ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR
artist research for Malt AIR
Malt AIR is an international artist residency organized by the Maltfabrikken cultural center in cooperation with Kunsthal Aarhus and Statens Værksteder for Kunst with the support of Statens Kunstfond. The program is implemented in Ebeltoft, Denmark and aims to network the participants with the Danish art scene as well as to support their artistic work in its research phase. The residency provides time, space, and opportunities for artists to concentrate and reflect on their practice.
My research work at Malt AIR consisted of not only researching a specific topic, but also looking for new authentic material and ways to use it later on.
Residency research topic: environmental history of the common broom (Cytisus scoparius)
I developed an interest in plant invasion while working on my long-term project Assemblage, which, among other things, drew on the study of the mechanisms of artificial migrations of biological species. While at the Ebeltoft residency, this research took ground in the specific local context of the ecological history of Cytisus scoparius, colloquially known as the common broom, a shrub of the legume family, widespread in Jutland.
Despite the fact that the plant is still not officially included in the national list of invasive species, it is recognized as problematic for the biodiversity of the region (1).
The root system of the common broom changes the soil composition due to its symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria; its dense and tall bushes limit the home range of rare species (for example, the perennial Pulsatilla vulgaris), and even after clearing the territory from Cytisus scoparius, the natural vegetation restores at a slow pace (2), while the annual campaigns to remove the bush require significant human and financial resources but do not fundamentally change the situation.
Multiple introductions of common broom to Denmark appear to have taken place throughout the nineteenth century (3). However, it is difficult to determine the dynamics of these transfers, because a native form of Cytisus was also historically present in Jutland, being smaller and spreading at a slower rate (4). The more invasive shrub variety comes from southern Europe and was imported from Germany, but it is problematic to distinguish it from the native species.
This duality and ambiguity of the plant’s status provides material for reflection on the particular characteristics of alien and indigenous species not only in the ecological sense, but also in the symbolic one, starting a conversation about strangers and friends, guests and hosts.
In the environmental history of Cytisus scoparius, one specific known example of its introduction into the Ebeltoft’s surrounding area is also of research interest: between the mid-1920s and the early 1940s, Ellen Dahl, the publicist and younger sister of the more famous Danish writer Karen Blixen, brought the common broom seeds to Mols, where she and her husband had a large plot of land, a farm, and a summer house overlooking the sea bay. According to one version of events, Dahl saw a flowering gyvel (the Danish name for the shrub) in the south of France (5) and wanted to recreate a piece of this landscape in her homeland, which would remind her of her travels abroad that she loved very much. Today, Ellen’s preserved sommerhus in Mols is surrounded by a ring of dense bushes of the common broom, which have also spread to other parts of the Mols Bjerge National Park, where the house is located.
It is ironic that Dahl, who was passionate about biodiversity and wrote about various Danish plants, donated both her land and the former farm to Aarhus University and the Natural History Museum in the 1940s. These institutions, among other things, are now engaged in experiments aimed at developing ways of controlling the spread of Cytisus scoparius at the Molslaboratoriet laboratory.
Ellen Dahl (1886–1959) was a Danish novelist, the younger sister of the famous writer Karen Blixen. In contrast to the novels of her sibling, who achieved greater international fame and told tales of the African continent in her books, Dahl’s works are mostly forgotten and focus on Mols Bjerge in Central Jutland.
Photos showing the development of vegetation around Ellen Dahl’s summer house. On the left is a view of it from around 1930, on the right is one from around 1970. Source: Morten Vilhelm Keller. Ellen Dahl — Mols og litteraturen. Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2017.
Material study: handmade paper
In addition to studying the environmental and historical context of the Cytisus scoparius infestation, I also used my time in the residency to study a material that was new to my artistic practice: paper made of plant material, as well as the possibility of creating a prototype sculpture from it.
This interest, which stemmed from the idea of converting something conventionally hostile into something conventionally hospitable, was reinforced by facts of the environmental history of the common broom: before the 1800s, there were known cases of using the Cytisus scoparius twigs for weaving bags; its seeds were a substitute for coffee beans; its pickled flower buds were consumed as a snack for dinner or supper and often used as an ingredient for salads; and the softer stalks of the bush were used for making canvas and paper.
It was paper (not canvas or burlap) that seemed to me the most authentic material to study. It can be used both as a self-sufficient medium and as a raw material for creating objects within projects that aim to conceptualize the notion of invasion. The fragility and vulnerability of paper correlates with stories about recent experiments by designers trying to turn invasive plants into something useful, for example, for the construction industry: blocks to replace concrete, new types of tiles or medium-density fibreboards. But so far the products of such experiments have a long way to go before getting into mass production, being a one-off product (often for luxury brands, as in the case of the bio-concrete made of Reynoutria japonica (6) created for the LVMH Group). Such recycling projects demonstrate the still unattainable dream of victory over plant invasions, if not in the fields then at least in the production shops.
Examples of handmade paper made of Cytisus scoparius in the art residency. The color and texture of the sheets vary depending on the proportion of plant material in the initial mass (from 50% to 80%).
Experiments with plant printing (using plants to print on handmade paper). Different parts of the Cytisus scoparius plant were used in the experiments. In this case, the sheets for the prints were made of both the common broom (center) and paper receipts (left and right), which are difficult to recycle because of the ink toxicity. The prints were both a way to explore a new practice and a stage in preparing the common broom for making new paper pulp: after printing, the stems of the plant softened and became more convenient for further processing.
Searching for the sculpture form: hedge, fence, dam, garden gate
In the histories of the introduction and spread of the common broom, both practical and symbolic fences have often appeared in different situations. For example, since the nineteenth century in Denmark, it was common to plant this shrub as a hedge that acted as food for game: grouse, pheasants, and other larger hunting targets (7). Farmers in Spøttrup were even obliged to sow part of their fields with Cytisus scoparius (8).
