Peripheral Garden

Aleksandra Janus
Native and exotic. Towards decolonizing a botanical garden. (Excerpts)


Botanical gardens are places that – established during the expansion of institutionalised science, as well as the intensification of colonial expeditions – were perfectly fitted for the mythology of modernity with its belief in domination of rational cognition, the impulse for the accumulation of economic and cultural capital and the belief in the autonomous position of man in relation to the environment.

The University’s Botanical Garden in Krakow was founded in 1783 and is the oldest remaining in Poland. The history of the garden, as well as the operating procedures and narratives that the institution has produced for over two hundred years of its existence, were the starting point for Karolina Grzywnowicz and the team of researchers she invited to accompany her during the art&research residency in the Garden. 

For hundreds of years, rich European countries have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the rest of the world. Although Poland doesn’t have a colonial history similar to one that Britain, the Netherlands or other western European countries have, it is entangled in many power and dominance relations in the region. Also, individuals (botanists, scientists) were involved in “colonial explorations” and were implicated in the European colonial project. And it is the echo & imagination of great colonial powers that organises the botanical garden. The employees of the Garden look up to the great botanical Gardens of London, Berlin and other Western cities and discuss their own institution in constant comparisons to them in an aspirational manner. 

The post-colonial theoretical framework is completely absent in the institution’s perspective. The colonial imagination organises the visual and aesthetic order in the garden – there’s a clear division between ‘native’ and ‘exotic’ plants, with the latter being precious, beautiful, valuable, worth seeing – and this is embedded in how space is organised: ‘exotic’ plants are located centrally in the garden and along main alleys, while the native plants generally occupy other locations and margins. 

During the residency, Grzywnowicz decided to address this issues, trying to disrupt the structure of the garden and introduce the climate crisis issue. Grzywnowicz’s intervention took the form of a counterfactual, alternative, performative guided tour. The tour was the artist’s response to the colonial structures of organising knowledge and exhibiting nature that she observed in the garden. The two crucial notions for this tour were, on one hand, the clear divisions between ‘native’ and ‘exotic’ (and value that is attributed to each of the categories); on the other hand — the peripheries, both of the topography of the garden itself, but also as a position from which the discourse of the institution is being constructed and reproduced, in relationship to the ‘center’: former colonial empires and botanical institutions that resulted from their colonial explorations. 

She guided the group through the garden focusing on its peripheries where endangered species might be found. She focused on the plants facing extinction, mostly visually unspectacular, many of them native, some even hidden in the space of the garden. She used (some might say misused) the space of the garden in a subversive way.

The Garden presents itself as static, frozen in time, a monument to its own history. The self-narrative stresses its historic value – without mentioning the broader context that produced the gardens that served as a model for this particular one. As a historic object it remains withdrawn from the world and its contemporary problems and challenges. By turning her back from the exotic highlights of the garden, Grzywnowicz aimed at shifting both the audience attention & garden’s narrative and – introduce the present to the seemingly timeless space of the garden, pointing out to the climate crisis and linking it with the unrestrained exploitation of the resources of the Earth, showing its correlation with the legacy of colonialism that the garden in a sense is a monument to.