Remediation reflects on human-plant interactions

Art | Gregory Beatty

Kapwani Kiwanga, Keyhole, 2023, steel structure, plants, water, soil, LED grow lights. MOCA Toronto

Kapwani Kiwanga: Remediation
Remai Modern
Opens Oct. 6

While greenery is slowly disappearing from the Saskatoon landscape as fall settles in, Remai Modern is about to get a major infusion of green courtesy of this exhibition by rising international art star Kapwani Kiwanga.

Remediation — which was co-organized by Remai Modern and Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art — arose out of a bit of synchronicity, says Johan Lundh, who co-curated the show with MOMA chief curator November Paynter and Remai Modern colleague Aileen Burns.

“We’ve followed Kapwani’s practice for a long time, and had started a conversation with her in 2020 about doing a show,” Lundh said in a recent phone interview.

“November was having a parallel conversation with her. As things progressed, the idea of us pooling our resources and working together to do a more ambitious show made a lot of sense,” he says.

A Canadian In Paris

Born in Hamilton in 1978 to parents of Tanzanian descent, Kiwanga studied anthropology and comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal before switching to art midway through her four-year program. She later studied at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she remained after her studies ended.

In May, Kiwanga was named to represent Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale which opens next April. She’s also a past winner in 2018 of Canada’s respected Sobey Art Award, and in 2020 won France’s top art prize the Prix Marcel Duchamp.

“Kapwani is a Canadian artist but she has lived in Paris for some time,” says exhibition co-curator Aileen Burns. “By living overseas and having a very internationally minded practice that resonates with a lot of folks in the world, she has developed a great reputation globally. We’re really excited to share that practice here.”

While Kiwanga didn’t complete her anthropology degree, her practice is very much informed by her pre-art studies, says Burns.

“She has a research-based practice, so each installation speaks to scientific research or human histories that connect us. Particular to this show are stories of toxicity and regeneration as created by humans or enacted by the natural world,” she says.

“In a way, each installation feels like the outcome of a research project. But it manifests as beautiful and captivating sculpture. Her use of texture and different materials — in the show there’s sisal* and banana leaves, and an extraordinary array of Saskatchewan plants that do the work of regeneration in the soil,” says Burns.

Hence, the infusion of green.

The plants do present certain logistical challenges for Remai Modern though, Lundh says.

“We have a lot of art works that are fragile and need to exist under certain conditions, light and humidity. We want to make sure there are no bug infestations, either,” says Lundh.

“For Kapwani, it’s about bringing the natural world into the gallery and telling these important stories. It’s like she’s saying, ‘I want to bring this in, and you as an institution have to make these plants thrive and survive.’ It forces us to think about the art we present, and how it’s not just a bunch of dead things,” he says.

Kiwanga’s unique background — born in Canada, with ancestral roots in Africa and a longtime resident of Europe — gives her a special perspective on the world. And that’s reflected in her art, says Burns.

Keyhole, which consists of a steel planter/sculpture holding plants that regenerate soil, is one example.

“The inspiration there came from the polluted lands in Hamilton from the steel industry and how the natural world can help heal damage we have done,” says Burns.

The sisal sculptures in the exhibition, in contrast, speak to Kiwanga’s Tanzanian roots.

“The agave plant was brought to Tanzania by German colonial powers, but it’s become a key export for them,” says Burns.

“It speaks to what it means to transplant living matter from one place to another, and what it means to be the producer of raw materials rather than finished products which is a question very important in Saskatchewan and Canada. She threads global concerns with questions that we ask ourselves here today,” says Burns.

Another Steeltown reference in Remediation are several giant blow-up PVC sculptures which serve as vivariums.

“They are inspired by Hamilton’s botanical gardens which sit close to the toxic lands but where plants are nurtured and the soil kept perfect,” says Burns. ”“It speaks about how humans harness nature and plant life to reshape the world for their own interests, as with transplanting and cultivating agave, and creating vivariums as little bubbles for us to enjoy plants as aesthetic objects or curiosities,” says Burns.

That’s true on a broader scale with the whole exhibition, of course — it being indoors in the depths of fall and winter and all. But as Remai Modern works over the next five months to both care for the plants and safeguard the gallery, it highlights an important second thread to Remediation, Burns says.

“One thread makes us think how we treat other living things, including plants,” says Burns. “Another thread is the power and resistance of nature through the regenerative property of plants to filter water, purify air, and redeposit nutrients in the soil.”

Kiwanga’s installations are satisfying on an intellectual level but they also deliver on the aesthetic front, Lundh says.

“Kapwani is a very skilled sculptor both in making objects and transforming rooms,” says Lundh. “While her practice might seem conceptual and esoteric, she understands proportions and space. “You feel it and relate to it with your own body, which creates that connection,” Lundh says.

“We feel very excited and proud to be presenting this exhibition. It will resonate, we think, with a lot of the concerns people are feeling with the changing world around us and some of the challenges we are facing as a planet and a species,” he says. ■

*  Sisal is a fibre extracted from the agave plant.