In 1941, the Hedeselskabets magazine (published by the company of the same name, which specialized in forestry and agriculture of heath lands for decades) published an article that described the importance of gyvel as food for game and recommended cultivating shrubs to attract hares that “ate the young fresh branches with evident pleasure.” (9) Among other things, the publication pointed out the importance of the shrub as a landscape ornament and gave tips on caring for the plant. In 1975, the book Havens Beplantning i Farver, dedicated to the art of caring for a Danish garden and its traditional hedges, also mentioned plants of the genus Cytisus as a favorable decorative choice, this time for an area around a summer house in the heath land (exactly as Ellen Dahl’s, for example). Here, the use of the shrub is advised as a complement to junipers in creating a hedge (10).
With such abundance of advice to grow the common broom, it did not even need to escape behind hedges as did other invasive plants whose aggressive advance often began precisely by crossing garden boundaries; the common broom itself was such a hedge.
While popular horticultural publications of the 1970s still recommended planting the common broom for practical and ornamental purposes, the first experiments to control the spread of the shrub were initiated in Molslaboratoriet. The extensive farming practice of grazing of Galloway cows and Icelandic sheep was used as one of the methods. Since 2016, however, the laboratory has abandoned this stance on the matter, launching a rewilding project that treats horses and cattle belonging to the native Danish fauna as wild animals (11). They remain domesticated in a legal sense, so they are cared for according to the same rules as other outdoor agricultural herds, meaning that their “return” to the natural environment is also done inside fences — thin electric wires strung across the park landscape.
Within the boundaries of the rewilding zone, the animals eat young common broom, feasting on its flowers and thus preventing the shrub from developing into a seed bomb that shoots out dozens of beans into the landscape by the end of summer. Outside the hedges, Cytisus scoparius continues to spread unhindered. Therefore, grazing remains more of an ecological investment; it does not go beyond experiments nor does it visibly affect the ongoing process of controlling plant infestations in the region, just as any other fences do not affect it. Species home range expansion does not coincide with customs outposts, fences, and walls, and the conversation about herds crossing borders needs to be brought around.
Erected to protect private property, crops, and biodiversity, fences in no small measure tell the story of exclusion, and thus are often seen as political objects that regulate relations of power and privilege. But fences and their appearance also describe features of the culture of hospitality and manifest the degree of social trust; their image symbolically combines notions of host and guest, native and foreign, also meaningful for describing the process of invasion.
In this sense, local fences (often low and flimsy) and gates (whether squeezed into a hedge or, conversely, towering above it as a monument) in and around Ebeltoft appear as conventional rather than practical markers between private and public, between an invitation to be a guest and a reminder of the rules of hospitality.
At the door of the house who will come knocking?
An open door, we enter
A closed door, a den
The world pulse beats beyond my door.
Algae dam as an example of a symbolic fence made of plant material
Ebeltoft has preserved about 500 meters of an old dam, first mentioned in the documents of the early eighteenth century. The construction of flood defenses was a natural practice here, since it is the only coastal town in Denmark with a coastline facing west. Today, this structure, once of practical value, has lost its original meaning: the coastline has moved away and modern protective fortifications were created. And so the dam has become a symbolic fence, an evidence of indigenous knowledge: the dam was traditionally built from Laminaria algae, an authentic local material, which was regularly thrown onto the shore with the tides in large quantities in former decades.
Tangdigerne (algae dam) in Ebeltoft, 1900–1920. Photo source: Ebeltoft Byhistoriske Arkiv.
Construction scheme of the algae dam. The structure of the desired height was built over a period of three to four years. Source: Jesper Laursen. Tangdigerne i Ebeltoft. Forlag: Ebeltoft Museum. 1990.
The texture of the algae dam today resembles a stack of old paper with torn edges, which also served as an additional reference for experiments with paper.
Examples of handmade paper made from brown and red algae collected after a tide in Ebeltoft.
Sketch of the object: a garden gate made of paper
From these historical, ecological, and cultural contexts came the idea of a prototype object: a garden door made of common broom paper, combining the conventionality of boundaries and their clear marking.
An ordinary wicket gate found at a local recycling plant was used as the basis. Two crossbars were completely replaced with replicas formed from paper pulp made of the stems and flowers of Cytisus scoparius, and a small fragment was cut into the third one. The choice of this visual solution comes from the logic of a gradual, step-by-step process of plant invasion and disruption of biodiversity.
The prototype sculpture was symbolically returned to the environment and placed in various parts of the national park and around Ebeltoft. In the final phase, the object was sent for recycling.
Working on an essay
(3) V. J. Brøndegaard. Folk og flora: dansk etnobotanik: bind 3. Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1987. Pp. 201.
(4) Naturbasen. Gyvel.
(5) Finn Arler. Det er ikke til at se det: om det fraværendes betydning for aflæsningen af landskaber og deres værdi. Museum Tusculanum, 2004.
(6) Researchers create bio-concrete from weeds and crayfish shells // Dezeen, 16.04.2021.
(7) V. J. Brøndegaard. Folk og flora: dansk etnobotanik: bind 3. Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1987. Pp. 201.
(9) C. Nielsen. Bevar vore Gyvel! // Hedeselskabets, № 4, 15 Marts, 1941. Pp. 72–73.
(10) Eigil Kiær. Havens beplantning i farver (farvetegninger af Verner Hancke). Politikens Forlag, 1975. Pp 133.
(12) Jesper Laursen. Tangdigerne i Ebeltoft. Ebeltoft Museum Forlag, 1990. Pp. 33.