Ilana Feldman, Curator

Giselle Beiguelman is a creator of images dedicated to pondering the nature of images themselves in contemporaneity, by mobilizing the relationship between aesthetics and politics, art and technology in a critical, surprising and inventive manner. In Botannica Tirannica, the artist has expanded the scope of her work into the territory of science to question the relationships between hegemonic science, classical botany and the colonialist imagination, historically present in the forms of domination and classification of nature.

Probing the sphere of the supposedly “natural”— since the idea of nature is a modern invention— with colonial and scientific racism, modern and machine eugenics, the artist investigates and subverts the taxonomies and the algorithmic patterns that have sustained the colonialist ideology expressed by the botanical science.

Not coincidentally, in botany this mentality reveals itself through scientific names and/or common names that are offensive and prejudiced against women, blacks, Jews, indigenous people, so-called gypsies and so many other continually marginalized and subjugated groups.

This is the case of the Tradescantia zebrina, popularly known as the “Wandering Jew”, a derogatory expression used to designate a plant that insists on spreading and surviving in adverse conditions. The Thumbergia alata, commonly known as “Bunda-de-mulata” [Mulatto girl’s bottom], and Impatiens walleriana, the popular and apparently inoffensive “Maria- sem-vergonha” [Shameless Maria], are examples of typical nicknames of plants considered, in various languages and cultures, as forms of “weed”: those which, as intrusive, strange and undesired, cause damage and are condemned to damnation and the pains of hell. The world is a garden whose weed must be eliminated—according to eugenicist thinking.

In order to create a genealogy of prejudice in the fields of art and science, Giselle Beiguelman employed an Artificial Intelligence program to cross and combine different species endowed with discriminatory names. Using different media—a series of 18 images compose the work Flora mutandis, five videos structure the work Flora rebellis, an image named Errante [Wandering], an essay film entitled Botannica Tirannica and a real Garden of Resilience, where plants, primarily “weeds”, with injurious names are cultivated—the artist twists the common and ambivalent uses of technology, liberating new poetic fields and new political meetings. This gives rise to hybrids, plants and flowers that are at once real and invented, true and false, which undo the taxonomic impulse through their strange bodies and unpronounceable nomenclatures.

Here, it is important to remember that, if language produces the world and reality based on its naming rituals, in the context of hegemonic botany and scientific racism this naming is also a form of possession and domination. Like the artist says, nomenclature is a ritual of erasure of everything that is different, diverse, distinct, abnormal. Hence the fact that botanical taxonomy, “a general science of order”, tabulates and organizes the life of species based on their similarities and differences, projecting onto the world of plants, fruits, and flowers, human characteristics, reproductive binarisms, racial, religious and gender prejudices. As a result, the botanical science, unlike the perspectivism of the original Amerindian peoples, created a single nature in the image and semblance of man—understood here, literally, as male, white and Western.

We can say that the life of plants, as well as the relationship between culture and nature in the epoch conventionally called the Anthropocene, is at the center of contemporary critical reflection. This political thinking, which encompasses anything from philosophy to anthropology, from the history of sciences to artistic practices critical of the colonial paradigm, values ancestral knowledge and questions the relations of power forged in the crucible of colonialism. “Plants make the world”, argues Emanuele Coccia, and this is why we must interrogate them, look at them, listen to their respiration. For the philosopher, if the life of plants is an act of cosmogony, a constant genesis of our world, botany should “describe all the ways of life capable of photosynthesis as inhuman and material divinities, domestic titans that do not rely on violence to found new worlds” [1].

Challenging the classification procedures of the colonialist imagination for plant species, Botannica Tirannica denaturalizes the daily naturalness with which we see this world of plants with derogatory names, at times “simply” demeaning, at times seriously degrading. Indeed, a criticism of power cannot go without a criticism of the language and its mechanisms of identification and normalization, but the work by Giselle Beiguelman cannot be reduced to a gesture of denouncement, like someone who delights in finger wagging. In the place of prejudiced nomenclature, Beiguelman goes against the grain of technology, short-circuiting Artificial Intelligence to invent other ways of naming, of creating experience, of producing metamorphosis and new forms of life.

As we can see in the series Flora mutandis and Flora rebellis, the artist creates an explosion of colors and variation of forms freed from all identity and utilitarian logic. Using distinct languages, 18 fixed images in square format, and five videos framed equally, in dialogue with the format of grids of images from Artificial Intelligence, Beiguelman invents and produces rootless and radically unique hybrid creatures. This is the situation of the explosive and sensual plants and flowers, endowed with impossible names, like the images from Flora mutandis, or of the plants whose shapes are in perpetual transmutation, in the case of the works in the video of Flora rebellis. In an erotic dance, these creatures blend and dissolve, with their beauty and strangeness, the relationship between words and things, power and naming. It is no coincidence that flowers, the sex organs of plants, whose shapes, as we know, are the appendage that allows them to capture and attract the world, also give rise here to a type of laboratory of mixture and metamorphosis.

While in the work Errante [Wandering], an image also created with Artificial Intelligence and the result of a combination of all the common name plant species, in different languages, known as “Wandering Jew”, the overlap between nature and deception, technological experimentation and aesthetic experience, matter and imagination is also a satire on prejudice, intolerance and persecution. For centuries, the nickname “Wandering Jew” has befallen a people deprived of their right to the land and belonging, condemned, like “weed”, to wander and be damned. But, for Beiguelman, following the trail blazed by poststructuralist thinking and in keeping with the diasporicand non-essentialist legacy of Jewish culture itself, wandering, far from being a punishment, is a condition for life, creation and liberty of all living beings, including plants.

On this point, the film essay A Genealogy of Prejudice is an important reflection on the relationships between colonial science, prejudice, anti-Semitism, scientific and algorithmic racism. Beiguelman also employs an ironic narration produced by Artificial Intelligence robots by manipulating heterogeneous archive materials, which include photographs, historical documents, botanical records, clips from fiction films and propaganda materials, combined with images and videos of plants and botanical gardens produced by the artist herself.

Approximating the critical and deconstructive sense that marks the work of the German filmmaker and artist Harun Farocki, a dizzying narrative is created in this short video, in which the search for phenotypic, genetic and generic patterns that support the ideological basis for eugenics is associated with the search for patterns in data and algorithmic information operated by the Artificial Intelligence itself. Disassembling and reassembling this logic, spanning the 19th century to our current datasphere, Giselle Beiguelman asks us: “But what about the things that fall outside the pattern?”—a question that resonates throughout the exhibition and is amplified by each one of the works.

In this way, in the face of taxonomic forces and fixed and standardized identities, Botannica Tirannica uses wandering and the nomadism of the Jewish tradition to say that flowers and plants, particularly “weeds” [2], are dazzling, resistant, resilient forms of life, “damned” creatures, rebellious and abnormal. Infiltrated in real and digital gardens, they will never be eliminated.

[1] COCCIA, E. The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture. New York: Polity Press, 2018.

[2] With regard to those damned to hell in the religious sense, the term “danada” [damned], in the female gender, also contains, in Brazil, a mischievous, lewd and sexualized meaning. In proper Portuguese, a “danada” woman would be, among other things, a “Maria-sem-vergonha” [Shameless Maria].