The movement of plants is political
Interview with Fiorella Angelini, Chilean visual artist and director of “The Araucaria Project: My journey to discover the sacred”.
Through her installations, analogue photography and video, Angelini explores various issues that affect nature, territory and identity. Her latest audiovisual work combines a documentary and poetic style to investigate the origins of the English name of the “Araucaria araucana”, or “Monkey Puzzle Tree”, and its relationship with its autochthonous name. At the same time, she inserts herself into the idea of identification through landscape and botany, touching on themes such as migration, post-colonialism, identity and the sacredness of the tree.
: You interviewed several people from the United Kingdom and Chile for the documentary, including experts from the Royal Botanic Garden, the Universidad de la Frontera and from our Foundation. From what you discovered in these interviews, what surprised you the most?
Fiorella Angelini: There were several interesting things, but what definitely surprised me the most was knowing how we, as humanity, are so close to losing the pewen, and how little is said about this in informal contexts. I learned about the “Araucaria araucana Foliar Damage” or AFD, which was discovered not long ago in Chile and has caused the death of large areas of araucarias. It was really interesting to learn of the institutions and people who are involved in these studies in Chile and the important work that is the study of this tree as a link in a larger chain that can help us find solutions to climate change.
I was also struck by the international interest that exists for this unique species which can contain privileged genetic information from ancient times. In the United Kingdom, many people are self-proclaimed admirers of the “Monkey Puzzle tree”, as it is known in English, and there are websites with maps of where to find Araucaria araucanas. There is still quite present a feeling of respect for the tree, as well as many myths and stories related to araucarias in English culture. The same urban legends that date back to the 1800s are still being told, for example about the devil who, with his shape-shifting abilities, would often take the shape of the araucaria to hide, or the one that says that one should be silent when passing by the tree in a park.
From the scientific side of things, I was impressed by the data, the investigation and protection plans that exist on the Araucaria araucanas. An interesting fact, which is also in the video, is about the Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, which has the largest amount of Chilean species, outside of Chile, and an extensive conservation program led by Martin F. Gardner.
In the documentary you point out the different emotions you feel in relation to the araucaria: surprise, nostalgia, intrigue, among others. Now that you are releasing the film, what’s the main emotion you’re having about it?
Above all, respect. I never imagined that I would end up creating a visual piece on this species, which I knew well but I didn’t feel much of a connection to. When I found it in another country, a crack in my identity became apparent and I connected with the tree. If we could say that the sense of responsibility is an emotion, then I would also say that it’s a predominant one. I feel the need to be careful when working with such important cultural elements. This sense of commitment translates into the desire to communicate via visual arts. This is the language that I choose to share the emotions that I felt during the project.
Part of the visual investigation was based on understanding how the tree got to Europe and the opinions of the people who protect the species in the south of Chile regarding this process. After speaking with forest rangers, and especially with spokesperson and “Werkén” Simón Crisóstomo Loncopán, I understood that the respect we can show towards the tree is also respect towards the Mapuche culture, and that’s a crucial aspect for me. The pewen itself has a lot of history, is sacred and can easily be used as cultural appropriation by different voices, so it was necessary and relevant to include various different outlooks in the film.
As in other projects of yours, such as “No dominion” and “El Elqui no quiere palmeras del puerto” (“Elqui doesn’t want palm trees from the port”, in Spanish), you overlay frame over frame as notes—sometimes supportive, sometimes digressive—of what happens. Did you conceive the project this way from the beginning or was it something that appeared during the editing?
I would be lying if I said I knew how the video was going to end up. But from the beginning I imagined using this resource. Visual experimentation plays an important role in my creative process, and I’ve been very interested in the superposition of images and media for a while now. In this case, the video is a mix of documentary, scientific and autobiographical anecdotal language. To achieve this intersection, it was vital to include the montage. I used different images, such as analogue photos that I’ve taken during my years living in London, cell phone videos, screen recordings and Zoom interviews. Some shots taken in London were filmed in high definition with cinema technologies, which was interesting when mixed with old cell phone videos that I had saved from previous trips to the south of Chile. I also had on-camera support in London from new media artist Yuli Serfaty. For the shots in Chile, on the other hand, I worked remotely with Patricio Alfaro, filmmaker and director of photography whom I have worked with previously.
In a way, the montage and superpositioning of different images reflects the search for a language that can describe everything that’s mentioned in the script, and that should become a story. When working with my personal archive and what was found on the internet, you can question the concept of territory both in the physical and digital space. This is why the selection of media and images are closely related. Serendipity is essential to be able to mix them as speculative forms. We could say that photography and film are vital axes of my work, that function as a notebook of brief visual notes.
At the end of this journey of discovery that you make about the araucaria, there is an intersection of reflection on plants, the life of your ancestors and the search for your own identity. When did the relationship between those elements become clear to you?
During the making of the film. The beauty of the creative process is that it changed according to the things I discovered while working. For example, it all started because I was intrigued by the story behind the name in English – “Monkey puzzle” -; why it’s still used today and the notion of identification with nature. But it ended up turning into a medium-length film with various collaborators after a year of research, reading, interviews, field visits, and more. There is so much to say about this species, that my personal relationship with it was the only way to establish a story with which other people could also identify with.
