa between 3500 BCE and 500 CE, while maintaining perfect equality. “Agriculture and egalitarianism are compatible,“ says Lucassen.

It’s not the crops, but the livestock, that are to blame for our expulsion from hunter-gatherer Eden. If notions of private property had to arise anywhere, they surely arose, Lucassen argues, among those innocent-looking shepherds and shepherdesses, whose waterholes may have been held in common but whose livestock most certainly were not. Animals were owned by individuals or households, whose success depended on them knowing every single individual in their herd.

Having dispatched the idea that agriculture made markets, Lucassen then demolishes the idea that markets made inequality. Inequality came first. It does not take much specialism to arise within a group before some acquire more resources than others. Managing this inequality doesn’t need anything so complex as a market. All it needs is an agreement. Lucassen turns to India, and the social ideologies that gave rise, from about 600 BC, to the Upanishads and the later commentaries on the Vedas: the evolving caste system, he says, is a textbook example of how human suffering can be explained to an entire culture’s satisfaction ”without victims or perpetrators being able to or needing to change anything about the situation”.

Markets, by this light, become a way of subverting the iniquitous rhetorics cooked up by rulers and their priests. Why, then, have markets not ushered in a post-political Utopia? The problem is not to do with power. It’s to do with knowledge. Jobs used to be *hard*. They used to be intellectually demanding. Never mind the seven-year apprenticeships of Medieval Europe, what about the jobs a few are still alive to remember? Everything, from chipping slate out of a Welsh quarry to unloading a cargo boat while maintaining its trim, took what seem now to be unfeasible amounts of concentration, experience and skill.

Now, though — and even as they are getting fed rather more, and rather more fairly, than at any other time in world history — the global proletariat are being starved, by automation, of the meaning of their labour. The bloodlessness of this future is not a subject Lucassen spends a great many words on, but it informs his central and abiding worry, which is that slavery — a depressing constant in his deep history of labour — remains a constant threat and a strong future possibility. The logics of a slave economy run frighteningly close to the skin in many cultures: witness the wrinkle in the 13th Amendment of the US constitution that legalises the indentured servitude of (largely black) convicts, or the profits generated for the global garment industry by interned Uighurs in China. Automation, and its ugly sister machine surveillance, seem only to encourage such experiments in carceral capitalism.

But if workers of the world are to unite, around what banner should they gather? Lucassen identifies only two forms of social agreement that have ever reconciled us to the unfair distribution of reward. One is redistributive theocracy. “Think of classical Egypt and the pre-Columbian civilizations,” he writes, “but also of an ‘ideal state’ like the Soviet Union.”

The other is the welfare state. But while theocracies have been sustained for centuries or even millennia, the welfare state, thus far, has a shelf life of only a few decades, and is easily threatened.

Exhausted yet enlightened, any reader reaching the end of Lucassen’s marathon will understand that the problem of work runs far deeper than politics, and that the grail of a fair society will only come nearer if we pay attention to real experiences, and resist the lure of utopias.