ZKM | Museum of Contemporary Art, 09|17|2011 – 02|05|2012
Ruth Sacks
* 1977 in Port Elizabeth (ZA), lives and works in Cape Town (ZA)

Legend Neutral, 2011

Advertisement in the Offenburger Tageblatt, dimensions variable
1000 x A0 black and white posters
Typeface by Avoid Red Arrows

This piece takes the form of a legend written in Volapük, a constructed language invented by Johann Martin Schleyer in 1879. Volapük was intended to be an auxiliary global language providing a solution to the problems of multi-lingual international communication and commerce.
I attempted to write a text in Volapük, using a handbook and dictionary from 1888. This was translated into the correct form of late 19th century Volapük by Jean-Claude Caraco.
Lusag Plana Rigik (The Legend of the Primal Plant) was then made into a series of posters to be displayed in the exhibition The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 at the ZKM | Museum of Contemporary Art.
The narrative was also published in the advertising space of the Offenburger Tageblatt on 16 December 2011. This is a regional German newspaper that has been running since 1812. It’s circulation extends across the region of Baden-Württemburg, where Schleyer was based (in the city of Konstanz). Karlsruhe’s ZKM is also in this region.
Typeface designers Avoid Red Arrows were commissioned to develop a font for Volapük’s specific requirements and historical context. The resulting Plan has been used in all designs.
My thanks to: Akvile Eglinskaite, Jean-Claude Caraco, Peter Stahmer, Cedric Vincent, Jacob Birken and Antonia Marten for working overtime on this project.


Poster design containing a narrative written in Volapük entitled The Legend of the Primal Plant. Design and text by Ruth Sacks, typography by Avoidredarrows. Volapük translation by Jean-Claude Caraco.


Advertisement in the Offenburger Tageblatt on 16 December 2011 containing a narrative written in Volapük entitled The Legend of the Primal Plant. Design and text by Ruth Sacks, typography by Avoidredarrows. Volapük translation by Jean-Claude Caraco.

English and German translations of the legend

The Legend of the Primal Plant

A wise man loves mankind and nature. He believes they are completely connected by God. The wise man also believes a unity exists in nature; that it consists of one fundamental pattern repeating continuously. He writes poems and literature about his ideas.
This wise author dreams about a primal plant that illustrates his beliefs; the plant contains the basic plan for all the plants in the world. He describes his plant as follows:
The primal plant is the source of every plant. It possesses a thick central stem which supports robust flowers and their stamens. Leaves sprout from the stem. The wise man does not mention the plant’s roots.
Many people try to draw the primal plant. In illustrations by different people, the forms of the roots and leaves of the plant change. The stem is the same in every picture. The wise man thinks the drawings are too definitive. For him, the primal plant is an ideal, without an exact form yet.
Nevertheless, the wise author and his faithful students search for the primal plant when they are in different places. They travel a lot in order to appreciate nature. During these trips, they search the wild areas of different countries. The wise man thinks Italy is the most fertile place he has ever seen. Therefore, he becomes convinced that the primal plant is in this temperate country. But nobody ever discovers such a plant in Italy or elsewhere.

Years pass. The great man grows old and wiser. He says that the primal plant was probably a description of a basic leaf form. Consequently, it can be found in all plants in the world.

One hundred years later, many people revere the wise man. He is the hero of naturalists, scientists, philosophers and authors who follow his writings.

A naturalist, who is a particularly loyal follower of the wise man, believes the primal plant exists. This plant could possibly illustrate his answers for the world riddle. The naturalist also wants to prove that mankind and nature are completely connected because he has experienced a personal tragedy and is searching for solace.

He believes that everything in the world has developed from one source. The source procreated, generating more life-forms similar to itself. The next generations also procreated and this system continued for millions of years. The naturalist believes that the new life-forms grew and changed gradually, improving slightly with each generation, so that the world of today, with all its plants and animals as well as its people, came to exist.
This revolutionary idea originated from an Englishman; a peer of the naturalist who he also reveres. The Englishman expresses his ideas cautiously, whereas the naturalist is bolder and more forceful with his opinions.
If the naturalist’s primal plant exists, he would be able to prove that all plants originated from one source. If all plants originated from one source, then he thinks that all people must have also originated from one source. The naturalist’s beloved young wife has recently died. If a basic form is found within all living things, he can be consoled with the knowledge that her life continues in the infinite variety of nature’s patterns.
The naturalist’s idea of the primal plant is different from that of the wise man. Consequently, he describes it as follows:
The primal plant is an animal-plant from the sea. This animal-plant consists of different porous parts with many buds and branches. It looks like a group of soft vegetables and bulbs. Big and small holes cover all areas of the animal-plant. These are the plant’s mouths. The primal plant is the ancient mother of all animal-plants. The naturalist and his loyal students search fervently for his primal plant in many parts of the sea. They search the wild coasts of different countries. But they do not ever discover such a plant.
The naturalist continues to believe that the primal plant exists and proceeds to draw it. He states that his drawings illustrate an existing animal-plant. The naturalist presents many lectures about the plant, as well as his theories which correlate with the ideas of the wise man and the Englishman. He creates many drawings to accompany his lectures. These are very beautiful with a lot of ornamentation. The naturalist’s drawings and theories are published in popular books.
At first, many people love the naturalist’s books. The general public believe the books contain information which is usually only seen by scientists and naturalists. The naturalist becomes famous. His illustrations provide inspiration for artists who admire the organic details as well as the naturalist’s excellent observational skills.
But many esteemed scientists and naturalists say that his primal plant does not exist, therefore, the illustrations in the naturalist’s books are a lie. They maintain that the drawings prove the naturalist is a fraud. Some of the naturalist’s students confirm that nobody has ever found the primal plant.
The naturalist is convinced that he is right and his critics are merely envious of his success. Many vicious disputes ensue. The Englishman supports the naturalist but cautions that he has expressed his opinions too forcefully.
The naturalist continues to search for his primal plant. During these searches, he discovers a large quantity of very small sea-plants and animal-forms which were not known previously. The naturalist classifies his new discoveries with names in honour of his dead wife. He continues to publish his books with illustrations of plants and animal-forms. These beautiful pictures illustrate his theories very well, but are not always precise copies of real life. Consequently, many people interpret his drawings as fraudulent. The curse of controversy follows the naturalist throughout his life.
Years pass. The naturalist becomes old. His primal plant is never found. The naturalist’s enemies still use his drawings as targets for their verbal assaults. To this day, the naturalist is remembered for supposedly fraudulent drawings instead of his valuable contributions towards the study of nature.

Some background information concerning Volapük and language issues at the time of its inception on the following page.