When I found myself recognizing native Chilean species in the city, it awakened a nostalgia for the idea of home. I photographed, drew and made videos of all of them, but I couldn’t find the right language to mix these elements. So, in parallel with the research on the Araucaria araucana, I began to wonder about my own history. I was constantly reading about these plants, their biological and cultural adaptation to other territories; meanwhile I was interviewing Italian relatives to know how they adapted to Chile when they migrated during the last century. Personally, this search for roots (between Chile, Italy, the Basque Country and the United Kingdom) is a metaphor for the transfer of the tree and the sociocultural aspects that can enrich or damage a society.
When I arrived in London, I never thought this search would be so prominent; but by speaking other languages, getting to know various cultures and people with different identities, I was able to reinforce certain views on cultural decolonization. As mentioned in the film, there are many people with “multiple identities”, especially in South America. A territory of diverse cultures that have been mixing throughout the years, adapting or forgetting by imposition or genocide. Identity is a set of values and cultural elements that define a person, but what happens when we can identify with more than one culture because of our ancestors and the places we’ve lived in? We can feel a part of all of them, or none.
You explore the link between personal identity and landscape and botany in your work. Is there another species or landscape that you’d like to research?
One of the questions I asked all of the interviewees was if there exists a personal identification to landscape and plants. It was really interesting to discover how each person answered this question from their area of knowledge. To me, as an artist, the fact that I can represent via images the connection between plants, ancestors and identity gives me the freedom to use not only plant species and landscapes as reference, but also the stories and myths that build them.
I’d love to visually investigate the histories of other plants that I see on a daily basis in London, such as the Chilco (Fuchsia magellanica), a shrub that is used as an ornamental plant here, but that is known for its incredible medicinal properties in the south of Chile. An English botanist told me that it now grows profusely due to the effects of climate change, as it didn’t originally flourish or survive when it was first introduced. These adaptations can occur not only to plants, but also an allegory to various themes that affect the nature and lives of those that inhabit their territories.
A lot has been written about potatoes and corn, but lesser known plants such as weeds or vines are also interesting to me. I recently discovered the concept of ethnobotany, which is the study between plants and communities, especially the way in which they are related. This means that plants directly influence the development of cultures and, therefore, there are various species that might not be emblematic like the pewen, but that are also very important.
Towards the end of the documentary, you mention that “the movement of plants is political”. Can you develop this idea here?
The movement of plants has always happened naturally. Nevertheless, it becomes political when there are human decisions behind that movement. Some of the reasons of those people who move species can be commercially-driven, scientific or due to biopiracy efforts that exploit plant and animal species claiming patents to restrict their general use.
In the case of English botany, there is a direct relationship between imperialism and its history. Today, many of these practices have been eradicated, but others continue to operate underground. As is mentioned in the film, many plants -not only Chilean ones- were scientifically appropriated. Specifically, they were catalogued and named in English in Glasgow and Edinburgh when botany aficionados brought them from their trips around the world and the plants would end up in botanical gardens. One of the anecdotes that best describes this includes the tea plant and how the market became monopolized in the context of the English Empire in India. Another case is the rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum), a plant that almost led Russia to declare war on the United Kingdom because it destabilized its monopoly in Europe. Some of the questions that come up in the film are: can we speak of decolonization through plants?; what is the opinion of botanical gardens regarding the movement of species today?; is it possible to personally and culturally identify oneself with native flora?
In October you will come to Chile to present the film. What distribution and outreach instances are you planning?
Between October 26 and 29 I’ll be presenting the medium-length film with Universidad de la Frontera in Temuco, Chile. The event will be open to the public and in-person, but it will also be shared online via the university’s channels for those who want to join remotely. After watching the film there will be a conversation panel with guests from the area, including Rubén Carrillo, Director of the Department of Agronomic Sciences and Natural Resources of the same university, and others. The idea is to create a sharing environment around the film, commenting on the connection between visual arts and other areas of study such as botany and anthropology, among others. This event is very special to me because it’ll be launched together with important park rangers, in the region where there are some of the last most vulnerable populations of araucarias.
In addition, we will hold a similar event in February 2022 with the Anglo Chilean Society and experts from the United Kingdom to present and share the project with the English public. I think it’s important to share the project in both places as a way of connecting both cultures through botany and, above all, to comment on the cultural and sacred importance of this tree in the communities of the south of Chile. We are also in conversations with the Botanic Garden of Edinburgh to organize some activities, all for next year!
Bachelor in Visual Arts from Universidad Finis Terrae (CL) and graduated with maximum distinction from the Master’s in Fine Art from University College of London in the United Kingdom. Through installations, analog photography and video, she explores problems that affect nature, territory and identity. One of her interests is the idea of perception and belonging to a territory through identification with the landscape. She has participated in group and solo exhibitions in Santiago, London, New York, Milan, South Korea and Rome.