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We belong to the ground
It is our power and we must stay
Close to it or maybe
We will get lost
Narritjin Maymuru[1]

If we told you that the terrestrial biomass is composed 99.7% by plants,[2] would it sound surprising? We often seem to forget that the role of human beings is rather marginal within the existence of the ecosystem, whereas nature plays a crucial part in the life of the Earth. Even further, whilst humankind is not able to survive on its own, if someday humanity would vanish the planet would certainly endure, and other forms of life would thrive in its place. Such a consideration has been pivotal for the development of Filippo Leonardi’s artistic journey. His practice unfolds in what he refers to as ‘cycles,’ series of works, which address diverse facets of the same concept: looking at the world from a non-exclusively anthropocentric view, acknowledging the distinctive perspective of (non-human) nature, i.e. animals and plants.

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Flora Plastica (installation view), Five Years

Nature is not a novel topic in art; it has been treated as both subject and object of investigation since time immemorial. Think of the images depicted inside pre-historic caves, or the European cabinets of curiosity – from which the modern museum originated. Consider Renaissance and impressionistic paintings, aboriginal art, mainstream contemporary installations and the art on the Internet. Recall the political discourses developed by land art, ecology, performance or feminism. The representation of nature has always been relevant. Although we are not going to provide an in-depth analysis of so many art historical periods, we cannot escape but to mention the rising attention that is being given to the relationship between men and the environment. You will have noted, for instance, Lois Weinberger’s contribution to Documenta 14, or Michel Blazy’s installation at the 57th Venice Biennale. The former reflects on the notions of the ‘ruderal’ and ‘wild’ and the capability of vegetation to grow and spread independently, and indeed despite, the presence or absence of human society – as if in warning: ‘Plants do not need us! They are able to exist, no matter what.’ Following a similar path, Blazy’s Collection de Chaussures, (2015-2017) – a series of used shoes filled with living plants – brings light to the correlation between the natural and the artificial, life and death, essential elements and branded products. You will surely remember Pierre Huyghe’s (Untitled) Human Mask (2014): a monkey playing the character of a waitress, endlessly repeating human-like movements, trapped in a dystopian scenery. These are just a few, amongst many examples in the variety of contemporary works, which incorporate the realm of plants and animals in their making. The impact of the latter on the language of contemporary art and, in turn, on the way we look at society, is contextualised by curator Filipa Ramos as she writes:

Through different approaches, which expand the classical tradition of the artistic representation of animals and launch into another level of engagement with non-human species, contemporary artistic modes of relating to animals contribute a renewed empathy, attention and awareness towards other species. Functioning beyond conventional uses, testing and inventing new methodologies, they also promote more malleable uses of verbal language, as animal connected modes of being in the world invite us to envisage another mode of living, to conceive life beyond the systems of private ownership, labour and profit.[3]

With this in mind, and in a moment where environmental issues and policies are at the forefront of the global political agenda – not always with positive intentions[4] – the work of Leonardi sits on a very hot spot. The way he approaches notions related to the environment goes beyond a dogmatic judgement, culminating in observations that can be seen as holding a political value. We refer to the act of borrowing and emphasising scientific theories and research areas that question the superiority of men over other species, such as plant neurobiology. This is an innovative science, which affirms that plants are smart, sentient beings, capable of evolving by taking advantage of the most favourable conditions, including the behaviour of animals. One of the best skills of plants is, in fact, problem solving. As Stefano Mancuso, director of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, Florence, claimed, ‘each choice a plant makes is based on this type of calculation: what is the smallest quantity of resources that will serve to solve the problem?’[5] According to his study, plants do not simply react to threats or opportunities, but even decide how far to do so. Where humans have five basic senses, plants have at least twenty, which they use to monitor the most disparate environmental conditions, as well as to communicate amongst each other.

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Flora Plastica (installation view), Five Years

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Flora Plastica (installation view), Five Years

This book was a great source of information for Leonardi who, for over ten years, has explored the structural mechanisms of flora and fauna by means of environmental installations, films and photographic works. Since 2008, an important reference for his artistic development was the context of Parco Arte Vivente (PAV), Turin. Conceived by Italian artist Piero Gilardi – a figure of the Arte Povera movement and the socio-relational art of the 1970s – PAV functions as an experimental contemporary art centre with an open-air exhibition site and an interactive museum, used as a laboratory and a meeting point between art and nature, biotechnology and ecology, artist and audience. There, Leonardi took part in group exhibitions and solo projects, which fostered his research into the intelligence and gaze of animals and plants. A major cycle deriving from this experience is Colombaia: a work in progress initiated in 2010 and devised to grow in 21 steps (one for each Italian region), to foster communication between different places using homing pigeons. Colombaia consists of three elements: sculptures tackling the juxtaposition of the opposite concepts of ‘hospitality’ and ‘repulsion’; the photographic series Colombofili e Colombaie – a visual acknowledgment of the field of pigeon-breeding in Italy; and video works entitled Volounico, filming made by means of a small camera attached onto the breast of homing pigeons. The camera records the path from selected locations of the peninsula to the main dovecote. The final goal of the project is to develop an aerial map of different Italian cities, utilising the non-conventional perspective of the animal, rather than the man.

