10 May 2021

“Let It Overgrow!” The Zoe International

Joanna Bednarek
“Let It Overgrow!” The Zoe International

The climate catastrophe forces us to face the challenge of escaping the clinch generated on the one hand by a sense of urgency to take action right now, immediately, to prevent the apocalypse, and on the other – by an apathy accompanying the underlying feeling, incapacity to abandon established habits and operating schemes.[1] In order to succeed, we must expand the scope of our imagination, find new ways of looking, listening, experiencing – to “reclaim the potential of the future as a difference rather than repetition”.[2] This means that the reality we are experiencing will be peculiarised – life in times of global warming and its political consequences is strange as it is, any attempts at normalising it resulting in aforementioned apathy, or malaise; one ought to respond to madness of life in the Anthropocene with even greater madness. As declared by Donna Haraway, we should “look for real stories that are also speculative fabulations and speculative realisms”.[3]

While fantasy in the broad sense of the term has proven to be a particularly successful laboratory of the Anthropocene,[4] the capacity for speculative fabulation is not limited to any single genre or medium. Tales of entanglement between human and non-human organisms have also appeared in life and humanist sciences, mainstream literature, and visual arts. Matthew Beaumont claims that anamorphosis is the main mechanism fantasy employs to describe our world through domains of fiction.[5] Distortion measures applied in painting, making images visible only from a specific, non-intuitive perspective, may serve as a metaphor for literary stunts wherein our world is contrasted with one subjected to another set of rules, or where a realistically rendered world is expanded to include an alien component of anomaly. This is how fantasy unveils new possibilities before our very eyes, showing us that the world does not necessarily have to be the way it is.

Diana Lelonek, ‘Compost’, 2021, exhibition view, Arsenał Gallery in Białystok, photo: Maciej Zaniewski

It may well seem that Diana Lelonek’s artworks are far removed from fantasy – free of peculiar creatures, extraordinary landscapes or any suggestion that the depicted world follows a set of rules different to ones we are familiar with. Yet one may risk a proposition that they engage in anamorphic fantasy, in spirit if not in letter. While they show us nature we know from experience or nature films – and objects we encounter in daily life – the perception which has made these images possible is speculative in nature. In the works Bloom, Barbórka (Miners’ Day), Seaberry Slagheap and Centre of Living Things, the foreground is dominated by plants we usually pay little attention to: the flora of cities and landfills. Plants trampled or marginal, too small and inconspicuous to draw attention, take the leading role.

In her book Patyki, badyle [Sticks, Stalks], Urszula Zajączkowska remarks that mixed forest is Warsaw’s climax community (steady biocoenotic structure):

This sounds bizarre in view of what Warsaw is today. But just imagine: a thick, lushly green for-est as a conclusion, as it were, to plant and animal succession at a formerly mand-made location. The most natural occurrence imaginable, it is actually happening. Suffice to glance into fissures, grooves, nooks and crannies out of human reach. Measured urban decomposition is marching on in locations invisible to the human eye. […] hornbeams will rustle in the capital someday, foxes frolicking on Marszałkowska.[6] On one condition, naturally – that we leave them alone and disap-pear for a thousand years or so.[7]

Diana Lelonek, ‘Compost’, 2020, video still, film made on commission by the Lago Mio gallery in Lugano in September 2020

Diana Lelonek’s works allow an insight into the forest hiding in the cracks and fissures of a large city, capable of rupturing it from within if given a chance. The vision references anamorphosis, forcing us to assume the perspective of a forest, swelling and multiplying beneath the surface of the city – and of civilisation in general. Plants, fungi and animals constitute a zoe International, unaware of any boundaries between species, genera and orders, working incessantly to achieve a state of communism extending beyond human communities. Treated instrumentally, abused and tortured, living creatures begin fighting for what is due to them – trees, climbers and deer colonise the Ministry of the Environment (Ministry of the Environment Overgrown by a Central European Mixed Forest), fungi slowly obscuring portraits of philosophers (Zoe-Therapy). Beings inobtrusive yet supporting our world lose their identity of voiceless substrates of civilisation, turning against it. The most disturbing vision is that projected in the video Compost, wherein the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, an insect-pathogenic predator fungus famous for taking control over ants, gains power over people, forcing them to render unto nature what they had seized, ultimately transforming them into compost for a new ecosystem.

