Text by Simon Wursten Marin

Gropius Bau, Berlin

July 26 – Dec 1, 2019 

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Garden of Earthly Delights is the ambitious exhibition currently on view at Gropius Bau in Berlin which opened in July this year and can still be visited until December 1st. Whimsically borrowed from the famous eponymous fifteenth-century painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the title alludes to the show’s explicit intention to explore the motive of the garden as a microcosm, that is, a magnifying lens of sorts through which the most salient features of our current world are exacerbated. Through a diverse selection of artworks—some taking the garden as an explicit point of reference, others less strictly so—the show invites the audience to reflect on what the press release defines as our “increasingly precarious present.”

At the beginning of the exhibition, a copy of the Dutch painter’s masterpiece functions as a pivotal element around which the exhibition is articulated, just like the original Garden of Earthly Delights occupies the central panel of the triptych to which it gave its modern name. Bosch’s painting is a particularly ambiguous artwork, the meaning of which remains to date a much-debated topic. Such triptychs were traditionally composed with the side panels depicting the Garden of Eden and Hell while the middle one was devoted to a representation of a terrestrial subject. However, in the case of the Garden of Earthly Delights, this central scene appears even more otherworldly than the proper Paradise on the left. It is by no means a mundane place between the two extremes of immemorial joy and eternal damnation; rather, it depicts a bucolic garden where naked humans, animals, and fantastic creatures mingle, frolic, flirt, feed each other gigantic berries and play together in a not-so-chaste manner. There is still much speculation about what this radically atypical and supernatural scene might mean. One of my preferred interpretations is German art historian Hans Belting’s theory that the central panel functions like a speculation on what the world could be, had not the original sin occurred—in other words, a world where the cardinal notions of good and evil simply would not be a thing. In this sense, the garden on the panel would correspond to a sort of parallel dimension in which the inhabitants’ behavior would not be conditioned by the traditional Christian ethos of guilt and inhibition. And so, the so-called “earthly delights” depicted in the painting convert this garden into the utopic stage for a natural order that merely exists in the painter’s own fantasy.

In the Gropius Bau exhibition, it is particularly revealing that the two side panels of Bosch’s triptych are left out and only a copy of the central one—that should represent the terrestrial existence—is visible. In fact, it actualizes the earthly garden precisely as such a place of fantasy, both materially located within the actual world and yet remote, physically separated from it. And indeed, it is exactly the ambiguity of this place that the over twenty artists present in the show explore, reflecting upon its possible politic and poetic meanings in today’s reality. Garden of Earthly Delights follows a number of exhibitions in recent years—such as the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo in 2016 or Manifesta 12 in Palermo in 2018—that have delved into the motive of the garden as a way of questioning human agency within a renewed understanding of the world as a complex multi-species ecosystem. Yet, while most of these exhibitions have resorted to the idea of the garden as a structuring image, the show at Gropius Bau takes on a less metaphoric approach and presents itself as a broad survey on the topic. It thus offers a diversity of contemporary perspectives that challenge the paradisiac illusion of the garden and aims at deciphering the utopian mechanisms at work in this highly culturally, socially and historically codified place.

A recurring theme in the exhibition is the often-ignored political ramifications of the garden, that is, the way it can structurally perpetuate social hierarchies or segregation behind the varnish of nonchalance usually associated with this place of leisure. With a large scaffold-like structure full of plants, diverse objects, books and looped videos, Rashid Johnson’s spectacular installation Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the Gropius Bau’s atrium introduces the show with a reflection on African-American history through the accumulation of heterogeneous materials; all of which is activated when, every Saturday, a musician plays on the piano hidden in the middle of the plants. Even more explicitly, Lungiswa Gqunta’s piece straightforwardly demonstrates the extent to which the garden functions as an archetype of oppressive mechanisms and a metaphor for the power dynamics at play in society in general. Composed of thousands of broken empty Coca Cola bottles planted in the ground like a lawn, the artwork alludes to the private gardens in South Africa, the walls of which are frequently enhanced with these dissuasive “ornaments” so as to prevent undesired visitors from entering this exclusive space, unless it is to work in it. Implicitly, Gqunta’s work points to colonialism as the source of the privatization of nature and, consequently, of discriminatory politics of access to green areas in the urban landscape. Swiss artist Uriel Orlow similarly explores the same paradigm shift regarding nature in South Africa on account of colonialism in the dense body of work Theatrum Botanicum, parts of which are exhibited at Gropius Bau. The fascinating multimedia project takes plants as a vantage point to observe the cultural clashes and ethnic conflicts inherited from the country’s colonial history.

Libby Harward—a Quandamooka artist and a descendant of the Ngugi people—has created an installation composed of several autochthonous plants from the Australian continent that were brought to the “Old World” in the aftermath of the territory’s colonization. The bell jars under which the plants are enclosed allude to the way in which, along with colonialism, the Western naturalist thought imposed itself as a commodifying dynamic by alienating the indigenous nature from places that were illegitimately occupied. This work and Harward’s artist talk—which she held during the two-day performance and lecture program that extended the opening festivities at Gropius Bau for a whole weekend—were important reminders that, particularly in the perspective of indigenous peoples who maintain a holistic relationship with nature, colonialism is still having harmful consequences far beyond the mere human realm. The flora and the fauna, too, were invaded by alien species or displaced and confined in artificially enclosed reserves of their own—the zoological and botanical “gardens.”

