Gardens, like oriental carpets, are at the origin of structured representations and conceptual organizations of the world. Both concepts are formed by basic structures on which ornaments and vegetation are overlaid. The difference between them lies in a change of scale and a change of dimension. A rose-shaped design at the center of an oriental carpet becomes the basin of water in an oriental garden, which becomes the pillar around which the four corners of the world are often organized. The carpet is a transportable microcosm that artists refer to in order to question our representations of the world, and our relation to these representations. For instance, in his painting The Geographer, (1668-1669), Vermeer places greater emphasis on the element of the carpet, which is accompanied by maps and a terrestrial globe. Another example would be Micheal Snow’s In Medias Res, (1998), a photograph showing a bird’s-eye view of a living room decorated with a Persian rug. Two men and a woman are caught in suspended motion, looking up at the ceiling. A parrot has escaped from its cage and flies towards the photographer’s camera. The captured scene seems to compress several layers, an impression that is accentuated by the camera angle since the viewer cannot detect the photographer’s standpoint. In that sense, the viewer’s position echœs that of a walker in a garden for whom the general plan of the area remains imperceptible. By using traditional weaving techniques, Faig Ahmed questions the carpet’s function in the digital age. In 2011 he presents Liquid Series, a collection of carpets whose patterns are stretched or distorted, like a digital image that has been altered. In ancient times shamans used carpets in order to access parallel worlds, and according to the artist, smartphones have a similar function nowadays.
In 2012, Philippe-Alain Michaud’s Tapis volants exhibition (presented at the Abattoirs de Toulouse and the Villa Medici) shows how films can constitute a temporary expansion of the oriental carpet’s structure, becoming a new kind of transportable microcosm.
The garden is a space where different eras meet, where cultures are brought together (e.g. with the introduction of exotic pavilions in classical gardens) and where species of vegetation from all over the world are gathered. It is a place of connections that reach multiple dimensions, a web reflected upon and reappraised in each period of time.
In 2011, Michelangelo Pistoletto transformed London’s Serpentine Gallery into a labyrinthine cardboard garden in which visitors found several objects belonging to four major religions. Through the collection of these symbols, Pistoletto’s cardboard garden becomes the universal microcosm that hosts these religions and the philosophies they imply. During the 2009 Venice Biennale, Roman Ondak broke the Czech pavilion’s walls in order to transform it into a garden that gathered the vegetation found in the Giardini, revealing the pavilion as an intimate microcosm of the Giardini, a peaceful reflection of these spaces where the visitor can stop for a moment to listen to the birds singing. In 2004, Jean-Pierre Bertrand created a Planted Garden of lemon trees for the Picasso Museum at Antibes, which was inspired by Defœ’s Robinson Crusoé and the character’s discovery of a planted garden in the middle of a wild island. At the center of the garden, the artist placed an octagonal mirror, making reference to the oriental gardens’ ponds; and on the center of the mirror, he placed a lemon whose reflection formed an infinity symbol, surrounded by eight half lemons. Through this piece Bertrand reviewed the garden as a place that connects us to a sensitive imaginary realm and a parallel dimension.
Labyrinths have been present in several classical gardens, and just like them, their shapes and content have constantly changed throughout history; they have been places of reference when it comes to initiatory and symbolic journeys. During the Renaissance, Francesco Colonna’s romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, (1499) described the allegorical journey of a young man named Poliphili, who crossed a series of landscapes amongst ancient ruins in order to find his beloved Polia; at the time, the tale had a strong influence on the structure of gardens. The journey throughout the garden revealed the character’s evolution as he was confronted to obstacles and had to solve symbolic riddles. In this sense, the garden became a reflection of his emotional state and a description of the process through which he drew his life path. The presence of a labyrinth at the heart of a garden creates a mise en abîme : a journey inside another journey. The subject of the labyrinth has been revived over the ages in line with the evolution of techniques and mentalities. In 2014, Robert Morris, who has extensively worked on updating this form, created a glass labyrinth for the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, recalling the mental dimension of such a structure. Dan Graham also referred to this aspect by building tinted glass pavilions that played with the forms found in baroque gardens, creating spaces for observation and thought. In his work, the glass adds another diversion to the classical labyrinth’s meander through the superposition of reflections.