An analogous intention lays behind the work Prefillossera (2017): a 13-minute film showing the vantage point of a centenary tortoise, which wanders inside Tenuta delle Terre Nere, la Vigna di Don Peppino (Don Peppino’s vineyard), Randazzo. This vineyard is over 130 years old, located on the slopes of Mount Etna, and survived the phylloxera infestation in Sicily (1879-1880). Phyllossera is a type of insect that, in the 19th century, attacked most of vineyards in the world, destroying them. Only a very small amount of land resisted the invasion – either because it was in the nearby water sources or due to the sandy composition of their soil. In Prefillossera, unlike the viewpoint of the pigeon (from above), the perspective that the artist captures is from below: an even stronger angle which emphasises the small stature of the animal and its slow pace. However, the tortoise is also a metaphor for longevity and, together with the vineyards, remind us of the short life-span of humans in comparison to that of some animals and plants, which can instead outlast over 100 years: hence carrying a greater legacy and contributing to a longer history. For the exhibition at Five Years, the artist furthermore decided to complement and enhance the display with a performative action. Acting as a sommelier, which is his second occupation in life, Leonardi activates the work by serving the visitors an extremely rare exemplar of pre-phylloxera wine, coming from la Vigna di Don Peppino. The accuracy of information and honesty of sources is something very dear to Leonardi, whose entire production stands out for its painstaking attention in drawing truthful details from reality, and presenting them to the public in the most reliable manner.

Yet, the recourse to performative elements is not a new aspect in Leonardi’s work. Another example of this engagement was the exhibition La Visione dell’Onnivoro (The Omnivore’s Vision), which took place at BOCS, Catania, in 2016. Protagonist of the show was the eponymous cycle of works involving both alive and dead animals, whose remains were either hung on walls or offered as food to the audience – whereas a group of chickens was left free to move on a dedicated area of the space. In this circumstance, the performative was not only linked to the presence of live animals but to the fact that meat was provided by a professional butcher, putting his knowledge and skills at the service of the public.

Fully focused on the world of plants and their relationship with human objects are then the cycles Senza Ragione (Without Reason) and Flora Plastica (Plastic Flora): the latter being a prosecution of the research elaborated through the former. Developed between 2007 and 2009, Senza Ragione underlines the vital process of plants and their adaptability to a diversity of situations. An immediate reference here is the philosophy of the Third Landscape, elaborated by garden designer, botanist and entomologist Gilles Clément – which recalls the work of other contemporary artists, including Weinberger himself:

Included in this category are left behind (délaissé) urban or rural sites, transitional spaces, neglected land (friches), swamps, moors, peat bogs, but also roadsides, shores, railroad embankments, etc. To these unattended areas can be added space set aside, reserves in themselves: inaccessible places, mountain summits, non-cultivatable areas, deserts; institutional reserves: national parks, regional parks, nature reserves. Compared to the territories submitted to the control and exploitation by man, the Third Landscape forms a privileged area of receptivity to biological diversity. Cities, farms and forestry holdings, sites devoted to industry, tourism, human activity, areas of control and decision permit diversity and, at times, totally exclude it.[6]

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Flora Plastica (installation view), Five Years

In other words, for Clément, the Third Landscape is that site where nature is left alone and unrestricted to propagate in its full potential. On the contrary, sculptures from Senza Ragione see plants reacting to unusual environments, which derive from the imposing presence of human culture. This is the case of Rosa (2011), where the desert plant Selaginella Lepidophylla (Rose of Jericho) is inserted within the hostile, man-made habitat of a hairdresser’s dryer hood and forced to perform its well-known practice of self-preservation: opening or closing itself up because of the availability or lack of water. The cycle Flora Plastica (2016) encompasses an evolution of this idea in that it stresses the tendency of some plants to assume a sort of eternal fixity, which visually contrasts with the plasticity characterising them during life. More specifically, the artist uses a tuber from the pumpkin family (i.e. Cucurbitaceae Lagenaria), which he grafts inside objects such as a candelabrum, an old motorcycle manifold or a fishtail. The latter evokes the animal world as much as the human (mis)use of it. Other arrangements include natural elements like a cord, a wooden table or a rusty grid: associations that point out the ornamental quality of the plant, alongside its aptitude of taking a metamorphic shape. It is these unpredictable juxtapositions – which are formal and ethical at the same time – that the oeuvre of Leonardi centres on.

‘We belong to the ground. It is our power and we must stay close to it, or maybe we will get lost’ wrote once[7] aboriginal artist Narritjin Maymuru. Filippo Leonardi seems to heed this warning very well. By overturning the vantage point of different species, his work provokes us to re-think the twisted, often controversial (and yet inescapable!) relationship, which links the humankind to nature.

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Miriam La Rosa


Notes:

[1] Narritjin Maymuru (died 1981) was an Australian Aboriginal (Yolngu people) artist and activist noted for Bark painting.

[2] Source: Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. 2015. Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Translated by Joan Benham with a foreword of Michael Pollan (Island Press).

[3] Filipa Ramos. 2016. ‘Art across Species and Beings’ in Filipa Ramos (ed.) ‘Animals’. 2015. Documents of Contemporary Art. Edited by Iwona Blaziwick (London and Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press), 12-21.

[4] Think of the progressive disappearance of rainforests and cloud forest in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea, to mention but a few.

[5] Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. 2015. Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Translated by Joan Benham with a foreword of Michael Pollan (Island Press).

[6] Source: http://www.gillesclement.com/art-454-tit-The-Third-Landscape. Accessed August 17, 2017.

[7] There is no precise date for this quote. It was written in a letter that artist Hamish Fulton received in 1984. Source: Michael Auping. 1987. ‘A Nomad among Builders’ in Jeffrey Kastner (ed.) ‘Nature’. 2012. Documents of Contemporary Art. Edited by Iwona Blaziwick (London and Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press), 36-37.

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