The Entangled Histories of Cane and Beet in Ilona Németh: Eastern Sugar

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May 17, 2021

The starting point of Ilona Németh: Eastern Sugar was the Slovak artist’s research into the social, economic, and cultural history of the Central European sugar beet industry from its nineteenth-century heyday to its rapid decline in the post-socialist era. To these poignant histories of the closure and dismantling of sugar factories, recorded by Németh through photographic documentation of decaying and repurposed industrial architecture, as well as in video interviews with former directors and workers, this new book brings a comparative global perspective by exploring the parallels and discrepancies between the trajectories of northern sugar beet and southern sugar cane. This visual arts-led interdisciplinary inquiry draws on insights from environmental history, the energy humanities, and economics, as well as eco-criticism, art history, and curatorial studies. It addresses the role of sugar in the expansion of colonialism, the spread of extractivist agricultural practices, and the functioning of the neoliberal capitalist model. As editors, we invited artistic interventions to explore the possibilities for reactivating the memory of troubled sugar histories and healing the social and environmental scars of colonial and capitalist extractivism.

The book brings the colonial histories of Caribbean sugar cane plantations into relation with the neo-colonial mechanisms of privatisation and closure of Central European sugar beet factories after 1989, suggesting parallels between disparate geographies and temporalities. If, as Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel contend, the early modern sugar cane plantation was the original factory, providing the template for industrial capitalism, then what was the significance of the beet sugar industry for social and economic development in Central and Eastern Europe? Conversations between Németh and Barbadian artist Annalee Davis, whose practice has included the unearthing and incorporating of archaeological fragments from former sugar cane fields into artworks to disclose the brutal histories of slavery on Britain’s first sugar island, reveal shared artistic concerns with the dynamic between local histories and global processes. In such an extended global perspective, the demise of the Central European sugar industry appears to fit the historical pattern in which the fortunes of sugar producers in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe were determined by the fluctuating commercial and political interests of Western powers.  

Ten visual essays compiled by Németh are interwoven through the book. They excavate the history of the Central European sugar manufactories that continued to work through the fall of communism but have since ceased operation, and record the drama of decommissioning and closure for communities and local ecosystems. The book includes fold-out panoramas of deindustrialization based on systematic research into the sugar factories of Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary that formed part of the commercial empire of Eastern Sugar, the company set up by French and British sugar multinationals in the 1990s to enter the markets of post-communist Eastern Europe. Also presented chronologically by their date of closure are the other sugar factories in Slovakia, which are captured through archival images, photographic documentation, and drone footage. At issue here is not just the memorialisation of grandiose industrial architecture and the communities who depended on them for their livelihoods, but also the observation of the revival of natural processes as concrete ruins are reclaimed by ruderal plants. Parallels are also suggested with the entangled human and environmental histories of the Caribbean, where wild and medicinal plants that survived on slave ‘provision grounds’ have begun to return to the abandoned fields of former monocultural sugar plantations, embodying the potential for ecological and social restoration.

The question of how to rethink the position of sugar in the nutritional and cultural systems of consumer capitalism was another consideration of the book, which entailed looking anew at cane and beet plants as botanical organisms within specific agricultural and ecological systems. The prospect of a world without the exploitative structures epitomised by the Cold War history of sugar is entertained in Imre Szeman’s text ‘Sugar Dreams; or How to Learn to Live with (and without) Extraction.’ Artist Anetta Mona Chisa’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Love Letter to Sugar’ challenges the demonisation of sugar by celebrating its cultural and affective dimensions as intoxicant and urban myth. Ferenc Gróf revisits the attempt by the communist Caribbean outpost of Cuba in the 1960s to socialize the sugar cane plantation. As this book testifies, sugar played a seminal role in the development of capitalism, colonialism, and extractivism, and it continues to be implicated in the planetary transformations they unleashed. This is foremost visible in the switch to growing sugar cane and beet as alternative sources of non-fossil energy, as a technocratic response to global warming. A hotter, drier, more extreme climate is also testing the limits of the chemical model of monocultural agriculture pioneered on Caribbean cane fields, and driving scientific and artistic exploration of sugar beet and its hardy ancestor wild sea beet, as an example for an organically integrated and resilient agrarianism.

Arising from the questions opened up the Eastern Sugar publication and with the participation of many of the artists whose work features in the book, the related exhibition ‘Potential Agrarianisms’ (set to open at Bratislava Kunsthalle on 20 August 2021) aims to expand the scenarios for sustainable sugar futures in which another sweetness is possible.

Ilona Németh: Eastern Sugar, edited by Maja and Reuben Fowkes (Sternberg Press, 2021). Contributors: Edit András, Fedor Blaščák and Rado Baťo, Johanna Bockman, Kathrin Böhm, Anetta Mona Chișa, Cooking Sections, Annalee Davis, Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Ferenc Gróf, Dušan Janíček, Katarína Karafová, Edit Molnár, Ilona Németh, Michael Niblett, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, Joanna Sokołowska, Olja Triaška Stefanovič, Imre Szeman, Raluca Voinea.

Maja and Reuben Fowkes are art historians, curators, and co-directors of the Postsocialist Art Centre (PACT) at University College London and founders of Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art. They are the authors of Art and Climate Change (Thames & Hudson, forthcoming 2021) and Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 (Thames & Hudson, 2020).

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