Virtual gardens : an accelerated variation of nature
How can we define a garden nowadays? First and foremost, it is a place of reference when it comes to observing and reflecting on the relation between what is natural and artificial and what is real and virtual. The garden is both a contraction of the world (a representative microcosm) and an expansion of it because it gives us the opportunity to contemplate and question it. In that sense, the garden represents an open and infinite fountain of inspiration for artists. It is worth noting that abstract works often maintain a strong connection with nature, Mondrian developed his abstract grids based on the observation of a tree for instance. Along with his monochrome paintings, Ellsworth Kelly draw continuous lines of gardens’ flora. Contemporary artist Miguel Chevalier created virtual gardens, displaying the transformation of virtual seeds into flowers and plants, with works such as Fractal Flowers, Trans-nature, Ultra-natura and Sur-nature (2014). All of these have been presented in generative and interactive installations, each of them reacting differently to the visitors’ physical movements : curving, moving aside, turning on themselves. In 2014, the Sur-nature installation’s screens were composed of threads that the visitor could pass through. In this sense, the virtual garden is not a closed space but rather an open zone that shows an accelerated version of a real garden’s constant transformation. It offers the visitor the experience of compressed time. Miguel Chevalier realized another type of work that alludes to the garden in a different way : Magic Carpets, created in 2014 for Castel del Monte in Italy (whose architecture is based on the number 8). The artist projected a garden on the ground, an octagonal virtual carpet that continuously changed according to the viewer’s movements. The pixels that appeared and disappeared were reminiscent of ancient mosaics and rosettes, streams of psychedelic shapes and colors traveled through the garden. The experimentation with new types of screens, with virtual reality and augmented reality, redefine the relationship between reality and the virtual domain, between what is natural and artificial in the digital age, creating a new perspective on the meaning of gardens nowadays.
As Robert Smithson said : ¨nature is never finished¨, it is constantly changing and any artist that attempts to work with it must acknowledge its cycles. In the early 1970’s, Smithson reexamined the concept of gardens by executing Land Reclamation Projects, an initiative that transformed former industrial sites into leisure spaces. This was not a new idea, the Buttes-Chaumont park which was built in 1867, resulted from the transformation of a gypsum quarry into a recreational space for the population of the Northern districts of Paris. Central Park, which fascinated Smithson, followed the same logic a few years laters : tons of vacant land at the heart of Manhattan were moved in order to re-construct the site’s prehistoric geology. In the electronic age, Smithson has brought a new spirit to the idea. Inspired by the structure of computer codes, which have elements that are rearranged to infinity, Smithson focuses on the reconfiguration of a site’s basic elements by integrating nature’s cycles. The search for solutions to emerging environmental problems in the 1960’s and 1970’s opposes Smithson’s work to that of Piero Gilardi, whose art is currently being exhibited in a retrospective at MAXXI in Rome. Deeply affected by the disasters caused by industrial waste, in 1964 Gilardi created the Tapis-Nature (Tappeti Natura) : hyperrealistic and artificial reconstructions of natural elements with expanded polyurethane, reminiscent of nature graves.
Work in progress
But what is the garden’s status? Is it a form of architecture? A sculpture? During its opening in 1997, Los Angele’s Getty Center inaugurated a garden conceived by Robert Irwin, presenting it as one of its permanent collections’ sculptures. The piece constantly changes over the months and years, it is a living artwork; in Irwin’s words : “Always changing, never twice the same”. Following precise instructions given by the artist, the sculpture is reconfigured throughout the years. Basing his work on the garden’s growth, Irwin plans rigorously the transformation of its colors and shadows. Creating a garden requires playing with nature’s processes and establishing a balance with them; this is what landscape architect Gilles Clément refers to when he talks about “doing as much as possible for and as little as possible against ” (Garden in Motion). Patrick Blanc’s plant-covered walls also explore these tensions, his impractical and contemplative vertical gardens are in constant transformation, reflecting our cities’ increasing verticality.
This analysis is based, among other sources, on a series of exhibitions that have associated the theme of the garden with art since 2016 :
- Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, Jardins d’Orient De l’Alhambra au Taj Mahal, (2016) conceived by Agnès Carayon and Sylvie Depondt;
- Royal Academy of Arts, London, Painting the Modern Garden : Monet to Matisse, (2016), curator Ann Duma;
- Centre Pompidou-Metz, Jardin infini. De Giverny à l’Amazonie, (2017), curator Emma Lavigne;
- Grand Palais, Paris, Jardins, (2017), curator Laurent Le Bon;
- MAXXI, Rome, Piero Gilardi, Nature Forever, (2017), curators Hou Hanru, Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Marco Scotini.