In proposing their take on the philosophy of the rabble, Łukasz Moll and Michał Pospiszyl emphasise the analogy between the status of human and non-human waste – between the rabble, people excluded by capitalist modernity, and vegetal and animal waste of capitalist economy, its exterior regarded as a free resource: vermin animals and weed plants:

Merriam-Webster instructs us that a weed is an “obnoxious growth, thing or person”, “something like a weed in detrimental quality, especially an animal unfit to breed from”, but also “a plant not valued where it is growing and usually of vigorous growth”, to be found in meadows, glades, pastures and moors, on lawns and grassy slopes, capable of surviving on any soil and well-nigh under any conditions. In short: the wealth of the social and natural world, rising in opposition to capitalist monoculture in all parts of the world and all bodies despite that monoculture’s prevalence, developing alternative circulations of knowledge and/or evolving into life forms unyielding to regimes of cumulation. […] From such vantage point, the history of the past two hundred years is one brimming with common grasses and weeds, wherein a multi-species throng of fungi, lichens, viruses, bacteria, peasants, blue-collar workers, slaves and industrial livestock invent narration to an extent reaching well beyond anything we could have imagined not that long ago.[8]

Diana Lelonek, ‘The Exodus of the People from the Gallery’, 2021, photograph, render, 131×197 cm, photo: Maciej Zaniewski

We may find the vision of a vegetal-animal-fungi “rabble” preparing to invade the fortress of Humankind somewhat terrifying if we remain with the anthropocentric perspective: 

Weeds/the rabble are neither a species nor a class; they rather resemble a disease or fungus, which, when embedding in flesh, changes it into a slothful, rebellious and obstinate monster.[9]

Yet if – instead of sticking to our guns – we decide to join the monsters, we will find that such move does not contradict our own interests; our lives are closely associated with those of other organisms.

Nothing illustrates the thesis more manifestly than plants and animals inhabiting environments destroyed by industrialisation. “Nature” does not exist out there, in national parks or progressively shrinking “wildlife” areas; it is right there, on our doorstep; it flourishes in ruins, like the nightingale nesting close to Warsaw’s central underground station, or the seaberry in the slagheap. As argued by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing in her Mushroom at the End of the World, hybridisation is the driving force behind evolution;[10] this has become self-evident, especially in the process of observing ecosystems evolving in nature-cultures of capitalist modernity. While urbanisation and monoculture are a threat to biodiversity, ravaged areas are colonised by species giving rise to new ecosystems. Plants and animals inhabiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are the most spectacular example – yet the Tricholoma matsutake (allegedly the first organism to appear in the bombed landscape of Hiroshima[11]) is a close runner-up. Matsutake are the lead protagonist in Tsing’s book, a life form recognised as a paradigmatic exemplar of the zoe status in capitalism. They inhabit ecosystems evolving on territories destroyed by rogue economy (like pine forests flourishing across vanished woodland areas). At the same time, they are a sought-after commodity in globalised economy, though secured only by gatherers – growing them is not an option. Therefore, the case of the matsutake merits the questioning of multiple progress- and naturality-related beliefs. In semblance to the vegetal and fungal protagonists of artworks by Diana Lelonek, the fungus is living proof that destruction resultant from capitalist economy is accompanied by the appearance of conditions allowing some life forms to blossom, as in case of the Ideonella sakaiensis, a bacterium which developed a capacity to metabolise plastic. The sixth mass extinction is accompanied by such processes as the spread of weeds, and animals and plants adapting to urban conditions.[12] All these changes may be pondered in the context of beweeding; Aleksandra Brylska has coined the term to describe a community life model, within the framework of which weeds can teach man how to endure and co-exist with other creatures:

In an act of resistance, weeds are rupturing anthropocentric categories formerly applied as a framework to human existence. Consequently, observing weeds in their numbers and multiplicity will require new forms of describing the relationship between man and weed; not always easy or harmonious, the contact always changes something, opening humans to non-human ways of existing in the world and creating new domains.[13]

Diana Lelonek, ‘Composter’, 2021, installation made of items found in the warehouses of the Arsenał Gallery in Białystok, photo: Maciej Zaniewski, staging co-production: Tomasz Partyka

Beweeding is: 

[…] life “in spite of everything” but not “in spite for everything”, allowing the option of demise and disappearance to make space for other creatures. Such mobile, weak subjectivity would allow co-existence with an ever-changing world, yet not at all cost. It would allow overgrowing, absorption and transformation to sanction the endurance of an interspecific rooted community.[14]

This is not to say that an altered mindset is an immediate reason for joy; the extinction of species is an unquestionable fact, as is threat to human life and health, man being the species most exposed to conse-quences of global warming. To us situated beings, adopting an exclusive vantage point of the zoe, sub specie aeternitatis, is simply impossible. Mourning the irreversibly lost is an unavoidable aspect of living in the Anthropocene. Endling, a recording of songs of the last representatives of individual species, and Melting Gallery, a recording of the sound of a melting glacier – both reference our mourning for what is departing forever.

