“Only what is human can truly be foreign. The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.” – Wisława Szymborska, Psalm (excerpt)
THE PHANTOM OF THE OLDEST BOTANICAL GARDEN IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA
Nowadays, botanical gardens have become increasingly important, as they serve as networks for conservation across the globe. And these days, the persistence of the so-called age of the Antropocene has more precedence than ever. This takes me back to the context of tracing what could be the motivations for the foundation of botanical gardens across the globe. Throughout time it has been said, that men have travelled far and wide in pursuit of such universal needs such as spices and drugs. “The value of spices has led to the foundation of more than one botanical garden in the tropics, while to the necessity for drugs must be attributed to the earliest formation of the earliest botanical gardens in Europe.”1
It is something inextricably linked also to a culture of conquest and the context behind the very first botanical garden in Manila that was made possible by the Spanish botanist Juan de Cuellar was of the same persuasion. He was hired by the Real Compaña de Filipinas, The Royal Philippine Company, and his plan was to grow local ornamental and economic plants and pursue scientific studies about them. Although things took a different turn as the garden was not maintained and eventually became abandoned. Back in 1912, during the American occupation, American botanist Elmer Merrill disclosed that he had established where the site of this said garden was but there remains “no clear traces of the existence of the former botanical garden.”2
This botanical garden could have been a crucial site as it could have been the very first botanical gardens in South-East Asia. Excavating this particular historical context in light of the field of botany helps to see crucial elsewheres as to how to further flesh out its link to the present or perhaps redefine its points of contemporaneity. All these fall in line with my interest in botany (induced partly by being a plant collector) and working through particular contexts that coincide with my research and context-driven artistic practice.
TROPICALITY AS A SITE OF RESISTANCE
Tropicality pertains to the actualities that shape and exist in the tropics, something bound by geography. On the other hand it goes beyond the evident topographical inscriptions to the more metaphorical tropes of language. Or perhaps there lies that mysticism of sorts that is inherently transgressive and unintelligible and deeply substantial at the same time. Coming to a more specific reference in the realm of contemporary art would inevitably be linked to Brazilian artist Hélio Oititica’s installation work entitled Tropicália.
The original work was first presented in 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro as a part of the group exhibition New Brazilian Objectivity. The installation was described to be a labyrinth without a “‘way out at the end.” It presented the lushness of the tropics while also the darkness of it as it integrated diverse elements of Brazilian culture like the informal architecture of favelas together with tropical plants and birds.3
Interestingly, the word “tropicália’ didn’t really exist in Portuguese, instead it was something devised by the artist. “It did not previously exist in the Portuguese language, although its Latin root signifies ‘things tropical, things that are typical of the tropics, the tropical itself.’“4 Later on the term would be affixed to a wider cultural movement in Brazil linked to music. A crucial point here about the tropics is in defining it, which remains a realm of impenetrability. And initially, this was a working idea that made me think of a playful and contestable term such as “Libidinal Tropicalities.” Also, this posits a crucial context as to how the tropicalities that take place in a Philippine context remains inexorably linked to Latin America.
LIBIDINAL TROPICALITIES: SAGESSE SAUVAGE
Now, reading through Walter Mignolo’s foreword from Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions, made me think of my position as a Third World, homosexual male and as a mixed ethnicity and off-white position. “Developing the transnational decolonial critique of existing relations in the domain of sexualities can bring to the surface the possibility of our imagined, collective ‘different’ worlds. And yet, we do not know in advance what these communities, these multiple worlds will encompass.”5
This new work of mine, which I call Libidinal Tropicalities, works around how to mutate the incomprehensibility and the queerness of the tropics. I’d like to find sites of resistance nestled within the bounds set by geography yet widened by peculiar historical contexts. In a way, it creates this decolonial gesture of linking and de-linking. It tries to connect the Philippines more consciously with its colonial past that takes it to things like Patriarchal Christianity and White Masculinity under the auspices of Spain’s then colonial ambitions, which link us heavily to Latin America.
In Le réenchantement du monde, Michel Maffesoli refers to “a sort of sagesse sauvage, primordial wisdom liberating the beast who sleeps in the societal foundations. Out of the euphoria of the nature within the same culture manifesting all the contemporary anxieties, and proceeding, thereby, towards the dis-idealization of the human race.”1 It’s an unwarranted return to our origins, which I find to be quite natural. Although this return also becomes paradoxical as our colonial pasts can’t totally be undone. Meanwhile, using tropicality as a site of resistance and forging new elsewheres seems wildly exciting. The mystic sense of nature’s inherent wilderness alongside the peripheral sites posited by inquiries on queerness becomes a crucial field of discourse for my ideas. At this point, the inquisitions for my work take into account history and its retelling as well as sociology, ecology, botany, identity, tropicality and translation (as imposed by the transgressions inevitably pushed by language). It still is a work in progress but it ceaselessly keeps my mind busy with how queerness and nature by way of the tropics can take us deeper into the realm of our fabled sexual identities, which continue to fascinate and puzzle us altogether.
- 1. from Arthur W. Hill’s “The History and Function of Botanic Gardens” in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Gardens Vol. 2. ↵
- 2. taken from the article “The First Botanic Gardens in the Philippines” by Domingo A. Madulid published in the Philippine Star (02 May 2009). ↵
- 4. More on Tropicàlia: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/oiticica-tropicalia-penetrables-pn-2-purity-is-a-myth-and-pn-3-imagetical-t12414 ↵
- 5. Taken from an exhibition catalogue on Helio Oiticica published by the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1969. ↵
- 6. Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions is a book edited by Sandeep Bakshi, Suhraiya Jivraj and Silvia Posocco published by Counterpress in 2016. ↵