Trevor Gould: True Confessions of a "Leaf Thief"

Travelling from theme park to zoo, from museum to botanical garden, the works of Trevor Gould consistently foreground the exhibitionary means by which the ideology of empire has been manifested, rationalized and celebrated. While the most egregious expression of colonial hubris may have peaked in the nineteenth century's mania for World's Fairs and ethnographic expositions, Gould's interest lies in exposing the persistence of this ideology in contemporary institutions and practices.

Nowhere is this persistence more subtle than in the resource exploitation known as "botanical imperialism". Under the auspices of biotechnology, patent rights and genetic engineering, the First World continues a profitable and asymmetrical relationship with the Third World by privatizing and commodifying its diverse species of plant life. Sugar cane, tea, rubber and cinchona were the most significant plants "transferred," i.e., smuggled out and cultivated for transplantation, in the "classic" period of colonialism. While the plants at issue now are more diverse, they reap similar, unilateral bonanzas for agricultural, industrial and pharmaceutical corporations.

Gould's posters for an imaginary film, "The Leaf Thief," address these neo-colonial dynamics in the unlikely guise of a Hollywood murder-mystery. The title, adopted from a 1960s educational film, is the self-identifying term Smithsonian Institution diorama-makers used to characterize their practice of collecting specimens for in situ displays. Unwittingly, their choice of namesake exposes the arrogance of scientific authority: stealing is acknowledged, but continues unabated with little questioning of its dubious ethics.

"Seduction," "Murder" and "Deceit" are sensationalistic catchwords frequently employed to draw in a movie audience, and Gould's ironic use of them makes implicit connections between corporate colonialism and the basic components of the thriller genre - vulnerable people and immoral forces. As the distinctions between science, empire and Hollywood stereotypes blur in this installation, one can only wonder: will narrative conventions (cinematic as well as colonial) be broken with an unexpected plot twist, a surprise ending or, against all odds, fair compensation for the extraction of natural resources?

Jim Drobnick


resume of the artist


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