In The Box: The Ague

Jan 08, 2019

A shot from inside London's Millennium Seed Bank, in the 2018 video work The Ague by artist Pilar Mata Dupont

Filmed in London’s Kew Gardens and the Millennium Seed Bank, Pilar Mata Dupont’s The Ague is a densely layered visual and sonic wandering through the world’s largest collection of living plants and seeds. Historic-ally, Kew Gardens was integral to Britain’s colonial success, serving as the repository for plants and seeds that were collected from around the world, studied, and transplanted to other parts of the British Empire as cash crops. Today, Kew houses a seed bank where endangered plants are conserved for future cultivation. Upending scientific and historical narratives by conflat-ing truth and misinformation, Mata Dupont’s newest video uses the botanical garden to explore colonial legacies in contemporary culture and the environment.

The Ague was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short story “Kew Gardens” (1919), which follows four groups of people as they meander through the famed botanical garden on a midsummer afternoon. Mata Dupont adopts the stream-of-conscious structure of Woolf’s story, whose focus shifts between the plot and the setting, the characters’ movements and the natural imagery and sound inside the garden. The narrative trajectory of The Ague is also fragmented, with the composition of voices even more loosely interwoven. Its protagonists include an unreliable guide; two lost visitors; a botanist and a scientist hunting for plant specimens in the Amazon; and a whispered voice telling the story of the Cinchona, a tree that produced quinine, which was used to fight malaria, a deadly illness that could have wiped out the colonial population. Quinine extracted from the Cinchona thus ensured Britain’s dominion of its tropical colonies.

The title of Mata Dupont’s work comes from the Anglo-Norman term for malaria-induced fever and fits of chills and shivering. The Ague itself feels like a fever dream, with its uncanny, similar-sounding voices (performed by a single voice actress) and its nonlinear narrative jumping between time and place as well as history and fiction. As we enter Kew’s famous Palm House, The Ague evokes a hallucinatory experience: in a never-ending corridor, the carefully composed cacophony of voices breaks down and the protagonists seem to lose their grip on what is taking place.

The Ague suggests the natural world can be collected and classified but not controlled. Invasive species, plant extinction, and food (in)security are all legacies of the same colonial impulse—now purporting itself as an act of preservation through collection and research.


The Ague was made through a partnership with Associação Cultural Videobrasil, São Paulo, and the Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio residency program. In the fall of 2015, Mata Dupont’s video Purgatorio (2014) received one of Videobrasil’s residency awards, which allowed Dupont to travel to the Wex for an extended residency. In addition to The Ague, Mata Dupont worked on two additional videos while in residence: Undesirable Bodies (2018) and Shuffle (2017/18).


Director/Cinematographer/Producer: Pilar Mata Dupont; Written by: Jessica Bunch; Composer: Tom Hogan; Voice Actor: Emma Clark; Editor: Alexis McCrimmon; Colorists: Alexis McCrimmon and Pilar Mata Dupont; Sound Designer/Recordist: Jacco Prantl; First Assistant Director/Camera Assistant: Jammie Nicholas.
Continuous loop, HD video

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (ed.), Botanical Drift: Protagonists of the Invasive Herbarium (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017); Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking, 1989); Virginia Woolf, Kew Gardens, illus. Olivia Mills (London: Royal Botanic Gardens, 2016).

Thanks to
Amie Hayes and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Janet Terry and the Millennium Seed Bank; Anke Bangma and TENT Rotterdam; Seecum Cheung; Alex Falk and V2_, Institute of the Unstable Media; Alexander Lezzi; Honey Jones-Hughes; Thomas Drenth; Ryonen Butcher; and Jammie Nicholas, Annabel Luton, and Odin.

This film was supported by the Film/Video Studio at the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Associação Cultural Videobrasil, São Paulo, Brasil.

This project has been assisted by Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, Western Australia.