When Language Meets an Ecosystem

“witness,” by Kai Lossgott.

“witness,” by Kai Lossgott. He typed and engraved text on leaves collected in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The artist points out that our attempts at conversing with living systems often result in a scarring. In the collection of the Sylt Foundation, Johannesburg.

Denise Newman / Hazel White |  World Literature Today:

In the following essay, the authors look at poets and visual artists who use language in ways that blur the line between disciplines, with a particular emphasis on the environment.

“What happens to language when we place it in landscape? Does it admit our isolation from physical life, point to the power system faltering? Humans have named land as a means of claiming it, branding it, or romanticizing it, and when we catch ourselves at it, we may reflexively hurt or do penance in long speeches.”

“South African interdisciplinary artist Kai Lossgott types and engraves language into leaves, some the shape of his own hand, with veins, even palmate. The text “wait for me and witness / you, who wants everything now / that nothing worth waiting for / is complicated” first appeared in his monograph, talking to the tree outside my window while I sleep. The typewritten lantana leaf entitled “witness” raises the question who witnesses what, or what witnesses whom, and the potential for communication between word and living object. Through improvising the text on the leaves, it becomes more abstract as he transposes it off the page into living tissue, punched-in to the point of unreadable near-destruction. Light shines through the leaves, mounted in light-boxes. Light gave life to the living leaf by activating photosynthesis, which in turn gives us oxygen. The artist points out that our attempted intimate conversations with the planet’s living systems often leave a record in the form of scars.”

“Language, like DNA, is a code that stores memory, and the engraved leaves, which Lossgott collected in suburban Cape Town and Johannesburg, suggest perhaps a memory of a relatively recent past (in biological terms) when humans, like their evolutionary ancestors, lived in trees. What remains is something American scientist E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” an innate affinity with other living systems. Lossgott states in an interview with the South African curator Cecile Ludolff, ‘I write and draw symbolic love poems to nature on plant leaves, because the writing of a love poem is an act of bridging loss. It is a way of coming to terms with the world we should have and could have, but which seems ever out of reach.'”
When Language Meets an Ecosystem