Heather Phillipson, photo by Mathias Voelzke, courtesy the artist 
Rashid Johnson, photo by Mathias Völzke, courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Uriel Orlow 
Pipilotti Rist, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine 
Korakrit Arunanondchai, courtesy the artist, Whitney Museum of American Art, CLEARING, New York | Brussels  

It is precisely in a botanical garden that Zheng Bo’s work Pteridophiliawas shown for the first time in 2016 as part of the Manifesta 12 in Palermo, which was titled The Planetary Garden. The same work is included—and expanded—in Garden of Earthly Delights. It is presented as a multichannel video showing naked young men erotically interacting with plants in a wild forest. While the monitors were directly hanging from the trees of Palermo’s botanical garden, in Berlin, Zheng Bo has placed four screens on the ground, framing a small interior garden of potted ferns in the middle of which the visitors can sit to watch the videos or grab a sketchbook to draw the portrait of one of the plants in the installation. While seemingly absurd—maybe even disturbing for some—Zhen Bo’s videos actually echo the search of an increasing number of people for other, less exploitative ways to connect with nature. Ecosexuality—the fact of desiring nature as a lover—thus appears in Zheng Bo’s videos as one radical form among such attempts to develop less harmful pleasures.

Like Zheng Bo, several artists in the exhibition are seeking ways to rethink our relation to nature and to surpass the extractive dynamics brought by colonialism and profit-driven ideologies. As part of the parallel program during the inauguration days of the exhibition, dancer and performer Isabel Lewis led the public into a sensorial and sensual guided tour of the show, encouraging us to open up to new, more sensible ways of experiencing art and, by extension, nature. For example, after a short solo dance piece, she invited her crowded audience to a guided meditation while sitting in Renato Leotta’s installation—another work that was originally created for Manifesta 12 in Palermo—comprising of a floor of terracotta tiles punctually marked by the imprints of lemons that fell from the trees under which the artist had placed them while still unfired.

Exploring alternative ways of envisioning our environment implies questioning our position with respect to nature and, ultimately, restoring the agency that has historically been denied to her. In her eccentric, immersive multimedia installation of a soil-covered floor, digital screens and birdhouse-cum-speakers-with-ponytails, Heather Phillipson consequently imagines a flower observing her habitat, and us, while commenting on the cycle of life, digestion, death, decomposition, and rebirth that conditions its very own existence. In shifting the perspective towards another species’ perception of its environment, Phillipson simultaneously hints at our dependence on a complex and fragile multispecies web of interactions without which we simply would not be.

While such works are—be it humorously, metaphorically, or sensually—questioning our mode of interaction with nature, they are however not directly related to the garden as a symbolic or physical space. Much more, they are talking about plants as sovereign subjects capable of experiencing and interacting with their environment. And indeed, precisely because gardens are idealized places constructed exclusively by and from a human perspective, they are undoubtedly the most adequate framework to reassess our anthropocentric position within the ecosystem as a whole.

For other artists in the exhibition, in turn, the garden is referred to as a proper source of inspiration, yet from a more contemplative point of view. They address it as a place for aesthetic and meditative experience, like in the garden-paintings of Maaike Schoorel or around Yayoi Kusama’s oversized tulip sculptures. With a work he produced specially for the exhibition, Taro Shinoda recalls that gardens can take on a much stronger spiritual meaning in eastern cultures. The shapes of his marble sculptures reproduce stones as seen in photographs of traditional Japanese gardens, of which they are a crucial and highly connotative element. John Cage, too, drew his inspiration from a Japanese Buddhist garden in Kyoto for his beautifully lyrical drawings of the 1980s series Where R=Ryoanji as well as for his Ryoanji musical compositions. At Gropius Bau, this group of artworks that explicitly invoke the garden sharply contrasts with the ones that actively address major cultural issues. While the latter often confront the public with a moral choice, these more poetic expressions consider gardens from an ornamental perspective and therefore require a solitary contemplation appealing to one’s subjective sense of beauty.

Subjectivity, however, can also convey a less individualistic outcome. In Korakrit Arunanondchai’s large video installation 2012–2055—one of his early works dating back 2012—a sense of universality emerges from the biographic introspection he discloses through two videos in front of a setting comprising a recumbent self-portrait as a corpse surrounded with plastic flowers. The videos show footage of the artist’s grandparents (who have since then regularly appeared in his videos) in their garden in Thailand and reflect on heritage and memory in the context of a collapsing era. Tacita Dean’s filmed portrait of British literary man Michael Hamburger on the year of his death (2007) also addresses memory and the garden as a place for personal history and potential escape from one’s traumatic history—exile because of Nazism in this precise case. Watching Dean’s moving video, I could not help but think that Derek Jarman would have been a valuable addition to the exhibition’s list of artists. His book Modern Nature (first published in 1991)is a diary which the English artist and filmmaker kept for two years while maintaining the garden of his cottage in Dungeness that would keep him busy and become a stage for his films until his untimely death of AIDS in 1994. In the text, the observations on plants and the weather are interspersed with personal memories and digressions about politics, sickness, and gay subculture and convert the diary into a powerful lesson about resilience with the garden’s survival in a harsh climate becoming a metaphor for its owner’s fight for his own life.