Yet not only plants, animals and glaciers are leaving. Man himself is facing the perspective of disappearing, metaphorically as well as literally. Diana Lelonek’s perspective diagnoses the final days of mankind while allowing a question what can people become when “Man” – a metaphysical category non-identifiable with specific human beings – ceases to exist. The Centre of Living Things and the photograph People Leaving the Gallery shown at the Compost exhibition transform the global warming-threatened civilisation into a collection of waste, a giant garbage heap – wherein life perseveres. In semblance to the video Forms of Survival, People Leaving… also references the image of the final days of art – an institution embodying all things most valuable in any civilisation. Aforementioned works play on an apocalyptic phantasm, wherein in the wake of final disaster, all objects construing human material culture transform into refuse serving as a setting for the “last humans” battling for survival. The end of the performance commands artists to leave the gallery, burrow underground, overgrow with fungi and climbers.

Diana Lelonek, ‘Forms of Survival’, 2020, video, 8′, photo: Maciej Zaniewski

Only one curator cannot stop interpreting all our activities as forms of post-artistic practices. We are incapable of convincing him that what we are doing is just an attempt at survival.[15] 

The disquieting story is accompanied by frames reminiscent of a nature film, beautiful and serene. They make the story of the apocalypse spelling the end of the world of art and the world as such sound astonishingly optimistic – albeit the underlying optimism is somewhat ambivalent. Life, even human life,does not begin and end with Man. In order to live in continually changing conditions, we will have to – just like heroes of Forms of Survival – unlearn humanity. This entails i.a. withdrawal, making space for other life forms.[16]

These works “stay with the trouble”, in line with Haraway’s recommendation.[17] They are an exemplar of speculative fabulation which fails to provide unambiguous responses, yet peculiarises our life experience in times of global warming. Spawning urgency for action, the apocalyptic narrative is more than mono-tonous and tedious – it frequently leads to repressing unpleasant truths and continuing old, harmful practices. In all actuality, the apocalyptic convention is conservative: it assumes the world we know is the only one possible, and can only go on existing in current form or undergo complete destruction. This is why we need representations and narratives to teach us how to commune with complexity. In the words of Timothy Morton, “ecological existence is with ghosts, strangers and spectres, precisely because of reality, not in spite of it.”[18] In this respect, the weeds spawning across Diana Lelonek’s works are perfectly ecological.

Diana Lelonek, ‘Compost’, 2020, video still, film made on commission by the Lago Mio gallery in Lugano in September 2020

[1] T. Morton, Being ecological, Pelican Books 2018, pp. 14–15; E. Bińczyk, Epoka człowieka. Retoryka i marazm antro-pocenu, PWN 2018, pp. 47–54.

[2] ‘Wstęp – pojęcia, obrazy, praktyki’, in: P. Dobrosielski, I. Kurz, J. Sowa, Kultury antycypowanych przyszłości, Biennale Warszawa, Institute of Polish Culture – University of Warsaw 2020, p. 10.

[3] D. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press 2016, p. 10.

[4] As proven i.a. by the fact that – inspired by science fiction for years – Haraway has dedicated a chapter in Staying with the Trouble to a fictitious, utopian vision of the future.

[5] M. Beaumont, ‘Anamorphic estrangement of science fiction’, in: Red Planets. Marxism and science fiction, ed. by M. Bould, C. Miéville, Pluto Press 2009.

[6] One of Warsaw’s main streets [translator’s note].

[7] U. Zajączkowska, Patyki, badyle, Marginesy 2019, pp. 167–168 [own translation].

[8] Ł. Moll, M. Pospiszyl, ‘Stawanie się motłochem. Wielogatunkowe dobra wspólne poza nowoczesnością’, Praktyka teo-retyczna 3(37) 2020, pp. 31, 36 [own translation].

[9] Ibidem, p. 32 [own translation].

[10] A. Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, Princeton University Press 2015; cf. L. Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, Basic Books 1998.

[11] Ibidem, p. 3.

[12] M. Schilthuizen, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, Picador 2018.

[13] A. Brylska, ‘Społeczne uchwastowienie. W poszukiwaniu sposobów bycia z odrzuconymi’, Prace Kulturoznawcze 24, No. 3, 2020: Kulturowe herbarium, p. 88 [own translation].

[14] Ibidem, p. 89 [own translation].

[15] D. Lelonek, Forms of Survival, video, 7:00–7:15, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aISLw1IcSqI [own transla-tion].

[16] P. MacCormack, The Ahuman Manifesto, Bloomsbury Academic 2020, pp. 5–24.

[17] D. Haraway, op. cit., p. 4.

[18] T. Morton, Hyperobjects, University of Minnesota Press 2013, p. 195; see also Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, A. Lowenhaupt Tsing, H.A. Swanson, E. Gan, N. Bubandt, editors, Univer-sity of Minnesota Press 2017.


ArtistDiana Lelonek
Place / venueArsenal Gallery in Białystok, Poland
Dates10 April – 2 June 2021
Curated byMonika Szewczyk

See also