Describing the design of a new practice between horticulture and art, artist Ilya Dolgov outlines a stable-yet-agile approach to creative work beyond the limits of project-orientedness, institutionality, and disciplinarity.
Let us leave sounds for smells. There are two. One light, pale-pink, honey-floral; one cold, murmured, earthy-musty.
The pale honey greets you just as soon as the silly barn lock is unfastened and the patched wooden door of the flower workshop stands ajar. It fills the place hazily, omnipresently, its lilac levity in no way compatible with what is encountered beyond: metal shelving, plastic containers, tools, solid half-light. The smell festively tickles the nose and coaxes thoughts of sunstroked verges and glades. Sometimes, if it’s cold, the honeyed, mist-layered nebule contracts to tiny auroral fists, clutching an untickling sweetness of iced chill.
The cold earthy smell must be roused. One needs to remove, one after another, various mantles and covers, needs to pour rain and dig in with the hands. Unlike the previous, honeyed one, this essence is changeful and coiled. Its humor depends on things it absorbed yesterday, a week, or a month ago, on their established relations. Sometimes it brings maple-leaf rot, sometimes white mycelia, then cardboard packaging, or club-rush, or trailing red slime. A filtering mask is best practice—we are dealing with something both calm and contagious. The covers and mantles are put back in reverse order, and the essence noiselessly settles into its dark, digesting whisper. We don’t know what we’ll find here next time.
What could happen?
Predatory soil mites eat the container’s resident springtails and expend themselves.
One minute of watering is added; the roots of the sea mustard can’t breathe; the shoot is thirsty, yellows, loses leaves.
The humus-rich substrate, forgetting the trouble with mites, attracts tiny tattered fungus gnats.
An evening exchange triggers stunned coils-impressions; at night they unfold and expand into bad dreams.
Seedlings slightly affected by Fusarium are transplanted into a new substrate and treated with potions. 30% die from the treatment, not the disease.
An awkward movement, a delicate leaf breaks a fragile petiole, vessels tear.
A three-year-old plant prepares its blooming debut. The first flower lasts two days, as is typical of the species, then wilts. The second bud is just about ready to open—and wilts, remaining forever closed. Misjudgment of strength.
Awaiting a delivery of equipment. Half was forgotten, half was mixed up. A second time, a third, a fourth. City traditions. Viscous cloud of sudden feeling. After the fifth attempt, something dies inside, something is born.
Where do home pests come from? From bouquets: thrips, aphids, ticks, whatever. Where do diseases come from? From fruits and vegetables: rust, dry black rot. From the open window: everything borne by the earth.
The building’s overwintering voles eat Portulaca grandiflora down to the root.
A horticulturess suggests washing down the mites with a hot shower. Helps, but the effect is not as pronounced as was hoped. I use a steamer; the thyme is destroyed together with the mite.
The sea peavine is overladen with living green mass. Shoots wither, pale, lose resistance to others’ hunger. Then, from the root, rise new, bright stems. Then, the peavine is again overladen with green mass. Repetition. Repetition.
The twisting of roots, the self-suffocation of seedlings in nurseries. The self-combustion of grain in elevators.
A certain elegance.
A false choice: the very notion of complexity, I now think, lures with its haughty force, bends the attention to something excessively cohesive, makes it too heavy.
In the slow wakening of the connection with my new island habitat, the lupines too played their mediating role. Of course, I couldn't help but collect their seeds. Anyways, how can anyone indifferently pass by those velvety-woolly, pearl-dove pods? Not put a couple in a pocket, for later?
The seedlings came up easily, quickly, in chorus. Star-leaves appeared one after another, increasing in size. I learned that the petioles of lupine leaves, though pale unlike the pods, are likewise covered in delicate velvet. I learned that the petiole bases are adorned with two sharp red stipules.
In spite of Theophrastus’ recommendation that lupines be considered of a wild disposition and averse to care, I had to repot them often in an effort to keep up with their freewheeling growth. I learned that the rhizomes of lupines are strong, juicy, and productive, ready to launch new, above-ground bodies next to the previous ones.
For a long while, I couldn’t understand what the lupines’ wild disposition amounted to—their leaf-palms, despite growing in containers under artificial light, pleased me with their shade, their pattern, their stature.
So, they fell ill. New leaves began appearing less frequently, with diminishing sizing and tonus. Old leaves began resting on the substrate, paling, yellowing, rusting. At their worst, from the pallid half-living clumps to which they were reduced, the lupines sent out a couple of young, but already withered, leaves. This worst moment allowed me to understand what exactly was going on with the plants—they turned out to be stricken by fungal infections, certain kinds of powdery mildew and rust. A barely perceptible whitish film on the strong, fresh leaves gradually exhausted them, made them tired and heavy, then they rusted.
My attempts to help involved variations in the plants’ feeding plan. It was assumed that an excess of certain elements or a lack of others leads to friability, softness in leaf tissues, making them especially vulnerable to infection. Enter the ash, horse manure, humates, and other potions which, it seemed, did not greatly ease the lupines’ suffering. Then too, having navigated the worst period, some things they achieved on their own: they achieved a sad but viable balance with their infections—a certain ratio between their rate of growth and parasitization—new leaves appeared and developed, not quickly enough to push out the infection; for its part, the malignant population didn’t lay waste to the lupines so as to totally ruin them.
I liked this viable, but also sad, equilibrium. It seemed to be based on the calm, webbed, effortless work of micro-inbreaths-mini-outbreaths and was not at all counting on the charged, hard blows that soothe the troubled horticultural mind with scissors, poisons, and smoke.
I gratefully watched this effortless work but did not abandon opportunities for my own participation in the situation. I transplanted the lupines into a much larger container, with more nourishing soil (which included a new addition: coffee). I directed a light technogenic stream of air onto the plants—in assistance to transpiration and respiration. It was the lupines’ diplomatico-mathematic success in relation with their infection that reframed me; I stopped thinking of my actions as directed, as actions that know of their causes and thirst for results. I began sensing and conceiving of them as actions to soften and drape the place of talks between the plants and the microorganisms. A well-timed glass of water can become an occasion for a fruitful suspension in tense negotiations, and I want my role in sciaponic plots to be such—an occasion, not a driver.
Recently, the lupines are considerably improved in robustness, abundance, and movement. The mildew and rust haven’t gone anywhere, but they’ve receded to the edges of vegetal radiance, adorning leaves that are worn and bowed.
The viable and less-sad balance, for shadowwork, however, is indispensable precisely in this quality of a balance, which does not transition to the purity of full recovery.