In Garden of Earthly Delights, it is Jumana Manna’s fascinating film Wild Relatives (2018) which most explicitly resorts to the ecological metaphor of resilience to address the interconnectedness of biodiversity and human disasters. The hour-long piece follows the itinerary of seeds from a global seed bank in the Arctic Ocean to an agricultural research facility in Lebanon where scientists try to recreate a genetic archive that was destroyed in Aleppo during the recent Syrian civil war. In the film, the destiny of these plants is intersecting with that of displaced refugees who work on plantations while hoping for the violence in their homeland to end. In the whole exhibition, just like in Manna’s movie, the question of climate change is, if not absent, nonetheless not directly addressed. Ecology hovers over the garden like a persistent presence, yet surprisingly without making it to the foreground in any of the exhibited works. The somewhat token contribution about urban gardening by the multidisciplinary collective Futurefarmers does not completely make up for the scarcity of openly committed positions on nature preservation and global warming among the artists, even though the show’s subject seemed propitious.

Throughout the exhibition at Gropius Bau, the garden is presented as a breeding ground for philosophical, aesthetic and cultural reflections about our current world and its challenges. With such a broad approach—neither systematic nor radically speculative—the show leaves unresolved the question of whether the garden is meant as the strict organizing theme or rather an overarching reflective framework able to produce unexpected associative fruits. In any case, the subject largely exceeds mere questions of botany, landscape design or pastoral leisure and many works in the show delve into urgent questions such as people’s oppression, extractivism, exile, and identity thus undertaking to deconstruct the idealized vision of nature and fantasized harmony associated with gardens.

One of the talks that took place during the opening weekend of the show was specifically dedicated to Hieronymus Bosch’s cryptic Garden of Earthly Delights, considering the painting in light of the exhibition at Gropius Bau. On this occasion, Hans Belting stated that the Garden of Earthly Delightscan be understood as a representation of the “utopia of Creation.” For me, this utopia does not merely refer to the idea of infinite creative potential from God’s perspective but also implies the artist’s freedom to express his own imagination. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Dutch master painted such an unorthodox fantasy at the turn of the fifteenth century. Bosch’s epoch is one of the major epistemological changes, when—with the colonization of the Americas and the advent of Humanism—the belief in a supernatural order of things was progressively replaced by the vanity of human’s sense of superiority over all other things, which still prevails today. This very moment when nature passed from being the result of a utopic godly creation to serving the creation of human utopias is exactly what is epitomized in Bosch’s fantastic garden.

In the first room of the exhibition, along with the copy of the Garden of Earthly Delights, a large Persian carpet from the 18thcentury is exhibited and reminds the public that the Middle Eastern etymology of the word “paradise” attached very early on the idea of a heavenly place of pure happiness to the image of a garden where plants, animals, and humans thrive in harmony. Yet, both traditional ancient Persian gardens and, by extension, the holy gardens of eternal bliss are conceived as enclosed places the gates of which are only open for the chosen ones. In today’s profane era for which the notion of an otherworldly paradise has become all but discarded, it is necessary to question which form of ideal the modern garden may still refer to. Indeed, through the utopia they build, gardens bear the mark of the society for and by which they were created. What some artists in the exhibition demonstrate, is that, for some, the garden remains today a place of candid aesthetic and spiritual delights, albeit emancipated from the religious morals—like, for instance, in Pipilotti Rist’s sapphic vision of a contemporary Arcadia. But other artists importantly point out that, although the garden indeed symbolizes the idea that humans have become the architects of their own pleasure, not only are their “earthly delights” exclusive to a few privileged ones but they actually rely on the subjugation of other humans and nonhuman beings in order to achieve their vision of paradise. In doing so, these artists explicitly urge us to abandon the age-old utopia and to finally open the gates and let life enter our garden.

Sultana, Paris
Vistamarestudio, Milano
The exhibition’s title, Grotto, alludes to three large-format pastels depicting caves. From Renaissance paintings of hermits through to Courbet’s The Source of the Loue and, more specifically, The Grotto of Manacor (c. 1901) by the Belgian painter William Degouve de Nuncques, depictions of underground caverns conjure up a wealth of historical and philosophical connotations. Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
Marinaro, New York
The title Ryan Gander has chosen for his exhibition asserts an inconceivable temporal dimension. A collaboration over 500 million years? Between man and earth? Is it a look into the past or to the future? “Stone upon Stone upon Fallen Stone”, Lawrence Weiner wrote on the building of the Kunsthalle in 1983. Kunsthalle Bern
Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York
Ramiken, New York
Fondazione Giuliani, Rome