Trees as actors in history, the migration of flowers, and medicinal plants testifying to neo-extractivism – these are some of the themes that Uriel Orlow pursues in his research-based art. Concrete circumstances and developments invariably form the basis of his multi-layered, multi-media works. In recent years his attention has mainly focused on entanglements between the African continent and Europe. Plants are both the narrators and protagonists here, anchoring all the events in the present day.
For his solo show at Kunsthalle Mainz the artist has developed a route through the exhibition that takes visitors room by room from the origins of colonialism via the anti-apartheid movement through to contemporary concerns.
The Memory of Trees is a series of large-format black-and-white photographs of trees, which are presented as historical witnesses. Each of the plants on display, including an almond tree and an oil palm, contains within it a specific biography that is closely linked to colonialism. The artist lays these bare by supplementing the photos with texts chronicling when the trees were first planted in Africa, as well as their uses and involvement in historical events.
This series of works is taken further with Wishing Trees – a work commissioned for Manifesta 12 in Palermo. Here, for the first time, Uriel Orlow dealt with trees on the European continent, as well as with the legends and events that have become engrained within them. As witnesses to conflicts, migration and anti-Mafia activism they link people with nature, and history with the present. Today, they still stand for hopes and desires. Theatrum Botanicum is a body of works that incorporates videos, sound works, slide projections and photographs. This constantly growing series looks at plants as agents of international entanglements and power relationships. Indigenous flora renamed by colonialists, foreign seeds being imported, or plants becoming imbued with a specific political content: all these examples provide evidence of strategic appropriation in history. At the same time, there are parallels between the approach we take to the plant world and patterns of behaviour displayed by colonial occupiers towards indigenous peoples – and these are still ongoing.
Soil Affinities begins with nineteenth-century vegetable cultivation in the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, displaced by industrialisation and connected the expansion of agriculture in the colonies. Videos, photographs and documents are presented in shipping crates, tracing the relationships between plants and people from France to Mali and Senegal, from the nineteenth century through to the present day.
Traces of European colonialism are ever-present. But often the knowledge required to uncover and decode them is missing. Uriel Orlow’s works construct paths for connecting the past, present and future. These paths are winding and on occasion overgrown; they are adventure trails that tell exciting, moving and surprising stories. When we leave them we are enriched with knowledge about how this all concerns us, we are sensitive to the social relevance of plants and are encouraged to reflect on what we should do with this information. Thanks to his immersive settings, Uriel Orlow manages to lead the viewer deep into the stories; his displays allow us to locate the works in time and space. The way he brings archive material to life with a contemporary actor, and how he blends interview, theatre and performance genres makes his practice so timely and vibrant.
The exhibition title Conversing with Leaves describes Uriel Orlow’s approach as much as it does his form of presentation. He emphasises the narrative quality of his work as well as dialogues that take place not only within and among the works themselves, but also with the visitors. Conversing with Leaves presents the first solo show in Germany and the most extensive exhibition of the artist’s work date.