On Prologue to the Book of Poisons
During the 1950s, scientific writer Gustav Schenk wrote a book describing the eects of all
kinds of poisons in the human body, ranging from medicinal plants, to narcotics, poisons of
the industrial civilization such as coee and tobacco, and even animal poisons. He entitled his
compilation “The Book of Poisons”.
Prologue to The Book of Poisons is a video installation inspired by a passage of this book,
which consists of a display of hallucinogenic and medicinal plants (ideally black henbane and
damiana) and a video projection in which natural landscapes and skylines are contrasted
against utopian urbanization projects of the 20th century and Neolithic artifacts. The images
are accompanied by a musical score inspired by two Mexican avant-garde composers from
the 1950s and 1980s, giving way to an immersive experience for the viewer, which combines
sound, light and olfactory elements. Mirroring the spirit of the book, which emphasizes the
dual role of poisons as healers and killers, Prologue to the Book of Poisons questions the idea
of modernity as an irresolvable contradiction between nature and culture, and the persisting
aempt of progress as a utopian vision of a future to come; a future always delayed and
postponed as the boundaries of what the modern is moves with it – and is both an
acknowledgment of the impossibility to transcend this contradiction and a homage to the
project of the avant-garde.
The idea of presenting Prologue to the Book of Poisons in the context of ExpoTranskultur is to
trigger a reflection about the way people in big “civilized” cities interact with nature in their
everyday life. The (seemingly) never-ending process of modernization constantly pushes
nature away from the cities, a process which is very clear in cities like London, depicted in the
video. However, this same modernization process has had strong eects even in rare
exceptions like Switzerland, a country where nature is a very important element of everyday
life. In our swiss context, nature is not pushed away by modernization, but rather “regulated”:
hikers can go in the mountains but need to follow the paths, the alps seem untouched from
the outside but actually hold huge bunkers in the inside, etc. At the same time, we are
witnesses to the kind of “synthetic” nature that results from the eorts of advanced
technology to imitate nature.
Thus, Prologue to the Book of Poisons aims at questioning the dual role of modernity as
healer/ killer, but seeks also to depict the contradiction that it has brought to our lives: inside
of an exhibition room overpopulated by plants, and looking at images that make an analogy
between neolithic stone circles and contemporary urbanization as places of veneration, the
audience will have the uncanny feeling of being immersed and at the same time, alienated by
-Written by Adriana Domínguez
Originally published on the exhibition handout for the show ‘Expo Transkultur’ in Zürich, 2016.
Published by ETK (CH).