When the viewer exits the elevator, what is seen is a configuration of planters in a keyhole formation and a diminutive but lush oasis among grey industrial columns in a building located in a transitioning 20th-century industrial zone. This sharp contrast succinctly prefaces the exhibition “Remediation” by indicating the dualist nature of Kapwani Kiwanga’s work.
The piece is eponymously titled Keyhole, 2023, a new work comprising locally sourced plants chosen for their healing powers. The plants serve as purifying filters for earth, water and, on this site, the gallery’s air. Here, you can see the influence of Beuys’s planting of trees (7,000 oaks) at Documenta 7, 1982, and, by proxy, his lineage of art and healing. Plants may heal in Keyhole, but other works explore their toxicity. Either way, the exhibition proposes, as its title suggests, remediation.
Keyhole is one of six works that Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned—a remarkable number for a single exhibition, the most expansive in Canada to date by this Franco-Canadian, Paris-based artist. Although one work, Vumbi, was made in 2012, the others are more recent, dating from 2020, with a cluster produced this year. This exhibition is especially timely since Kiwanga will be the first Black woman to represent Canada at the 2024 Venice Biennale.
Kiwanga has researched the connection of plants and agriculture to slavery and colonialism, and the results of this research hold a significant presence in “Remediation.” More recent research, however, considers the polarities of toxicity and rejuvenation in plants and how the role plants play depends on their use and context. The exhibition addresses both research trajectories through various media—video, sculpture, installation, textiles and live plants—retaining a distinct minimalist aesthetic with formalist references to Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Ellsworth Kelly, as well as Jannis Kounellis and Hans Haacke.
Given the number of commissions, much work makes good use of MOCA’s dynamic but often complicating space, with its many interruptions: large columns, prominent windows and shiny polished concrete floors. The work intervenes, covers and splits. For instance, Elliptical Field, 2023, a site-specific installation, consists of white-gold fibre from the sisal plant draped in two half-circle shapes and a curtain-like space divider suspended from the ceiling. The piece is both barrier and invitation to walk past—a passive-aggressive intervention.
The sisal plant is not native to Africa but is widespread there. German plantation owners brought it with them and farmed it, making it one of the continent’s main exports. Consequently, Kiwanga links colonization and capitalism to botanical change through the importation of alien species.
Again forming a divider, Residue, 2023, comprising a wall of dried banana leaves, indicates Kiwanga’s ongoing research into the toxicity of plants and agriculture. The banana leaves reference chlordecone, an insecticide used to treat banana leaves, especially in the Caribbean, which disastrously impacted human health and the environment.
Connoting the transportation of plants and thus relating to other works linking alien species to colonization and exploitation, the “Vivarium” series comprises three centrally placed pieces, Vivarium: Cytomixis, 2020, Vivarium: Adventitious, 2023, and Vivarium: Apomixis, 2023, built of inflatable PVC with steel support structures. The vivariums directly reference Wardian cases, glass and wooden boxes serving as temporary greenhouses for moving plants. Each transparent, organic, amorphous form, sculptural and vaguely referencing modernist furniture and other mid-century designs, symbolically protects the plants from the surrounding environment. The sculptures seduce aesthetically, drawing the viewer into their discursive, contextual meanings achieved through their juxtaposition with other works.
Scorch, 2023, has a similarly powerful visual impact. It comprises shou sugi ban (charred cedar) floorboards whose burnt exterior harmonizes with the rawness of the industrial space around it, resulting in a strikingly beautiful, contextualized piece. It recalls the floor and corner sculptures of Carl Andre and other minimalists. Like Andre, Kiwanga imbues a basic, pared-down form with political content, exploiting minimalism as a familiar art world trope tofill with content. While Andre brought the working class to the gallery via red bricks, Kiwanga brings the politics of environmental and colonial exploitation through charred floorboards.
The piece’s title alludes to the charring process but simultaneously indicates scorched earth policy, a military strategy intended to destroy arable land. It may also signify the increase in wildfires the climate crisis has precipitated. Conversely, it can mean the controlled burning of forests to regenerate the land. The piece thus indicates that the political and economic underpinnings of use can determine botanical destruction or regeneration. Expanding on Kiwanga’s interest in the dualism of destruction and nurturance is a related body of research around the subversive use of plants, particularly in the colonial era. For instance, in The Maria, 2020, two paper flowers on respective yellow plinths recreate the peacock flower plant. The craft of paper folding implies delicacy and bourgeois luxury, but the reality behind the history of these flowers is not so genteel. They were known in Latin America to contain abortifacient chemicals. Since the unborn children of enslaved women became the master’s legal property, the flower represents the breaking of the slavery cycle. These two works optimistically indicate that the right human decisions can make good use—indeed, political use—of plants.
Kiwanga highlights toxicity and proposes a hopeful challenge to it via a visually impactful minimalist aesthetic. Like the plants she includes, aesthetics is a pleasantly soothing entry point to a discomforting history and application of plant life. Yet an active restoration and purification of the space, as Keyhole provides, indicates that she has critiqued and transformed the cool, masculine industrial processes of minimalism. It is not just the gallery’s air but also the gallery’s serving as a portal to modern art history that Kapwani Kiwanga has remediated. ❚
“Remediation” was exhibited at Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto, from February 24, 2023, to July 23, 2023.
Earl Miller is an independent art writer residing in Toronto.